Te Akau Wharehoka: a Māori Karate Kid

By conference convener, Stephanie Mines

Continuing our series on participants coming to CCC19, this post is based on an interview with Te Akau Wharehoka, an activist Māori youth who will attend the conference with the generous support of an anonymous donor. If readers are inspired to want to donate to bring more young indigenous activists, please contact us at ccc19@findhorn.org.


Te AkauA mischievous look darts across Te Akau’s handsome young face as he reminds me of the film, The Karate Kid. “I was like Danny in that movie,” Te Akau says, “except that my Mr. Miyagi was my dad.” Te Akau speaks of his father, Te Ru Koriri (Te Ru) Wharehoka in a straightforward way, without embellishment or melancholy. He memorializes his father, his grandfather Te Whiti o Rongomai and the ancestors of the Māori people through devoted hard work on behalf of his community and the generations to come. This is what he lives for. It is for the deepening of this purpose that Te Akau is coming to the Climate Change & Consciousness conference.

“My father taught me, as my mother continues to teach me now, about what it means to live according to my purpose, for my people and for my community. But I didn’t realize what my father was teaching me until he died. It was when I came back to Parihaka,* to the warmth of Māoridom, that I saw how my father was instructing me in Tikanga Māori (the Māori worldview), not by talking about it but showing me in every moment we were together. My father taught me to lead by example and that is what I intend to do with my life now. I want to speak through my actions to the next generation. I want to be a living embodiment of Kaupapa Māori, the sanctity of all life.”

While we are speaking, as if on cue, Te Akau’s beautiful little daughter Herengarangi, bursts into the room, whispers “Morena” (good morning) and nuzzles into her father’s side. He cradles her and she rests her sleepy face on this chest. “I want to create safety for my children,” Te Akau continues. “The alternative to fear of climate change is thoughtful, intelligent preparation and it is through preparation that we find safety.”

Despite being only 28 years old, Te Akau Wharehoka carries himself like a leader, even as he comforts his little girl. “How we live every day is preparation for a climate changing world. When I say karakia (prayer) with my children in the morning and in the evening, I am helping them prepare. It is in the repetition of these things, like Mr. Miyagi teaching Danny to polish the car in Karate Kid, that we get ready for the challenges ahead. When everything is a ritual, when everything is holy, then we are ready; we are free of fear. Fear cannot live in that environment.”

“I am always directing myself to the youth,” Te Akau continues. “I believe in them. I believe in our future. That is why I want to come to Climate Change & Consciousness; so that I can bring back to my community the resources that will help keep us safe, help prepare us for the inevitable so that we will be ready and help us make a difference, help us mitigate disaster and create opportunity for our youth and our young ones. I am preparing for life even as my mother has taught me to prepare for death.”


Preparing for Death is Preparing for Life

Colonialism once attempted to erase Māori end of life wisdom. But in elders like Te Ru Wharehoka, Te Akau’s father, it lived on as a profound unrecorded transmission. Te Ru knew that he was the keeper of this body of wisdom about death and dying that had to be delivered, through his family, to his people. So he declared that he would stay at home and cross the threshold into death in the embrace of his family.

As he gave up his physical body, Te Ru returned this knowledge to his people. Seizing the moment, he revealed to his wife Maata, Te Akau’s mother, the traditional Māori practices in preparation for death; how to ready the body for burial and about the funeral itself. He instructed those around him in the funeral arrangements according to Tikanga (traditional practices) and he designated someone to weave his burial garment and carve the a koauau (wind instrument) from his bones. Maata and other family members documented what he said. As Maata reports, “All we had were these pieces of paper to guide us, but we also had the experience of listening and absorbing which we then tried to codify.”

A traditional Māori burial is called Kahu Whakatere Tupapaku. It is a way of honoring the Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) and therefore, it is a way of honoring life. Tikanga Māori, the code of correct procedures, contains precise details about the technicalities of weaving, constructing, and carving the waka and burial and also, the essential spiritual directions that allow the family and the community as a whole to maintain contact with the loved one whose soul is crossing over to the spirit world while the tinana (body) returns to Papatuanuku.  The entire journey becomes a healing celebration.

Now, after more than a decade, Te Ru’s teachings have been carefully recorded and Maata and Te Akau, along with others, maintain this ancient wisdom by teaching it to others and helping the young ones, in particular, to not be afraid of death. Again the interaction of preparation, education and action becomes the antidote to fear as inevitable loss is met in harmony with the natural world and spiritual alignment. This is a model for how individuals and communities can meet the losses that climate change has already wrought, for example, in species extinction.

Te Akau Wharehoka, left and Maata Wharehoka prepare a kopaki mat to be used in a traditional Māori burial. (From an article in Stuff, a popular NZ online news site.)

Thanks to what Te Ru gave his wife, his son, his children and his community, this traditional wisdom that had been muted by colonialism, will not be lost again. Today Te Akau stands with his mother in offering guidance and consultation about this threshold journey, Kahu Whakatere Tupapaku. This represents a larger commitment on the part of Te Akau, not only to maintain his culture but also to cultivate a central place, a community that will endure and evolve through its collective intelligence based on consciousness and spiritual kinship with the natural world. As his mother Maata says, “First you have to plant the seeds in people’s minds and then you can build sustainable gardens.”

Te Akau is enthusiastic not only about traditional values but also about innovations in sustainability. He actively researches sustainable housing developments, solar power, riparian and permaculture gardening, alternative energy sources, and restoring the cleanliness of water sources by monitoring them and demanding an end to pollution that is the byproduct of grazing. Sustaining life and preparing for death go hand in hand. “The very essence of being Māori is living in the truth that birth and death are both natural and synonymous,” Te Akau tells me, repeating the words his mother spoke to him.

Te Akau does not hide his concern for a future affected by accelerating climate change. But he is resolute in his connection to the strong lineage that is always present in him, his faith in youth, and his enthusiastic curiosity about innovative options and the resilient capacities of his community and the Māori people, as well as the larger global communities of indigenous wisdom and humanity as a whole. Before we concluded our conversation, he reminded me of a Māori proverb that inspires him to join with others in a worldwide collaboration on behalf of the children of the future. This phrase is a mantra for vibrant continuity: Kia Kaha; kia maia; kia manawanui. Be bold; be courageous; be stouthearted.

* Parihaka, Te Akau’s community, is located near Mount Taranaki (pictured below) on the West Coast of the North Island. In the 1870s and ‘80s it mounted a famous non-violent campaign of resistance to the Pakeha (European) occupation of Māori land.


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