What’s the problem with Karakia?

ngaire mccarthy christian coopting of karakia
Ngaire McCarthy ctalks about Christian co-opting of Maori culture.
ngaire mccarthy christian coopting of karakia
Ngaire McCarthy talks about Christian co-opting of Maori culture.

Karakia, kapa haka and other aspects of Maori culture have become more common in education and in the wider public sphere. I think this is a good thing. Maori culture should be a more respected, more visible part of our daily lives and recognised as a unique and enriching part of New Zealand culture we all share.

What I do take issue with, is the way that Christian religious content is assumed to be something that is required as part of any Maori cultural appreciation, completely ignoring the fact that like Pakeha, half of all Maori are not Christians (2018 census). But is karakia or kapa haka a “Christian thing”? Why does the Christian god seem to get automatic recognition in cultural traditions that pre-date European intervention in Maori culture? Are Maori all happy about this?

As a “white guy”, it is courting controversy to write anything critical relating to Maori culture in education, without the risk of being labelled a racist, or considered ignorant of Maoridom, so I’m going to defer to someone far more knowledgeable than me.

Ngaire McCarthy was a member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League from 1965, playing an effective part in the cultural social and economic development of the Auckland Community. Ngaire then went on to become a successful businesswoman. Being a Maori woman in business at that time was a challenge and quite a phenomena.

In 1999 Ngaire was presented with the Maori Women’s Business Award in recognition of her significant contribution to Maori in business and the economy of New Zealand, and in 1985 she was sworn in as a Justice of the Peace.

Ngaire joined the New Zealand Association of Rationalists & Humanists in 1976 known then as the New Zealand Rationalist Association; she was elected President 1998 -2002 and was made a Life Member of the N.Z.A.R.H in 2007. She was active in the affairs of the Association for many years, enjoying her duties as one of the Librarians and Trustees of the NZARH.

Ngaire wrote the following article in October 2015. I have listed links to other resources related to Karakia below this article and you can also listen to a talk by Ngaire on early Maori politics and religion in relation to Christian Missionaries. She doesn’t pull any punches!

Sadly, Ngaire McCarthy has lost her 15-year battle with cancer, passing away surrounded by her family on the evening of Saturday 23rd January, 2021.

Maori ritual and Christian indoctrination in New Zealand

I am a life member, past president, and now Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists in Auckland. I am a member of The Maori Women’s Welfare League. I am a Justice of the Peace.

My Iwi (tribal heritage) is Ngapuhi, Ngati Hako, and Ngati Tamatera.

I believe that there should be no ‘school prayer’ no ‘religious dogma’ or ‘creed’ taught in our state schools. Our state sponsored schools should be run on strictly secular, ‘separation of church and state’, non-sectarian principles.

Before the missionaries introduced Christianity into Aotearoa New Zealand, we Maori had karakia. These are customary, mostly secular, ritual chants. These traditions and customs continue to be an innate and important part of our culture. We still open and close numerous ceremonies with karakia.

There are hundreds of different karakia that are used for different occasions, but the majority of New Zealanders think there is only one.

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

This is not to say that our customs and traditions cannot evolve to meet the changing times. They have and they do. We, the indigenous first nation people of Aotearoa, have a Treaty partnership with the New Zealand government. Our social customs are an important part of the cultural diversity of this country, recognised in the Treaty of Waitangi, and as such, are inviolable.

Returning to the case for the removal of religious instruction and prayers from our state schools, I argue we must focus on religion itself. The language, nationality or race of the religious people involved in instruction and prayer in state schools is irrelevant. It all has to go.

In New Zealand, the religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others, have the privilege of state funding for their private schools and buildings of worship, but it seems that those privileges are not enough for them.

We atheists, freethinkers, or indeed, open religiously-minded parents who believe in the separation of church and state, enrol our children into a state school, believing that the school will be free from any form of religious prayers, hymns or instruction.

Children are susceptible and suggestible, and will, without question, believe anything an adult tells them. To take the mind of a child and teach them about religion as if it were an established fact, is tantamount to child abuse and the state should not be encouraging it.

In some of our state schools the practice of segregating/separating religious and non- religious children into groups for religious instruction is unprincipled and encourages discrimination between the two groups in the playground.

There is also a real danger that non-religious children will be judged/evaluated negatively by religious teachers. That can undermine performance, cognitive flexibility and will power. Teachers at state schools should not be cognizant to the religious belief or the non-religious belief of the children in their care.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 permits religious instruction and observance in schools as long as it is done in a way that does not ‘discriminate’ against anyone who does not share that belief. But as long as religion in any form is enabled by government to allow instructions/prayer in our state schools, then discrimination is an inevitable fact.

It is not a question of equal access to children’s minds for all, it is a question of allowing innocent children the right to come to a belief in their own good time.

The 2013 New Zealand Census found that the population of indigenous Maori stood at 598,605. Of that, 263,517 of us Maori ticked the ‘no religion’ box. That was 46.3 percent of Maori, almost the same percentage of New Zealanders of European descent, at 46.9 percent, with no religion.

These figures show that in spite of two centuries of pressure from the dominant Christian religious culture of New Zealand, Maori are rapidly breaking free from dogmatic religion.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.

As one of the 263,517 Maori who have no religion, I believe that our conscience, our freedom of thought, our freedom from religion, are, with the aid of the state, being jeopardized through the prejudice of privileging religion through our taxes and our schools.

Since colonization, the arrival of other religious traditions on our shores have compromised Maori karakia, as I discussed above, and entrenched mainly Christian indoctrination in our state schools.

If we fail to remove all religion from our state schools we will be sacrificing our future well-being merely in order to appease imposed religious belief systems that show little, or no tolerance, toward those who disagree with them.

Other Resources

A Short History of Karakia (Otago University)

Ministry of Maori Development (Some secular, some not)

Teachers Against Karakia (NZ Herald – 16th June 2013)

Maori resistance to missionaries (PDF)

Karakia or Cultural Appropriation  (An excellent explanation of Karakia)

Video: Ngaire Mccarthy – The Politics And Religion Of Maori From A Maori Atheist Perspective (35m 39s)


  1. Excellent post.There is a widely held assumption that karakia must be Christian prayers. Thus, because karakia should be a part of ceremonies in NZ, Christianity are getting themselves into all important events by stealth. This is not just happening in education of course, but in the wider NZ culture.

    • Absolutely. My daughter is made to say a Christian prayer in kapa haka at school and gets in trouble if she doesn’t. New buildings are “blessed” with Christian prayers in Maori. Our local council open meetings with a Christian karakia. It’s eye-rolling stuff.

      • Part of the problem is that in NZ that we tend not to speak out because we have a culture of getting along with others and it’s seen as going against that. I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I’ve said something and when I do, heaps of people come up to me and say they feel the same – usually a majority. The religious feel an authority and confidence and take control, but often most people actually don’t want what they propose.

        Also, as the post says, it’s difficult for someone of European ancestry to complain about karakia etc because it’s easy to be perceived as racist.

        • I’ve found the same thing… lots of support, just not out loud. We’re labelled the hawks when it’s the doves that we need to be concerned about.

  2. How many of you can actually speak Reo to even know what they’re saying? Maori have a belief in the great God who created the universal – and is an expression of our indigenous belief’s.

    • Did you notice who the article about Karakia was written by? You can see a Maori Television interview including Ngaire McCarthy here: https://www.teaomaori.news/native-affairs-religious-education

      You might notice that Ngaire is Maori and she is also an atheist. In fact, 53% of Maori stated that they had no religion in the 2018 census. So, like all other people, Maori have diverse beliefs. Christianity is far from an expression of Maori indigenous beliefs.

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