The following is an edited extract from Tikanga by Francis and Kaiora Tipene.

KAIORA: I have always been taught the primary aspect of whakapapa is that someone has come from somewhere. Everyone belongs to something, and you can connect to that person. I love when people stand up and do mihi and acknowledge their maunga and awa. ‘Oh, that is my maunga and awa, too. I wonder if they know this person that I know.’ Now you are about to build a relationship. You have heard of that iwi and can connect to it through mutual friends. Everything has a hono—a connection with something else. Even objects have whakapapa.

My dad was obsessed with whakapapa. It was impossible for him to not find the connections between things. It could be a hat, a chair or a kete. He knew that someone had made them—they had put a lot of work into them. That is the whakapapa of those things. The kete didn’t come out of nothing.

A kete is made out of muka, fibre taken from the flax. Someone has carefully chosen that flax, picked one colour out of all the other colours. She has taken it back to her house, peeled it back to reveal the fine fibres inside and used them to make the kete.

Kaiora and Francis Tipene

When it comes to people, whakapapa is not just about being able to find blood connections. It is also about building relationships.

My dad also taught us that you don’t just go back for five generations in a straight line. All those people had brothers and sisters and children and their brothers and sisters and children. It’s not just about how many generations you can go back, it’s about how you can connect yourself through your bloodline to other people…

FRANCIS: What would the Pākehā equivalent to whakapapa be?
Pākehā might start doing it a bit more, the way they have adopted parts of other Māori traditions. We find out our whakapapa by talking to people. Pākehā find theirs out by going into the library and spending hours going through shipping records from the nineteenth century.

Whakapapa is not just about blood links. It includes other kinds of connection. If you have an association with someone, it has real and practical effects. If you are my friend, you would be entitled to rock up to my marae and say, ‘Hello, I’m a friend of Francis’s from Auckland.’ ‘Oh—a friend of Francis’s? Haere mai. Come in.’ Whakapapa can be present even if there is no blood link. For example, through friendship, perhaps my great-grandfather and your great-grandfather were best mates. Or someone might have had a mistress and that is another connection. We can connect through mishaps in life. Your grandmother and mine were sisters, even though you didn’t know about it.

We have Maggie from Fiji here, helping to look after our kids. I might go to Fiji in 20 years and meet one of her cousins and we can explain that connection. I hear it time and again in speeches at tangi, ‘Your grandfather lived next door to us and we worked together on the Power Board.’ Those are memories that connect people using stories.

I love how in death we are united and come together, and that all comes down to whakapapa. I form relationships with people when I do funerals for them. In fact, a time of grief is probably one of the best times to build a relationship. If you are there for someone in their most vulnerable moments, you establish a connection with them. You become connected with all of them because you have looked after one of their loved ones. You are now whānau to them. You are not just someone who works at a funeral home. They will get up and do a mihi to you in their final funeral service. They acknowledge you, and that is really humbling.

The disputes over where someone should be buried, which sometimes occur, are a good example of where whakapapa has a very practical function. Knowing the connections helps you decide where someone belongs and where their body should go.

Wherever you go—on any marae—there always seems to be someone knowledgeable who can whakapapa and connect you. It can turn into a long discussion that needs a couple of nights and turns up skeletons in the closet.

Some of the things people did in the past can be affecting what happens to you today. People are still hated for what someone else did back then.

If you set off on a whakapapa journey, you have to be prepared for that sort of thing. But there are more beautiful things than nasty ones.

KAIORA: Knowing your whakapapa means you know your connections when you go on a marae. You can connect to particular aunties and uncles and feel proud. And as you sit there during a hui, they will pass on more of their knowledge to you.

But there are ups and downs to that—it brings responsibilities. There are times when you would like to lay back and just listen and learn. But there are times when you can’t.

And the opposite is true, if you haven’t established the connection, like when I go back up to Waimanoni, where my father and grandmother are from. Even though my roots are there, and my father is buried there, I haven’t spent enough time there or given enough to my iwi or marae to be able to call it home.

It is different for one of my sisters. She has given a lot to the marae. She attends the hui. She does fundraisers for them. The rest of us acknowledge her for keeping the fires burning up there. You must be living there if you want the role, the mana or to have a say in things. It would be like a Pākehā turning up to a castle in England and saying, ‘G’day, cuz.’

I try to instil some of this in our kids. About once a year, we have a whānau gathering for my mum’s side. It’s for our immediate family, but there are twelve siblings and we all have kids. We are multiplying. My boys haven’t seen their extended whānau for some time and we are still having new babies so it is important they know who they are. There are four nephews in Australia who have had probably six children between them, and who we haven’t met yet.

I hope my boys will meet them soon. Later in life, they might get a job and be working with a nephew or cousin and not know it. That is why our old dad did his best to ensure we went to every marae hui—so we knew who was who and whether to call them whānau or friends. We knew who our immediate family were. It was wrong if we didn’t know our cousins…

…One of the reasons my dad went to so much trouble to teach us was that he didn’t want us going into an environment and not knowing a certain person was an uncle or other relative. It would always bring a tear to his eye if he could connect to people. He would have a little tangi when he realised that.

In his last years, he was sick with diabetes and he needed lots of attention. We went to every marae and hui he wanted to go to. It was a bit boring but I had no option, and now I’m grateful for those last moments in his life, because I learnt a lot about whānau and iwi, who we are and where we come from. That was a big education in whakapapa.

We travelled a lot. I often found myself waking up not sure where I was. We would be in Pakanae or Rāwhiti, and there was Dad, sitting there having a cup of tea with people I’d never seen before. On the way home he would say, ‘You know that person in there? He is first cousin to your grandfather.’ We travelled all that way to find that out? Ka pai, Dad.

Francis & Kaiora Tipene