Powhiri: An indigenous example of collaboration from New Zealand

By Rawiri Smith

Rawiri Smith (biography)

Collaboration is important in New Zealand as a method of bringing communities together to work on complex problems. A useful collaborative model is the Powhiri, practiced by Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, for hundreds of years.

The formal welcome to an area in New Zealand is a Maori process known as the Powhiri. The Powhiri recognises the mana of all the participants. One of the most important values of the Maori people is manaaki, or caring for the mana of everyone. The Maori word mana means the importance associated with a person. The performance of a Powhiri acknowledges the importance of a person being welcomed to an area.

The deeper meaning behind the Powhiri process gives more meaning and indicates what should be occurring through the Powhiri. The ground that the welcome is performed across is known as the marae atea and is the most important ground to the people who consider these lands as their home. It is also seen as the realm of Tumatauenga, the god of war. It is the place of debate before going into the wharenui or the meeting house which is the realm of Rongo, the god of peace. Starting the first engagement with a debate doesn’t sound welcoming, but understanding the intricacies of the Powhiri shows how it enables all participants to understand each other.

Powhiri in its widest context means a welcome, but within the word is a greater understanding. The two root words are po or unknown and whiri or plaiting, so a powhiri is the weaving of unknowns. If there are suspected points of difference in the unknown, the marae atea is the place to clear the air. The first stage of the Powhiri can be a wero, or challenge, where a warrior comes out to the visitors with a weapon and a peace offering. In picking up the peace offering, the visitor is honour bound to engage with mana. In this space comes the first voice, the voice of a woman in karanga.

The karanga is the call of welcome, but again within the word is a deeper meaning. Ka can be understood as energy and ranga understood as weaving, so karanga is the weaving of energies. The kaikaranga (the woman performing the karanga) calls a welcome to the visitors and recognises their whakapapa or genealogy as she calls to the spiritual ancestor too. The sound of the karanga connects intensely and visitors feel their spirits touched through reference to the name of their iwi or tribe or the name of the hapu or sub tribes (which is how Maori identify themselves). These names are normally names of ancestors. In this light and spirit, the formal speeches are started.

Whaikorero is the name given to these type of speeches. The deeper meaning again gives a better understanding of how the mana of all participants can be protected, even in a debate. Whai is a search and korero is speech so whaikorero is a spoken search for bringing people together. The debate starts with each person establishing their position, but framed by acknowledging what might be the viewpoints of the others involved. Each speaker looks to how parts of the argument from the others can inform their own position. This involves real listening to what the others involved have to say. This collaborative debate acknowledges the mana of the others.

Each person uses parts of arguments made by others to inform their own position. This requires real listening and acknowledges the mana –  the importance associated with a person – of the others.

Caring for the mana of people (manaaki) when they have similar positions to oneself is easy, whereas manaaki for people with differing, even conflicting, positions is harder.

This is further strengthened in the finishing of the process. While the finishing of the Powhiri is simple, the element of trust is strengthened. The waiata tautoko or supportive song summarises each speech in a concentrated theme. The koha or a donation is laid down by the visitors. Koha comes before any service is given and acknowledges the expenses the hosts will lay out. The hongi or the pressing of noses and the sharing of breath is the physical coming together where the very essence of life, the ha or breath, is shared. The guests then are taken to share some food as they come together. The Powhiri finishes and the visitors are ready to enter the realm of Rongo and further working together.

The Powhiri is a collaborative process that is built on the value of manaaki. When the process is used as a model for collaboration in a wider context, results can be transformative, because it involves real listening and caring for each other.

Bringing people together around an issue such as water through a Powhiri process can mean mana is recognised. Not only is the mana of the participants considered, but the mana of water and the mana of the issues related to water are considered too. When participants concentrate on the subject, water, with the attitude of caring for its mana, its potential to “weave” people is realized through a better quality of life.


Ko Maungarake taku maunga kaitiaki
My mountain guardian is Maungarake

Ko Ruamahanga taku awa oranga
My life giving river is the Ruamahanga

Ko Takitimu te waka o oku tohunga tawhito
The canoe of my ancient priests is Takitimu

Ko Ngati Kahungunu taku iwi
My tribe Ngati Kahungunu

Ko Ngati Kaiparuparu me Ngai Taneroa me Ngati Muretu oku hapu
My sub tribes are Ngati Kaiparuparu, Ngai Taneroa and Ngati Muretu

Ko Nukupewapewa taku tangata me kaiwhakaora
My person and liberator is Nukupewapewa

Ko Rangikaiwhiria Reiri raua ko Rangiuea Namana oku poupou
My grandfathers are Rangikaiwhiria Reiri and Rangiuea Namana

Ko Ida Ihaka Namana raua ko Hera Huaki oku nanny
My nannies are Ida Ihaka Namana and Hera Huaki

Ko Frances taku whaea
My mother is Frances

Ko Rawiri Smith taku ingoa
My name is Rawiri Smith

No Wairarapa ahau
I am from Wairarapa

Rawiri (Ra) Smith is an Environment Manager (Kaiwhakahaere Taiao) for Kahungunu Ki Wairarapa, an indigenous tribal authority in Wairarapa, New Zealand. As a proponent of indigenous models from New Zealand, he is a part of national initiatives (Our Land and Water National Science Challenge Collaboration Lab, Land and Water Forum), a part of political bodies at a regional level (Greater Wellington Regional Council’s subcommittee, Te Upoko Taiao, Ruamahanga Whaitua Committee), a part of district organisations (Masterton District Council, Sustainable Wairarapa, Te Hauora Runanga o Wairarapa), and a part of traditional Maori entities (Ngati Kahungunu Ki Wairarapa Tamakinui-A-Rua Treaty Trust, Kahungunu Ki Wairarapa, Hurunui-o-Rangi Marae Trust). Most of these organisations operate under collaborative ideals and seek to synthesise an indigenous knowledge base with other knowledge bases.

Ra Smith is a Vision Mātauranga researcher in The Collaboration Lab project funded by Our Land and Water National Science Challenge – see short term partnerships on https://i2insights.org/about/partners/.

7 thoughts on “Powhiri: An indigenous example of collaboration from New Zealand”

  1. Hi Rawiri, I very much enjoyed reading this, but I had a question about “mana”. It might seem obvious at first glance, but how is mana operationalized? For example, I imagine that there could be multiple facets to it. 

    First, if I have understood correctly, it’s about bringing communities together to work on complex problems, but one can imagine this at different levels of granularity, even if we are talking about communities : a large family (that may have different factions), a company, a local community, national politics, or global issues. And I wonder if mana doesn’t change across these contexts. In other words, can importance be attributed to the actors differently in these different contexts?

    For example, if we take this quote:

    “The Maori word mana means the importance associated with a person. The performance of a Powhiri acknowledges the importance of a person being welcomed to an area.”

    …and if we also look at how the welcoming includes the recognition of familial and tribal position and of ancestors for each participating debater (who represents a community), then being acknowledged as “important” is not only having one’s viewpoint taken into consideration and integrated into the arguments and counter-arguments of the debate, but it’s also understanding one’s position in the societal structure. Maybe each community is known for a particular contribution to the larger society and this deserves acknowledgment.

    And given that the arguments we make are inspired by our values and that our values may be influenced by our close family members, then perhaps “mana” is also about respecting why we hold the values that we do. This way of viewing things has ramifications for political debate as the experiences we have that drive us to hold views on how society should work can be very personal and family based.

    And then the company setting is a different context with contributions by different groups based again on a associated set of values. Or we could do the same thought experiment regarding national politics and global issues.

    Would you be willing to share your thoughts on this?

    Best wishes for the New Year, Kris

    • Kia ora Kris, In acknowledging the individual, the most common way of doing this in Maori is through their wider connections. A form of identification for Maori is their pepeha, that states their genealogy to family, sub tribe and tribe, but also to the lands of their whakapapa or genealogy. So when welcoming a guest if you are able to refer to their connections you are saying, “I know of your mana. Then if amongst that recognition you say how the wider groups of the visitor connects with the wider groups of the host through people connections like marriage then the host is implying that the mana of both groups is inter-connected. If you as a host are able to extend this connection to a time when both wider groups agreed on a solution in the past then the host is forging the way for solutions in the current situation. In terms of powhiri thinking and other Maori collaborative practices being used at various levels, complex relationships to simple relationships and simple principles being used throughout these levels, yes that is the system in Maori society. Nga mihi or greetings, Ra Smith

  2. Hi Rawiri,

    An interesting read that explains some of our experiences in working with teams in New Zealand. Particularly, some work that we did with a predominantly Maori professional organisation a few years ago.

    The team here were a collection of passionate and powerful characters with many years of experience within themselves. What drove great outcomes in our work with them was the recognition of the value of that experience (described in your article as Mana). First recognising this in themselves and then (most powerfully of all) recognising this in others.

    The interesting point for us as folks brought in to help was that the organisation struggled to do this themselves. Even though the organisation meant well and had generally high regard for the team members. A phenomenon we have seen many times in many organisations since.

    Following on from this, I am struck by what seems to be the highly challenging nature of an apparently simple idea that is described in the article – a structured method or process that incorporates the ideas of others. There is great potential for the development of good organisational process in this space I think (my research work is seeking to consider this problem). Powhiri seems like wisdom that we can learn from.


    • Kia ora Barry, Thank you for sharing your experience with this NZ group and your thoughts about this experience. One of the difficulties with a marginalised group is that a lot of energy is put into defining who the group is so they are not a part of what is referred to as other. Othering, as referred to by Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her book Decolonising Methodologies, is a dismissive term that Maori seek to overcome. Whakapapa, or genealogy, is another example of what Maori used to establish connection between adversarial groups. Now, in order to become relevant, whakapapa is used to establish a distinct entity. Decolnising this practice of whakapapa would return to the traditional mode of connecting. Nga mihi or greetings, Ra

  3. Kia ora Charles, thank you for your kind words. The collaborative process of the powhiri is engaging and powerful. Those who are practiced in powhiri and indeed in collaborative processes do realise the progress they can make in improving the quality of the experience and the outcome. Indeed the parts of the powhiri are pockets of opportunity to work with.

  4. What strikes me straight away is that the communication is holistic and many layered, embracing many ways of communicating (not just speaking) and engaging each and every sense. This makes the experience powerful, memorable and very creative indeed. Western approaches to collaboration have, to a greater or lesser extent, lost much of this. (Although some, such as the ABCD movement in Australia) are rediscovering it.

    • Hi Charles – can you explain the ABCD movement please? Asset-based Community Development is what I find on Google – is this it?


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