Ceremonies with Life

I spent most of today at Te Kohinga Mārama marae, Waikato Uni, watching people graduate. I was there to see my brother-in-law, Enoka Murphy, receive his PhD and was really proud to stand there as part of his whānau while his Ngāti Manawa kin repped their iwi.

My experience of graduation ceremonies is limited to that marae and to US films. I couldn’t help but compare the lifeless and dull academic ceremonies depicted in the movies – perhaps briefly enlivened by someone boldly mounting the stage with bare feet or some other rebellious act of individuality – with what I experienced on the marae.

at enokas graduation

Some graduates climbed the stage to the accompaniment of a ferocious haka performed by rows of proud whānau and friends eager to celebrate the great achievement of completing a university degree. Others had a beautiful waiata, sung by a proud parent or nanny. A group of Pasifikans occupied the entire ātea, dancing to wooden drums while lei upon lei was piled around the graduate’s neck until they looked like big bird on mescaline. A huge ope of proud Ngāti Porou busted out ‘Ko wai te tekoteko’, one of my favourite waiata of all time. Some Africans (Nigerians? I wasn’t sure) clapped and sang.

Every contribution, from the enveloping waves of sound that rose from a mass of singers, to the gentle trickle of a single voice, was appreciated and applauded. No one seemed to be in too much of a hurry and so everyone had the time to do what they needed to mark out their own proud story of whānau success. The audience loved to see the different iwi represent, but there was special appreciation for the unexpected – whether a cultural offering from another country or the string sextet that offered up a few bars of music to celebrate a colleague.

One of the most poignant contributions was from a mum who stated apologetically that she couldn’t kōrero Māori or offer a waiata but she wanted to say how proud she was of her daughter, the first one in their whānau to get a university qualification. The daughter climbed the stage with her grandmother to receive her degree.

The whole thing was so beautiful, so full of life, so expressive and overflowing with emotion. So Māori. I wondered if the parallel ceremony at the Events Centre a few days before had the same feeling, but I suspect not. One of the things I really love about Aotearoa, about Māori, and about Polynesian culture is the way people do ceremony. It is powerful, fulfilling – whether talking about tangihanga / funerary rites, the pōwhiri / ceremonies of welcome or celebrating success such as a university graduation. For Pākeha who engage with the Māori world, it is in my opinion one of the most important things to learn – the importance of tikanga, of doing things right.

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