Urupā Tautaiao: Revitalising ancient customs and practices for the modern world

Keywords: Customary, Decolonising, Pou (carved ancestral posts), Spirituality, Urupā Tautaiao (environmentally sustainable cemeteries)


Supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding, managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi, this urupā tautaiao (natural burials) research has an explicit decolonising agenda. It presents a pragmatic opportunity for Māori to re-evaluate, reconnect, and adapt ancient customs and practices for the modern world. The design practice output focus is the restoration of existing graves located in the urupā (burial ground) of the Ngāti Moko, a hapū (subtribe) of the Tapuika tribe that occupy ancestral land in central North Island of New Zealand. In preparation for the gravesite development, a series of hui a hapū (tribal meetings) were held to engage and encourage participation in the research. The tribe drew on the expertise of an ecologist landscape architect and tohunga whakairo (master carver/artist) to transform the graves into a work of art. Surrounded by conventional gravestones, and using only natural materials, the gravesite aspires to capture the beauty of nature embellished with distinctively Māori cultural motifs. Low maintenance native plants are intersected with three pou (traditional carvings) that carry pūrākau (Māori sacred narratives) of life and death.

Author Biography

Hinamatau McNeill, Auckland University of Technology

Professor Hinematau McNeill is Tapuika, Ngāti Moko and has always maintained an active involvement in Māori communities, which informs her research.  As a Treaty negotiator for her tribe, she was responsible for the historical portfolio. Tapuika settled with the Crown in 2014. She has served as a Trustee on the tribal Post-Treaty Settlement Board. One of the first Māori woman appointed to a national governance role in Women’s Refuge, she advocated for mandatory reporting. Hinematau was also invited to join the prestigious  Iwi Leaders Forum. Additionally, an interest in artistic practice-led research has invigorated her postgraduate supervision work and afforded emerging scholars the opportunity to operate creatively in a way that values and acknowledges indigenous epistemologies and ways of working. She believes that when indigenous knowledge is truly valued, it is not only a decolonising force, but can enrich our collective lived experience.


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