May 19, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

(mis)Use of the ta moko of Te Morenga (Ngapuhi)

7 min read

We came across a blog in Australia which is using the ta moko of Te Morenga (Ngapuhi) as part of its website banner. The blog is called Neuroanthropology which explains its kaupapa as

a collaborative weblog created to encourage exchanges among anthropology, philosophy, social theory, and the brain sciences. We especially hope to explore the implications of new findings in the neurosciences for our understanding of culture, human development, and behaviour”.

Clearly a great deal of thought has been undertaken in terms of where the the ta moko of Te Morenga was sourced from and the rationale behind its use,but we are always keen to ask the question, is using this image, the whakapapa of Te Morenga appropriate or yet another misappropriation?

Simply because this rangatira drew his own moko which was then used by non-Maori to promote their own agendas, does not necessarily mean he wanted it to be used… just getting the korero out there, what do you think?

The korero below comes directly from this blog – which can also be viewed here.

The blog creators say “the image…is a cleaned up, graphic arts re-rendering of a drawing by Maori chief, Te Morenga, of his own moko or facial tattoo. That original drawing appeared in H. G. Robley, Moko, or Maori Tattooing (electronic version of Robleys book here, with the original drawing here).

The man reponsible for creating this banner, Greg Downey, is also a key contributor to the Neuroanthropology blog,andis Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney.

The following is an except from his post “Our new bannerhead“… let us know what you think. There have been some very insightful comments on our Facebook Page – click here to read those.

The image is even more interesting, in my opinion, when you realize that it was drawn, not by an interested spectator or European naturalist, but by the bearer himself. Not so much about appearance, the drawing is likely much more about significance.”

I dont know why exactly the image was chosen for the cover of Lvi-Strausss volume, but for Neuroanthropology, the traditional Maori moko is especially apropos because of the way that biology, culture, social structure and anatomy all converge in the practice. Ta moko, the Maori technique for marking the skin, differed from more widely known practices of tatooing in that a chisel was used to to introduce the pigment into skin (rather than a needle or sharp comb). Chiseling left permanent grooves in the skin, meaning that the designs could be felt and not just seen.”

The process of getting a moko started in puberty and took many years, as recipients would need time to recover and some parts of the moko could only be completed after initiation ceremonies or key life events. Different parts of the face were marked to indicate a Maori mans rank, his family, his marriage, his birth status, his own work; women were typically only tatooed on the chin. One side of the face indicated status through the maternal and the other through the paternal line; not being of elite status through one or the other meant that the appropriate side of the face was left blank. Commoners did not have moko.”

In other words, the moko is a powerful metaphor for cultures effect on the body and nervous system (although, like any metaphor, also limited). Cultural identity, social status, class, occupation, gender ideals, as with the moko, leave indelible marks on the human body and brain that are not merely superficial. The moko, like so many great anthropological examples, appears at first blush a terribly exotic case of extreme cultural practice, but upon closer examination suggests basic principles for understanding much more pervasive tendencies across our species.”

What do you think e hoa ma?

Background on TE MORENGA

(c. 17601834).

Ngapuhi chief.

Te Morenga was the principal chief of the Urikapana hapu of the Ngapuhi tribe and had his pa at Tai-a-mai, which lay inland from Kerikeri. Very little is known of his life in pre-missionary times except that he was approaching the zenith of his power when Marsden arrived and ranked him with Hongi Hika and Pomare-nui among the Ngapuhi chiefs. Until about 1823 Te Morenga’s attitude was deeply influenced by a feud which arose from the Venus incident in 1806. His niece, Tawaputa, had been abducted by the convict crew and was later killed and eaten by the Ngaiterangi tribe of Tauranga, while his sister suffered a similar fate shortly afterwards at the hands of the Ngati Porou at East Cape. According to Maori custom, and in conformity with his father’s deathbed wish, it became Te Morenga’s duty to exact utu for these killings. After the incident Te Morenga sent spies disguised as traders into the districts in question and these brought him back information about the women’s fate; however, it was to be many years before he could put this to use. In 1807 he is said to have distinguished himself at the battle of Moremonui, and he also took part in the tribal feuds in the years following.

Marsden first met Te Morenga when he arrived in New Zealand in 1814 and the chief soon became his firmest Maori friend. In January 1815, when Marsden visited Te Haupa at Thames, Te Morenga accompanied him and acted as his interpreter. After this he and Te Pehi travelled to Parramatta, N.S.W., in the Active and stayed for some time as Marsden’s guests. There the two chiefs became familiar with the arts and institutions of the pakeha and paid special attention to European methods of agriculture. Te Morenga later put what he learned on this journey to good use in New Zealand. The chief was deeply impressed by the benefits which might be obtained from European civilisation, but asked the missionaries only to teach these things to chiefs and chiefs’ sons because the lower caste people could not improve their position in any way and their education would be wasted. For some years Te Morenga pressed Marsden for a man who could preach, teach little children to read and write, administer medicine to them when they were sick, and show them how to cultivate their land. Accordingly, in 1820, Marsden sent James Shepherd to New Zealand to live with the Urikapana hapu at Tai-a-mai.

In the meantime Te Morenga had found time to prosecute his feud against the Ngaiterangi and Ngati Porou. In January 1818 he sailed for the East Cape district with 400 men. They landed at Motiti Island, but found that Te Waru, his principal enemy, was absent on the mainland. He then proceeded to East Cape, where he under-took a long campaign against the Ngati Porou. The party returned to the Bay of Islands some time in November 1818. In January 1820 Te Morenga led a further expedition against Te Waru. There was a brief skirmish near Tauranga in which the Ngapuhi killed two chiefs and put their enemies to flight. Te Morenga was satisfied that sufficient utu had been obtained, but his allies insisted that the enemy must be pursued. Te Waru’s forces counter-attacked and there was a fierce engagement on the beach, where 400 of his men were killed. After this reverse Te Waru made peace. The victors remained on the field for three days longer feasting on those slain and then returned to the Bay of Islands with all Te Waru’s canoes, 200 prisoners of war, and several chiefs’ heads. On 22 July 1820, just three months after this campaign, Te Morenga accompanied Marsden to Tauranga where the latter acted as intermediary in making a more lasting peace between the two tribes. During this visit to New Zealand Marsden spent much of his time journeying about to make peace between various warring chiefs and, in all of this, Te Morenga acted as his companion, assistant, and interpreter.

Although Te Morenga and Hongi were exceedingly jealous of each other, and relations between them were seldom cordial, their tribal ties proved stronger than their differences. Late in 1820 Te Morenga attacked Mauinaina pa, but was repulsed. In the following year he accompanied Hongi’s party, which reduced it. He was also present at the siege of Te Totara during the same campaign and was one of the party who negotiated the treacherous peace with its defenders. Te Morenga supported Hongi on his Rotorua expedition and, in the next year, joined Pomarenui on his second invasion of the Urewera. He did not accompany Pomare to Ruatahuna, but led a smaller raiding party up the Waiotehe and Waioeka Rivers instead. About this time a further dispute with Hongi, at the Bay of Islands, led to a fracas between their respective hapus in the streets of the mission settlement. Nevertheless, the two chiefs were able to compose their differences sufficiently for Te Morenga to take part in the campaign against the Ngati Whatua, which in 1825 culminated in the battle at Te Ika-a-ranga-nui.

After this battle Te Morenga appears to have held aloof from tribal quarrels for the next few years and confined his activities to promoting agriculture. In 1830 he was involved in the Girls’ War because two of the girls were relatives of his and he was more or less bound to defend their honour. He signed the petition to William IV in 1831 begging for British protection. Apparently he joined Titore’s expedition to attack Maungatapu pa, near Tauranga, in January 1833. By this time, however, his health was failing. Henry Williams, who visited him many times in the following year, reported the growing seriousness of his malady. On 3 December 1834 Te Morenga visited Waitangi for a change of air and Williams mentions that he appeared obstinately intent on going to Waima. This is the last reference in Williams’s Journal to Te Morenga and, presumably, the chief died a few days afterwards.

Marsden once wrote, Te Morenga’s distinction is outstanding even among his great contemporaries. S. Percy Smith characterised him as probably the greatest Maori chief in the early part of the nineteenth century. J. R. Elder described him as Marsden’s fidus Achates, his companion in many journeys, and added that it was from Te Morenga’s lips he learned much that he wrote with regard to Maori traditions and customs and to whom, therefore, are due in great measure the comments of Marsden upon Ethnological matters that give his Journals their unique value.

17 thoughts on “(mis)Use of the ta moko of Te Morenga (Ngapuhi)

  1. hay all,culture to some means more than the word itself….
    it would be beta if you use your own,what ever your own may be,or make your own,i am of ngapuhi descent myself,my line being patuone and tamati waka nene,we try to keep these tupuna sooo close to our hearts…we dont need them being ripped from us,understanding would be a great word for some

  2. Teenaa koe, Ititahi

    I would like to respectfully add to your comments. That some amongst us have chosen to enter academia, in this particular case, anthropology, does not detract from a core fault at the heart of academia in the western tradition. This tradition largely considers its methods and processes of knowledge acquisition and scrutiny to be ultimately correct – they are rigorously determined on the evidence, and robustly analysed by an intellectual prowess. This superior notion of worthiness thus makes the universe and everything in the universe simple fodder to its dissecting ways.

    Maaori inculcated into the academic mindset may also take on superior notions of worth that they too may relegate taonga to artefact – de-personified and de-spirited. Yet, there is still amongst us, many learned taane and waahine, without western academic credentials, who are equally expert, and rigorously determined, in terms of their knowledge acquisition and scrutiny, from a Te Ao Taangata Whenua perspective. Perhaps the difference between the two lies in one writing about 'it' and the other 'being' it.

    I too must question Greg as to whether his motives were based in ignorance or in something else and could these discussions simply be further tissue for anthropological analysis. Indigenous peoples mai raanoo have been at the sharp end of western academia’s dissecting blade, and that anthropology has yet to fully learn the lessons from its intrusions in the past continues to baffle and astound me, especially as they supposedly now uphold an ethical stance to their intellectualism.

    Colonialism, imperialism and racism in the 21st century are less about ignorance and more about notions of superiority. Greg through his mis-appropriation of taa moko has perpetuated a colonial and imperial sense of entitlement (to take without permission) and his racism is to ignore the possibility of Te Ao Taangata Whenua having its own views on the subject of neuroanthropology as it applies to the brain of taangata whenua (has he touched based with Mead, Walker et al, or any Maaori for that matter). However, it is fairly clear that if our views are in the negative they will be over-ridden, and justifiably so (by academic standards), in the pursuit of a greater cause found in western intellectual achievement. Puukana to that.

  3. isnt this an interesting outcome people – a global community coming together to sort out an important issue such as this…umm; you know I for one am with everyone here about the sacredness of Maori taonga and rightly so that everyone informed Greg about what is appropriate and what is not. But heres some food for thought distinguished Maori like Professor Graham Smith, Professor Hirini Moko Mead, Professor Ranginui Walker and Sir Peter Buck to name a few were anthropologist too so to bag this discipline is to bag our own! Furthermore if you read their early pieces of work they too had to make some uncomfortable stubbles to learn and as we know it is sometimes these falls (if we are gracious enough to acknowledge them) that can certainly help us to become wise souls like these kaumatua or teachers are today. I guess what is important to learn here is that through respect and a genuine desire to learn recipricol understanding can and does happen on both sides. Te Morenga is my tupuna and I wouldnt like his ta moko on anyones website or books or anything for that matter because as already stipulated here by others, this is tapu korero or sacred storylines that deserve reverence and respect. Heck we as whanau donr use this taonga beyond our haukainga or the walls of our Marae so anything beyond this I would suggest is a violation. Greg was this a genuine case of ignorance or a play to get the natives responses? I dont know many anthropologists who would defy ethical guidelines frivously by putting a symbol that could be important to a native clan on something that represents education at a high academic level with out consideration for that race of people in this case Maori. While you have outlined in depth your intentions I think you should just consider using sacred symbols from your own genealogy and leave ours be – and most important you should know that by giving significance to a taonga or gift like the tamoko of Te Morenga requires background information that goes beyond the history books. Information that is often held by kaitiaki or family – with respect I think it is more appropriate that you reconsider using our taonga for your own or get kirituhi for this project – ititahi

  4. Dear all,

    I'm going to keep checking back for the next week, but I do like the emerging fourth option very much: asking a Maori graphic designer to do a new, appropriate design and also including more information on the practice, my intentions, the process of the new design, and the identity of the graphic designer. I understand, although likely not with the sense of gravity of the Maori community, how using an existing, personal ta moko is inappropriate.

    I don't like decisions made in haste, so I'll continue to look for feedback, but so far, this fourth option seems to me to be the best. So, in addition to suggestions and feedback, if anyone knows of a Maori graphic artist, especially someone who would benefit from the work and exposure (and who I can afford), you can also email me personally if you'd prefer not to post anyone's contact info on line. My email is greg.downey (at)

    Thanks for the feedback and the excellent suggestions. Like I said, I'll keep checking back, but this could be a really good solution that accomplishes even more than I'd hoped.

  5. Tautoko Robyn and Amber,if I saw a tupuna ta moko being used as a website decoration I would be hurt. Thankyou Sara. Thats the problem in a nutshell, as it has existed since the first contact with indigenous groups and colonisers. Even the most reasonable of colonisers will disregard indigenous wishes to have their own way… or they will find an indigenous person who agrees with their way of doing things and promote him/her as an expert. The Maori "story" is far from a success story and why compare our story to the Aboriginal story… compare the story to the story of the coloniser… thats where the inequality lies! How can my story be a success story when my whanau die younger (according to the stats I can expect my Dad to die soon) more of my people struggle to provide for their family's then the average non-indigenous person and our beautiful youth are killing themselves?! How is that a success story?

    What we have we have because we have FOUGHT for it. We have been ostracised and punished in our own land for daring to believe in ourselves. WE have forced ourselves onto the international stage because we are a mighty people, our 'successes' have been because we refuse to accept that Aotearoa is not ours.

    Our story may never be a "success story" because the price we have paid to be where we are has been far to high. To lose one child to suicide because this world is to hard to live in, is a failure for all our people. Through our land we are all connected and when our land is opened to hold another one of our baby's because they were to pained to carry on, it effects all of us. If you must… pay someone to design a Maori design for you or why not pay a young Aboriginal artist to design a motif for your website?

  6. I am a 5th generation Pakeha of Aotearoa and I believe adamantly in te Tiriti o Waitangi (not the English Treaty) as the basis of my and my ancestors presence and conduct in this land. I also believe in principle in the open exchange of ideas and information, but this is a general principle which means that there are lots of specific circumstances in which it does not apply. The Western traditions of ownership versus openness with regard to non-western property rights in information end up as "Heads I win, tails you lose" more often than not. So I have a question and a challenge: How should Greg get permission to use this image if that is what he wants to do? Greg, if you believe in the validity of cultural approaches other than you own rather than "their" interest value to "your" enterprise you will consider this carefully. The "othering" (or as I prefer "them-ing") still present in your rationale is a reminder of how very very far we still have to go. YOU will be disappointed to be told that use of this image is inapproriate because YOU consider THE MAORI a success STORY?

  7. Greg I also appreciate the explanation and allowing this dialogue to take place. I am with Amber. To use an existing ta moko (even if it is already out there) is inappropriate. To have one created for the purpose and including your group's purpose (and keeping in mind your rationale above) is far more appropriate. So one option is not to ask your existing graphic designer to do this work but to ask for a knowledgeable Maori graphic designer to help you develop your own image.

    An indepth explanation is still an option also in terms of explaining to your visitors why the ta moko, what significance, and even what it took to get it onto your banner and why you would go to those lengths.

    In this respect, knowledge and perspectives are still shared and we all help to enrich the world.

  8. I appreciate your response and the fact that you did so in a short timeframe.

    Personally, I have no issue with seeing Te Ao Maori (the world of Maori)on the world stage, however, to take an existing ta moko and use it as your banner head was something I had / have a real issue with. Ta Moko are personal to the wearer.

    Suggestion: Why not ask a real ta moko artist if they would provide you personally with one? It would then be up to you to do with what you wanted?

    I have to say our experience (as a people) with Anthropologists in the past has not been a good one. They were disrespectful and denegrating of our culture.They stole sacred items and did not recognise the spirituality connecting everything in our world. If things have changed – and you're now a new breed – then I'm pleased, but as you've seen above, we no longer are unaware of what is being said and done with those things we value and we are determined to never allow those things to happen with our Taonga again.

  9. Greetings all –

    First off, thanks very much for alerting me so quickly to the discussion so that I can respond. I have not decided what to do and will take my guidance from the discussion here, so please tell me what you think. If the readership here feels strongly that the use of the artist’s rendering of the ta moko of Te Morenga (Ngapuhi) as part of the bannerhead of our science weblog, Neuroanthropology, is disrespectful, I will remove it as soon as possible (I’ll do a new design and get our IT support to change it).

    From this point forward, there are three options: 1) keep things the way they are, 2) replace the design with an entirely different one, or 3) include more information, such as links and credit, about the source of the design, its significance, and the broader cultural significance of Maori ta moko.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share my own thinking about the design just so that you understand that no insult was ever intended.

    First, the original design based on Te Morena’s drawing has circulated widely for decades, including on the web, in books and other media. I sought to provide information about its origin that is not usually offered with the image so that anthropologists and those interested in Indigenous cultures might learn more about the familiar image.

    Many of our readers at Neuroanthropology, however, don’t know much about Indigenous cultures – for some this might be the first time that they had read anything about Maori traditions (a lot of our readers are in the brain sciences, neurology, and psychology). Of course I understand that those of you with far more intimate, personal knowledge of Maori life and history may find the explanation I provide inadequate or irritating. That’s one reason why one option is to include more information rather than simply do away with the image.

    Second, I am an anthropologist. For some readers, that alone will undermine the credibility of anything I write or say. But our field believes strongly that people must not simply study, think about, or learn about what is familiar, their own cultures, their own heritage. We do not think that the destruction of colonialism, imperialism and racism was (and is) rooted in excessive interest in other people’s ways of life, but in ignorance of others and disrespect for their culture. For this reason, I have spent years in Brazil, worked in a Native American community, and now live in Australia and work in this region (I’m an American).

    When I teach, I try to inspire greater openness and curiosity about other people’s ways of life. Part of this is presenting cultural expressions like music, art, religious imagery, and other elements that help to communicate distinctive ways of life and points of view to students. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think we need more curiosity about other ways of life, not less; greater attention to cultural diversity in brain sciences (my specialty), not less.

    So, no, even if I remove the image of the moko, I’m not going to put up a design that expresses my own cultural heritage (German-Irish-American). That’s not because I don’t like myself or because I only want an exotic image; it’s because people like me are over-represented in science, in the subjects researchers study, in university textbooks, and in what scientists know about human beings. Part of adding ‘anthropology’ to ‘neuro’ is to say that we need a brain science that studies all sorts of brains, not just undergraduate psychology students in US or European universities.

    I understand that for many people, ownership is the dominant issue when dealing with cultural expression. Who has the right to use or talk about cultural elements is crucial – there’s no denying this. But taken to an extreme, this means that no group talks about or participates in any other groups’ forms of expression or ways of life.

    I did a lot of my research in Brazil, and this was always a tough issue because Afro-Brazilian arts have long histories of work being stolen or imitated. So artists have to be careful about who they work with, the conditions of collaboration, and what will happen to their work. For this reason, I’ll remove the image if that’s the general consensus, but I don’t agree with anyone who thinks that a reference to someone else’s culture is necessarily, by its very nature, exploitative. This argument means we’re all stuck in our cultural boxes, trying to give up things that have come to be fundamental to our lives.

    Third, this particular battle is one I’m not interested in fighting. Students sometimes ask me when I teach research methods, ‘What do you do if someone doesn’t want you to do your research with them?’ My answer is simple: I go away. Anthropologists have done way too much damage to the communities that have fascinated them, to their own reputations, and to long-term willingness of communities to work with outsiders by having too little patience and failing to realize when it was time to go away. For this reason, I have no problem with changing the design.

    I’d be disappointed however because, to me, the Maori are a success story, one of the examples that I refer to when cynics say that Indigenous cultures must necessarily disappear, that extinction is how ‘progress’ works (I’ve had this debate in pretty sharp words on with other science bloggers). With Maori media, arts, language, and culture, we see that a group can preserve what makes it distinctive and still participate vigorously in the life of a state. Sure, the situation is far from ideal in New Zealand, but compared to the situation of Aboriginal Australians, for example, the Maori show us what is possible.

    Apologies for the length of this response, but I could write more. I’ll remove the design, but I’d prefer to make it a reference that points people to learn more about Maori culture. My goal is certainly not to insult or exploit your traditions; the weblog earns no income (no ads), but attempts to promote greater attention to the relationship between the brain sciences and human diversity. The primary reason that I originally thought to use the image is that it’s simply such a powerful one, one that has stuck with me for decades after first seeing it on the cover of an anthropology book.

  10. Ae whetumarama, aroha mai, badly pieced together article, will rework it now, for those who come upon it in the future. Will also pass this link onto the owner of the blog, maybe we can get a response, and even better yet a new banner that reflects his own rich cultural traditions without trampling on ours.

  11. That's exactly right Amber – the Celtic and Druidic traditions are absolutely RICH in folklore, art, dance, spirituality. So are the Norse and Germanic traditions, and they/we've got sprites and hargs and heaps and heaps and heaps! That cou…ld very well be where the problem is – separation and disconnection from the wealth and beauty of their own whakapapa. I can feel a cultural exchange coming up .. an not just those cheeky Scots lifting their kilts! And Robyn – well yeah, but you never hear much about the 'real' aboriginal ozzies aye? So really, its up to the Indigenous Artists' to platform better on the world stage – and assert ownership by simply doing it better than the catskins.See More

  12. I'm with Robyn and Whetumarama. Why take someone elses and make it yours? Why look to Maori when they have a wealth of beautiful and so misunderstood culture in their own land. We have more respect for the Aboriginal culture than they do. The really sad and telling thing is these people have a 'culture' of their own (welsh, scottish etc etc) Is their own culture not enough?? that they feel a need to steal other's?

  13. Good 'take' for the day Potaua. Yes it's still misappropriation, the moko is taken out of context, without permission, and a 'made up' metaphor wrapped around it … Albeit by some intellingent people. I find Aussie academics crass in this respect and am dying to ask why they are consistently attracted to the 'exotic' from overseas while still ignoring the beautiful culture they have right there on the land they now call home.

  14. Personally I am sick up to the back teeth with tauiwi anthropology bullshit, along with their social darwinism… and flat earth 'science' masquerading as godlike objectivity. It is cultural and intellectual theft, outright. They know NOTHING about Ta Moko, or its effects – and CAN know nothing because anthropologists were never at any stage admitted to the Whare Huna, and the knowledge is protected. It is also impossible for these pseudo-intellectuals to understand if they are dead in spirit. This Aussie blog cannot enter into Te Ao Maori, so all they're doing is SELLING SNAKE OIL and displaying their MONKEY BRAINS. No reira – because redress for this kind of thing is pretty much impossible, the only way forward is for us to brand our own joint website for the purpose of educating Tauiwi, and for us to share knowledge and stories. You know, pakeha made hay out of the Maori identity for ages, but now the young guns have trampled them into the mud with superb unbeatable quality Contemporary Maori Art. So the same is going to happen in every other area of theft – including any bid by Tauiwi to 'become the real Maori' as they have done to the American Indians, and the Hawaiin Kahuna. Ok, that's enough ranting from me for now – but Ruaumoko is getting ready to RUMBLE!See More

  15. Devoured by progression…

    The positives and negatives of globalisation will always bring home surprises – as the global community feasts on information (including Maori). Taonga will be used or abused, appropriated or misappropriated if you like by anyone and everyone who has access to technology – some of the harsh realities of globalisation.

    But the important thing to remember here is in the global scale of things there is often no rules…I suppose being more careful in how WE and I mean Maori share information is a small step in addressing this issue – however it is important to remember many of these gifts go out to the world without the slightest understanding of what might happen to them in years to come…perhaps to leave this korero with something positive it is important to remind ourselves and others who care – if taonga is used unwisely there are always consequences to face be that good or bad or objective or subjective if you like…

    The global monster is a hungry beast!

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