The recitation of karakia at meetings around the country has attracted a degree of controversy recently, igniting a conversation about their importance. 

Today on The Detail podcast we look at what they are; what role they perform; and why there’s a new resistance to them. 

Last year, Kaipara Māori ward councillor Pera Paniora (Te Roroa, Ngāti Whātua, Te Kuihi) tried to recite a karakia at the start of the first meeting of the newly-elected council. 

But mayor Craig Jepson shut her down, claiming it wouldn’t be respectful of everybody. 

He banned karakia – but then following protests, reversed it.

This however came with a compromise – a councillor would start the meetings in turn with a reflection, karakia or something similar, of their choice.

At a meeting in February, Jepson started with his “reflection”, reading a comment from conservative US economist Thomas Sowell: “When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.” 

Local Pere Huriwai-Seger (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou, Te Atī Awa) then stood up and said a karakia, but the mayor told him to sit down, saying his actions were “out of order”.

In Otago, regional councillor Kevin Malcolm walked out of a meeting as it started with a karakia, claiming it was a “tickbox exercise”.

After mana whenua voiced their concerns at a meeting, Malcolm said he would be interested in learning more from them.

Journalist Mihingarangi Forbes (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Maniapoto), who hosts Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes, believes these issues have come to the fore because of change and the sharing of power. 

“When we have these clashes, and whether you want to call it racism or unconscious bias it’s all the same – just different levels of it. When someone wants to bring some change into your area, into your space and you’re not ready for that or if you’re not in control of it you get a pushback sometimes.” 

Forbes has been a journalist since the mid-90s and says karakia has always been important in her career.

“It didn’t feel like there was resistance in that part of that te reo Māori… today we karakia for everything, karakia isn’t just about blessing food and very rarely do I hear one about Jesus Christ anymore. In Māori circles it’s about clearing spaces and inviting new thoughts and generous thoughts and love and things like that, or sending someone on their way.” 

Tikanga educator Blackie Tohiariki (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Te Aroha) says karakia is a Māori word and shouldn’t be translated.

Tikanga educator Blackie Tohiariki. Photo: Tom Kitchin

“Karakia is clear and clean cut, it takes a religious spin when, in your organisation words like Lord, God, Amen – those types of words are used – then it is religious and you can call it a prayer if you like. But karakia is not a prayer.

“Karakia is karakia. You’ve got ka – it ignites – ra – connectivity and kia is the essence of your voice, the tone of your voice, your sincerity, the words you are saying.”

He says a karakia is appropriate to do “any time”.

“I always had karakia before my meeting on the rugby field, because a karakia’s about intention, it’s about setting goodwill, it’s about setting a good direction.

“Before I go hunting, if I go with the intention that I’m going to take from the environment a life, so therefore, when that ritual is done then you give thanks again, you have another karakia.”

He says a karakia is spiritual – connecting to the elements of earth, wind, fire and water, rather than giving thanks to God.

He advises organisations to develop a tolerance policy with the Treaty of Waitangi in mind, which will help them understand the importance of karakia.

“This issue we’re having, often it’s personal … we need to go back to the organisation and ask the organisation where they stand.

“The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand recognises this importance through the fourth article … which guarantees Māori and non Māori, all individuals, the freedom and the protection to practice their religious, faith and cultural customs. In your organisation, it’s therefore essential to adopt a religious tolerance policy that upholds article four of the Treaty of Waitangi.”

Get more nuanced detail on karakia by listening to the full episode.

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