Whenua Ūkaipō: Returning to the Mother

Kua hoki mai nei ki te ūkaipō
Return to your spiritual and physical nourishment


Mother and baby are one of the most powerful relationships that can exist between two humans. The bonds, attachment and connections that come into play are evolutionary forces that nature has put in place to ensure the survival of humanity. Without the love and affection of (usually the responsibility of) the mother, the baby will die. So there are, emotional, spiritual and physical forces at play that bring mother and baby together. Very powerful stuff. When things are going right, the mother is in tune to every sensitivity the baby gives out.  However, when those bonds and connections are disrupted, especially across whole cultures and mass populations, the effects are devastating, because a powerful universal force has been disordered.

Across many cultures and peoples, land is often referred to as the mother, for example, Gaia, the Motherland, Papatuanuku, Mother Earth. There seems to be a universal acknowledgement of the deep and intimate relationship between humanity and the land. Māori knew of the power of this connection and we had many concepts, language and practices that re-enforced this. Two of these concepts I will discuss here are Whenua ki te Whenua and Whenua Ūkaipō.

Whenua ki te Whenua

Whenua has a dual meaning, not only does the word translate to land, but it also means placenta or afterbirth. Customary Māori practice is to bury the babies placenta back into the earth, usually in a place of ancestral significance, carrying with it many layers of symbolism and meaning, at emotional, cultural and spiritual levels. The placenta represents the tree of life, supporting a baby within the mother’s womb and in parallel to that all life is seen as being born from the womb of Papatūānuku

Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au
I am the land and the land is me
whakatauki Māori


Whenua Ūkaipō

The literal meaning of Ūkaipō is to be fed by the breast at night. Its more symbolic meaning refers to the spiritual, emotional and physical nourishment that is given through the comfort and intimate relationship between the mother and child. Similarly, land and people are viewed as carrying the same relationship, where land is the ūkaipō.

If we acknowledge that there are powerful universal forces behind the mother and baby relationship, we must also acknowledge that the same forces are operating for the relationship between humanity and land. Colonisation has sought to dissever this relationship and with it created chaos and disorder that is in direct resistance to the universal forces.

In my recent research, I have been exploring whanau politics and whanau drama in the Māori Land Trust. I have for a long time now been perplexed by whanau and their ill treatment of each other and through my research what I have discovered is huge amounts of riri, mamae, tangi and aroha that this severed relationship has caused. Across Aotearoa, New Zealand, the same stories, the same struggles, the same pain.

I wonder why currently our only focus is on extracting physical nourishment from Papatūānuku, like extracting milk from her like a farm. I’m not against unlocking the economic potential of Māori land, but we need to find strategies to help people heal and grieve too and return to them the emotional and spiritual nourishment stolen from them. We don’t seem to have any mechanisms to address this unexpressed loss and it is manifesting in whanau and our Maori land trust environments in negative ways.

We need to return to the blueprints of what our tipuna left us and all the instructions and guidelines are in our tikanga, te reo and matauranga for the answers. I always say that essentially everybody in life is searching for the mothers milk, the ūkaipō, struggling, looking, searching for ways to re-create that feeling of security, safety, warmth of when you were a child in the your mothers arms. It is a powerful driver of behavior operating at levels higher than us.


aroha = love, sadness

mamae = hurt

matauranga = knowledge

Papatuanuku = Earth Mother

riri = anger

tangi = grief

te reo = language

tikanga = customs

ukaipo = feeding by the breast at night

whanau = family

Photo Credit: Maori woman carrying a young child on her back wrapped in a blanket. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-12531-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23167900