By Anita Dundys
The Maori culture of philanthropy is a part of their societal concept: giving, caring and sharing linked to duties, obligations and responsibilities. Theirs is a gift economy, which through its deep connection with the natural world, has developed conventions that emphasize social rewards, loyalty, and the circulation and redistribution of resources and valuables throughout the community to benefit the whole society.
Family relationships are the basis for all relationships. The concept of Maori societal nurturing (manaaki) is a fundamental obligation that values trust, integrity, and truth. Nurturing is shown through four distinct practices applied in everyday life: practical assistance or help with things that need to get done (awhi); support in verbal and nonverbal ways (tautoko), hospitality or generosity (aroha), and the material gift (koha). All these practices are essential to a Maori to find completeness in the world, however the balance of this paper will focus on the gift or koha.
Koha translates loosely as a gift from the heart. Traditionally these are treasured or precious objects, for example items made of whale bone, clothing, blankets, or food delicacies. These gifts may be given with some expectation of reciprocity, if not now, at some time in the future. Koha can be given to a person, a family (whanau), or a marae (organization). The perceived value of the koha reflects the level of prestige (mana) of the giver. Koha are given both publically and privately, depending on the circumstances.
The largest community-building expense for the Maori is the hosting of their large traditional gatherings or (hui). Hui can be called for a variety of reasons including: reunions, meetings to discuss policy, marriage celebrations, and funerals. The visiting tribes support the cost of running the gathering by contributing koha to the hosting organizers (marae). This is a very important public form of giving, as the visitors place a gift on the marae, witnessed by the assemblage. This act confirms upon the host an expectation of reciprocity in the future, which then strengthens the relationship between the two groups, and defines how they will cooperate and work together for the common good of their society.
In contrast, private acts of giving are conducted without public display. For example, when a woman has worked in the kitchen for many years, at numerous hui hosted by her marae, she might receive a special gift from a member of the host tribe. To ensure the appropriateness of the gift, the giver might seek out someone close to her, a friend or husband, to find out what she would appreciate, all the while taking great pains to keep the plan secret. This form of koha is practiced so that the recipient will not be embarrassed. And, in this case, the gift carries a lower obligation of future reciprocity as it is recognizing the work (awhi) the woman has already done.
A functioning Maori philanthropic society requires the freedom of individuals to nurture, care, share and give. As outsiders, we need to recognize and respect those traditions in order to support the continuity of the Maori traditional way of living.