This section provides a basic knowledge of how the whakairo process is shaped by the spiritual belief practices of the Tohunga Whakairo. There is never just 'one way' to do something, and accordingly, Toi Māori and design is very much bound to the tribal area where the practitioner began their journey into Toi Māori. However, there are a few philosophical concepts that are found throughout all iwi, we call this system of regulation 'Tīkanga'. Tīkanga or values, beliefs, ethics, law, has a very pertinent part to play in the process of whakairo, raranga and rauangi - from the tree selection to the pushing of a new waka out and onto the awa, every step in the creative process is influenced by kawa, the way in which we ensure we meet our tikanga obligations.



Tapu is often described or framed as meaning ‘sacred’, and indeed many aspects of tapu might be considered as such. For example, an urupā (graveyard) might be considered sacred, as may be a Whare Karakia (Church); both could certainly be described as tapu. However, a poisoned waterway could also be considered tapu, but not sacred. We can therefore define tapu as, ‘not ordinary’ or ‘special’.

Some people and places are always tapu, but for others their status of tapu might be shorter. For example, a rangatira (leader, or chief) is always tapu and there are aspects of lore that determine day-to-day interactions with the chief. Similarly, tohunga whakairo (carving experts), are extremely tapu due to the nature of their work. They must not be approached while carving and food cannot be eaten near the carvings. The practical reasons are that all focus of the tohunga whakairo is on their mahi, ensuring that when they are carving, no mistakes are made. In addition to the tohunga whakairo being tapu, so too are the materials they work with; any waste, such as the chips, are not discarded or used in fires.


Noa is the opposite of tapu and means ‘ordinary’ or ‘free from restriction’. The only observance with noa is that noa and tapu things are not to be mixed.



Wairua refers to the spiritual realm, which includes the spirit of someone or something. Translated literally, ‘wai’ is the Māori word for water and ‘rua’ the word for two. Wairua is thus a word referring to the ‘two waters’ that flow within; the pure and polluted, the positive and negative. Finding balance between the two is necessary to maintain equilibrium and promote harmony and wellbeing. Wairuatanga permeates everything we do – it commands our respect and acknowledgment. Māori see the physical and spiritual world as integrated; There is no division between the human world and the natural world.



Mauri is a key component to understanding wairuatanga or Māori spirituality; it literally means ‘life force’ or ‘life principle’, and as such, everything has a mauri. Mauri applies to both animate and inanimate objects; plants, rivers and mountains all have a life force, as well as people. This life principle teaches us about the need to respect and care for all things on earth; its existence does not elevate people above their natural surroundings, but makes them equal. Mauri acknowledges connectedness and the way in which all things on earth are in some way interrelated and reliant on each other.

- University of Otago, Maori Studies Department