Utu – To Restore Honour

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 19, Easter 2001

By Pa Henare Tate

Utu is understood to be compensation/reparation for violation or dishonour caused to a person, whanau, iwi.

With utu there was a marae obligation to make the offering of the utu, because this was seen as te whakatikatika (to make right). Repeat of tika means either the violation happened a number of times, therefore utu had been made a number of times.

The marae obligation was firstly to seek to restore honour. It must be seen to seek redress. It is the restoring of an honour that had been debased through an act of violation.

The act of utu is seen in terms of the mana (status) of the victim, whanau and iwi. The higher the dignity of the victim the more serious is the need for utu, to repair the damage done by a violation.

Therefore, utu is a moral obligation to seek to restore honour.

There may have been a previous obligation to seek redress. For example, in times past, if a whanau had lost people in a battle then it was a matter of utu to seek revenge for those who had died in battle.

It then became a vicious circle. They sought revenge from the first party. In time it became the moral obligation of the first party to seek revenge again.

To seek revenge, the term whainga utu was used – the seeking after of utu. The purpose is clear – seeking to restore honour. Sometimes that honour was that of the dead, not just of the living.

In terms of the process, there were various stages that were put into place.

It was part of the whainga utu to seek out the whakatika to make right.

They had to engage or do battle, but it was not a foregone conclusion that the battle was to death. On many occasions, once blood was drawn, then it was considered utu had been achieved.

In the dynamics of seeking utu, there were always alternatives. There is an example where Whanau B was beaten in battle by Whanau A. The young men in Whanau B were exhorted when they grew up to seek revenge against Whanau A for their matua (parents) who were killed in battle.

The story is that these men set out to seek revenge. But as they journeyed, they changed and decided to seek wives from among Whanau A. This they did. This act was an act of reconciliation between the two whanau. So there was no more battle. Reconciliation was achieved by marriage.

  1. In line with this principle, a person of mana will choose to take the initiative to make utu or reparation rather than be strict muru. A person of mana would seek to make reparation as their own choice because in an act of violation of their own whanau, right relationships were either weakened or totally severed.

Hence the offering of utu was te whakatika (to make right) the relationship which had been severed by the violation. Utu was a visible means of wishing to have relationships restored.

  1. The person of mana taking the initiative is required by tika to make response, ie, what is right, fitting, and worthy for the other whanau and what is right, proper and fitting for the perpetrator and their whanau.

To do all that, the right exercise of mana is required. Namely, the initiative and action of going to offer reparation.

Such a strategy and dynamic brought a natural acceptance from the victim’s whanau, because of the promptness and at times the exceedingly generous offer of the whanau of the perpetrator.

In all of this there is still room for aroha. What I have mentioned above are required by tika, which is to re-establish right relationships, to make right response, and thirdly, to exercise mana in the right way.

Following that is aroha. The aroha is not on the part of the perpetrator and whanau. The aroha is exercised by the victim’s whanau. And so in receiving the reparation/compensation the mana of the victim’s whanau is restored. They can thereby make the choice – to accept the offering of utu or to take an action of a ritual acceptance, where the gifts touch their hands and then the gifts are returned.

But that choice is with the victim and the victim’s whanau, and not with the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s whanau.

It is not the prerogative of the perpetrator and his whanau to presume what the victim and victim’s whanau will accept or return.

In an example of this nature, when there was a battle in a certain area, the survivors fled the pa that was being besieged, across the Hokianga Harbour to the safety of a chief, Moetara.

When the marauding party had vacated the pa of the survivor, the survivors returned to their pa. But because they had sought protection from another chief, and because they had survived only through the protection and mana of that chief, the consequence was that their pa and their possession became the possessions of that chief, Moetara.

And so, to signify that, they sent over a message to Moetara:

‘Come, occupy your pa!’

Moetara sent back the message: ‘Go and fish for me!’

So they went out to the beach at Mitimiti, and netted 6000 mullet, which they filleted and brought to the edge of the Hokianga Harbour. When Moetara saw the fish, he said to one of his men, ‘Give me one fish,’ which he did. Moetara raised the fish. ‘You have done what I have asked. I have touched the fish. Now I return the land to you.’

Another case with Eva Rickard. She was visited by a clairvoyant, who told her that two pieces of greenstone were not hers. Eva believed they belonged to her father. The clairvoyant said ‘no’ and proceeded to draw a picture of the place of origin of those artefacts. We later identified the place of origin as Mitimiti, in the Hokianga. And so we waited to
meet the arrival of two buses from Tainui. So they arrived on a particular day. We were acting according to the principle of utu, not so much as a violation, but utu as a whakahoki for Eva Rickard. We had gathered many gifts. We had placed them in the hall on mats, and after Eva had handed over the two pieces of greenstone, we handed over all these artefacts. And, in a word, we said ‘It is up to you, Eva, to distribute as you wish.’

Utu can be a practical guide in these days, because once we have violated, then the principle is clear -–we must repair the damage or violation, we must restore the honour and mana of those we have violated. That is clear.

The question is – what do we do and how do we do it?

The next principle is also clear. If we wish to be people of mana, then we choose to take the initiative and make the utu rather than have it be stripped from us through a justice system that demands we pay in their form.

So even today, we can exercise utu at an individual level, and/or a whanau level.

  1. The third point is that in doing so we are re-establishing right relationships that have been weakened or severed by our violation.

We are making a right response for what we have done, in terms of what is right, proper, and worthy of the victim and what is right, proper and worthy of the perpetrator. Nothing short of restoring tapu and mana is worthy.

Of course, it is easy to say, and not so easy to do. To make utu is a right exercise of mana.

Other reflections on utu:

It is not so much the offering, but

How it is expressed.

It is important who makes the offering.

And so on behalf of the perpetrator, the perpetrator can make the offering through others, matua or tupuna, in his or her own whanau, who may have the mana and that person’s mana goes with the offering, and is seen in that light by the victim’s whanau.

Last point. It is not automatic that the victim will accept what is offered as utu. The victim and whanau have the right utu be made, in order to restore right relationships, but they are free to either whakahoki that offering.

For example, when they make a koha on the marae, some people will recognise that those making the offering haven’t got much to offer, or are in a financial difficulty, so they will touch the koha given and then return it.

On the other side of the coin, if they do not accept, it may be that what is being offered is not enough to fit the crime. And so they will decline, or may decline.

Or if what is offered is not of an acceptable kind, for example, in the case of whenua being taken unjustly or being alienated, they will say ‘e haere whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai.’

‘What was taken was land, what must be returned is land.’

A special teaching for Mäori Christians relates to violations against God.

We choose someone within our whanau who has the mana to make an offering that is acceptable. The one who makes the offering is Christ. Christ has the mana or atua, as one who has been taken from among us as a matua mua, a tuakana – first-born and eldest.

By the mana of Atua, the action taken by Jesus ‘had the mana of Atua’ – his convictions, actions, his teachings, his suffering, his dying, his glorious resurrection emphasise Christ’s mana Atua which makes our offering acceptable in the presence of God the Father, who thereby exercises muru and wipes away our sins through the Lamb of God.


In the Maori world view, everything has a sanctuary. Stones and rocks have a sanctuary, fish have a sanctuary, birds have a sanctuary, and obviously people have a sanctuary as well.

To grant them sanctuary, they have the dynamics of declaring a place rahui or tapu. And so for fish, they are protected by a rahui which forbids fishing in places when the fish spawn. Or they will forbid fishing of the fishing grounds, and demand that gutting not be done on the fishing grounds. So it is rahui or tapu.

For birds, there were also rahui which protected them in certain seasons, especially the lean seasons. Shellfish also had a rahui and it was often because of the shellfish spawning or being thin due to storm battering. So a rahui was placed as a sanctuary.

For people, there were places of rahui, places of sanctuary. Examples would include places for the dead – burial caves and grounds which guaranteed sanctuary.

The principle behind it was twofold. First, it was to acknowledge and respect tapu, the essence of being. Second, to protect their relationships whereby they had dignity, sacredness, worth and value. And the same was expressed in terms of tapu restrictions which concerned access so as to prevent violence.

With regard to the living, there were various ways of expressing sanctuary. For example, Maori were very quick to establish places where people come ashore from fishing – unga ki uta. This meant that those who came ashore came onto neutral ground not owned by anyone in particular, or where no one could tell them to get off. In this way they could come ashore with their fish and thus offer sustenance for their family, hospitality for others. For example, one rangitira, who had violated someone, sought a place of sanctuary. And in many instances, places of sanctuary are people. So he fled to this chiefly woman, Ngaka. Because he had arrived quickly enough at her pa, he was spared. She sent for another chief and asked him to take this man to his place and give him a role of lighting the fires ashore, whereby those who paddle on the harbour can come when they are wet or when they are hungry.

And this is how this rangitira played his role and made utu. He was protected by the mana of the chiefly woman.

The common place of sanctuary today is the marae, which is a reservation. And on that marae, the tapu of people and knowledge are respected. They are places of reconciliation.

People are of equal tapu or dignity, though they may not be of equal status by reason of the roles they play. Still, in terms of their being and dignity, they are equal.

I have been involved in many cases of people leaving prison and being involved in and initiating hohourongo (reconciliation) for them.

In one case it was a tangi and because of the wairua of that tangi and also because the dead person was an aunt, karanga whea, it developed into reconciliation on the marae. The offender’s own matua outlined that the young man had come out of prison. The matua raised the issue of violation (not the nature of the violation) and sought forgiveness for his nephew from the gathered people. The response was taken up with words of absolution, and the hohourongo was brought about.

I’ve also been in another situation where sacramental absolution was offered because of the admission of violation and being violent and the holding of a grudge. Everyone knew the circumstances, and so I gave absolution in that gathering.

So where there are reservations and places set aside, owned by trustees on behalf of the people, where as long as they are conducting activities according to the nature of the Reservation Act, then there are certainly places of refuge, places of hohourongo or reconciliation.

Because one cannot be in a place of refuge or sanctuary without there being a consequence or follow-up or development.


Places of sanctuary are places not owned by individuals but owned by the collective. Their responsibility is to receive all people, to acknowledge their tapu, their very being, to acknowledge their dignity and worth, then sacredness in the eyes of Atua by virtue of relationships with the whanau and with whenua.

In cases of sanctuary, the rahui is expressed in terms of tapu or tapu restriction , restricting access which is lifted only when there is a guarantee that tapu will be acknowledged and will be respected.

There is richness in its conclusion, its consequence, because if wounded people have come onto the marae, they will leave as strengthened people. If they come on to the marae as aliens, made so by offending, they will leave the marae, the sanctuary, as hunga kaianga, as a person of the marae. If they come in with a diminished tapu and mana, they will leave with restored tapu and mana.

Pa Henare Tate of Ngati Manawa and Ngati Rarawa is a Catholic priest from the Hokianga and a specialist in Mäori spirituality. He recorded these comments last year.

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