Over the past three years our annual ‘planting’ has caused reactions a plenty! Families clambering up to New Zealand’s geographical Centre is not an unusual sight. Planting in a conservation area also is not unusual, however the ‘fertiliser’ used perhaps is somewhat different.
For New Zealand birthing families to be asked “Do you want to keep your placenta (whenua)?” following the birth of their child, is quite routine. For those not of these shores we are greeted with a mixture of reactions. Were it not for our indigenous Maori culture demanding respect of the whenua (placenta), such a question might not be so routine, but still viewed as slightly alternative.
In Maori culture whenu is the word for land and also the placenta (afterbirth).
All life is seen as being born from the womb of Paptuanuku, under the sea.
The lands that appear above the water are placentas from her womb.
Tangata whenua = people of the land. These people are those who have authority in a particular place. This is based on the deep relationship with that place, through their births and their ancestor’s birth.
As tangata whenua express themselves in that place, they gain the authority and confidence to project themselves into the world.
Burying a whenua (placenta): Traditionally whenua and pito (umbilical cord) of newborn babies are buried in a significant place, in a specially prepared receptacle. This reinforces the relationship between the newborn child and the land of his/her birth.
Ipu whenua: the receptacle used to house the whenua (placenta) on its journey to its special resting place. Usually clay, it remains unfired to the land (also whenua), so too will the clay of the ipu break down and return to the land. The ipu is lined with absorbent materials such as moss, fern or hair to soak up any blood.
Traditionally Maori bury the whenua in a place of significance to the whanau (family) or ancestors.
It was in the 1930’s when medicine deemed birth to be far too dangerous to occur at home or private nursing homes that, within a 10 year period, all births occurred in one central hospital. The ‘ownership’ of the placenta (whenua), seemed to also be assumed to be that of ‘the hospital’! It took a further 30-40 years for Maori to freely be able to leave the hospital with their whenua (placenta) without an argument with hospital authorities ensuing. It is only in the past 20 years that the change to asking all birthing parents if they wish to keep their placenta has become ‘routine’.
The addition of planting a tree on top of the whenua (placenta) is relatively new, but is very popular with Maori and many non-Maori families.
As mentioned in a recent article by Kaumatua Pita Pou:
“It’s no surprise given the kiwi obsession with quite literally putting down roots. That dates back to before the earliest days of European settlement. Maori were known to plant cabbage trees to mark hunting tracks, while the puriri tree, with its sometimes gnarling branches, was used as a burial ‘cradle’. Bodies would be place inside the tree and left to decompose, with the bones later removed and placed in caves or ditches.
The purpose is for the tree to embrace the bodies …so the flesh returns to the earth”. (Ref. The Marlborough Express 1/1/2009 – History’s plantation threatened.)
Increasingly, European families, having experienced the life changing event of childbirth and parenting, also appreciate the significance of ‘honouring the whenua’. Many realise what an amazing organ it is that has sustained the life of their child over those formative months.
One of our local midwives, Lyndell Rown-Gabay, also held a ‘passion and respect’ for whenua – whenua the land and whenua the placenta. She was unable to bring herself to dispose of the whenua (placenta) in any other way but to bury them. So if parents didn’t want to do so themselves she would take them home, or under the cover of darkness, bury them in some more public place! The Centre of NZ, a local public walkway was one such place. Lyndell also had a flourishing garden! In 2007, Lyndell died unexpectedly, at aged 40 years old.
Over the years, those of us who work as community midwives, came to realise many families stored their placenta in the freezer sometimes for many years. We would return for subsequent pregnancies for the family to joke – ‘oh great now we will have to make room in the freezer for another placenta’.
While many Maori families bury their whenua in a traditional area of their ancestors and iwi land, many don’t. Many young families, are more on the move these days and don’t put down roots in a particular property or are renting that property and don’t feel it is a significant place to them to go so far as planting their child’s whenua.
With this in mind and wanting to honour Lyndell and the work she did, it prompted us to establish a planting area in Nelson for everyone to use if they felt it was the appropriate place for them.
The Essence of Nelson Babies Growing: Part Two will be featured on November 17, 2011.
What an enjoyable piece! Thank you.
I apologise for my late comment. This tradition is fascinating and a very respectful belief that may not be held only in New Zealand. I became familiar with the importance of burying the placenta (and products) when working at a hospital in Port Gentil, Gabon in West Africa. Port Gentil is almost on the Equator, surrounded by dense forest and is very tropical. As soon as possible after a birth, if the new mother was not able, or her immediate family was not available to bury the placenta, the midwife would put on wellington boots (it rains a lot in West Africa!!), grab a shovel and with the placenta, she would head off to the sacred place withinin the hospital grounds for the buriel.
The belief in Gabon is that the placenta represents a circle of ‘fertility’; fertility to the woman to sustain a pregnancy and then from the woman it offers fertility to the earth, which will then offer the woman another chance of becoming pregnant (fertile).
I wonder if this practice is familiar in other cultures as well?