Whenua burial revives connection to land
IT WAS important to TeAroha Ballantine (Tainui) that the whenua from her four babies were buried at the urupa on her family’s farm in Piopio. But one midwife suggests that Pakeha families are readily adopting this tikanga too.
“My impression is that Pakeha are picking up this tradition,” says Tungane Kani (Ngati Kahungunu), a midwife at Dannevirke Community Hospital.
“But among the Maori mothers I work with [in Dannevirke], my perception is that less than half are indicating they want to keep the whenua after the birth.”
What will happen to the whenua is routinely discussed by New Zealand midwives and new parents, but modern life can pose challenges when adopting traditional tikanga around birth practices.
In Maori culture whenua is the word for land and also the placenta, the life-giving organism that sustains a baby during pregnancy. This whenua, along with the umbilical cord, is expelled shortly after a baby is born. Traditional tikanga involves burying it in a significant place.
While Mrs Kani says many non-Maori are taking up the traditional practice, exact numbers of parents choosing to keep their whenua remain officially unknown.
“In birth data recorded by midwives, there is a tick box for whether the whenua is kept by the parents. But this information doesn’t seem to be analysed or published in readily available birth data,” says Mrs Kani.
TeAroha Ballantine and her husband decided to keep the whenua after the birth of each of their children.
“I knew it was important to my mum and dad that I keep it.
“My mum had passed away shortly before my eldest was born, so we buried the whenua at the foot of mum’s grave at the uru pa. It’s really a place of belonging for us”, she says.
Mrs Ballantine says the practice strengthened family bonds and the tikanga responsibilities were shared around the whanau.
“Because I was so involved with my first child, my sister took on the role of the formalities- walking onto the cemetery and having a karakia.”
Fewer whenua burials may relate to a loss of generational knowledge and the way this is passed down.
When investigating her own history, Mrs Kani discovered some knowledge about whenua burial was not held by her grandmother, as the task was often left to a male relative.
“After birth the mother’s focus was on her baby. She would be fed and massaged but basically had a period of isolation from other tasks. It was Koro who wrapped the whenua and buried it in the urupa. It had to be a place where it would be kept safe.”
Mrs Kani says tikanga varies greatly between hapu (tribal groups), and there is no specific “correct way” to do things.
“Every hapu has its own tikanga, but it’s good to remember that you can start new traditions if they make sense to you and your whanau,” she says.
Rachelle Toimata, a mother of three sons, says the planting of whenua after each birth was an important ritual for her whanau.
Each son was born in hospital, and the staff were familiar with and accommodating of her request to keep the whenua.
“The midwife and hospital worked in with our wishes. It was no big fuss. But it was important to us and I didn’t want a part of our family being chucked in the rubbish and burned.”
“When my boys were born, I asked the hospital for their whenua. It was kept for us in a special container in the fridge until we left.”
She says her husband buried each whenua on a hill, and the idea that part of them returned to the earth was deeply meaningful for them both.
Ms Toimata says her husband buried each whenua on a hill which was important to them because it strengthened a connection to place and land, and a sense of belonging.
“Perhaps growing up in a fragmented family reinforced this for me. I was a foster kid and went into my adulthood feeling like i didn’t really belong anywhere except Ahipara, where I was raised by my nan. So places rather than people became really important to me.”
Jasmine Purnell is mother to three young children born at home. Her husband is Maori, and she says as the mother of Maori children, she was receptive to learning tikanga around birth and parenting, but found information scarce.
Mat Williams is Jasmine’s husband. He says he doesn’t remember learning any specific birth tikanga from his own parents.
He says he’s unsure whether his own parents followed this tikanga, but he was pleased to be able to observe whenua burial himself.
“I wasn’t aware we were doing anything cultural especially,” he says. “But as a new dad I just wanted to do the best thing for us, I was learning as I went.”
Another reason for a decline in whenua burial is a growing disconnection from marae and whanau land due to urbanisation and mobility of modern whanau.
This has been addressed in Nelson, where the community has developed a communal place for whenua.
Midwife Andrea Vincent says modern life dictates that many families move around often, meaning they don’t have an appropriate place to bury whenua.
She worked with a small team of other midwives to set up New Zealand’s first whenua forest on Nelson’s Centre of NZ hill.
Ms Vincent says the forest was inspired by her friend and colleague Lyndell Rowan who died suddenly in 2007 and had been keen to see the whenua of babies she had delivered returned to the earth.
“She used to take placentas home, if the parents had nowhere to bury them, and do it herself.”
The whenua planting project is now in its fourth year, and involves a group of people trekking up the hill one weekend in June to plant placentas under native seedlings.
The planting is secured with a blessing by Nelson kaumatua Archdeacon Andy Joseph and waiata by those present.
Ms Vincent says local iwi were approached before the initiative began, and after about six months, approved the idea. The Nelson City Council also approved it, based on some conditions.
These included eco-sourcing of seedlings, distance from waterways and a rule that plantings could only take place at the official event once a year.
In addition, because the land is public and part of a wider re-generation plan in the city, there can be no ownership or expectation upon an individual’s placenta or tree.
Ms Vincent says the idea is special because it connects local children to the land in a very traditional way, as tangata whenua. It’s also a community-bonding event which grows in participation each year.
‘Toitu te whenua; whatungarongaro te tangata’- people are transient but the land endures.’