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Whakapapa or genealogy is a fundamental principle that permeates the whole of Maori culture. However, it is more than just a genealogical 'device'. It is in fact a paradigm of cultural discourse and provides the basis for establishing, enhancing and even challenging relationships within and between whanau (families), hapu (local tribal entities) and iwi (regional tribal bodies).

The recitation of whakapapa is a critical element in establishing identity - and the phrase 'Ko [enter name] au' (I am [enter name]') is in fact the personal statement that incorporates (by implication) over 25 generations of heritage. Experts in whakapapa are able to trace and recite a lineage not only through the many generations in a linear sense, but also between such generations in a lateral sense.

Some scholars have attributed this type of genealogical 'activity' as being tantamount to ancestor worship. Most Maori would probably attribute this to ancestor reverence. Tribes and sub-tribes are mostly named after an ancestor (either male or female): for example, Ngati Kahungunu means 'descendants of Kahungunu' (a famous chief who lived mostly in what is now called the Hawkes Bay region).

Many physiological terms are also genealogical in 'nature'. For example the terms 'iwi', 'hapu' and 'whanau' (as noted above) can also be translated in order as 'bones', 'pregnant' and 'give birth'. The prize winning Maori author, Keri Hulme, named her best known novel as 'The Bone People': a title linked directly to the dual meaning of the word 'iwi as both 'bone' and '[tribal] people'.

Most formal orations (or whaikorero) begin with the nasal expression - Tihei Mauriora! This is translated as the 'Sneeze of Life'. In effect, the orator (whose 'sneeze' reminds us of a newborn clearing his or her airways to take the first breath of life) is announcing that 'his' speech has now begun, and that his 'airways' are clear enough to give a suitable oration.