BRAVE NIU WORLD: Māori Oracle Cards and the creations of Bronwyn Waipuka-Callander

From ‘NIU: He Tangata Matauhi Voices of Our Ancestors’ Māori Oracle Card Deck.
Cards illustrated and written by Bronwyn Waipuka- Callander.
Photos by Tokerau Wilson.


Exposing new users to both Māori knowledge and themselves, spiritual creative Bronwyn Waipuka-Callander is not one for meaningless images. The creator of the NIU Oracle Card Deck puts Māori spirituality and archetypes front and centre. We discuss the psychic labour and tohungatanga behind her wāhine-driven work — and how making the 56+ card set educated, healed and lovingly trolled her for almost four years.

Did you previously have a relationship with Oracle cards previous to creating your own? Was this direction inevitable?

I’d always been interested in things like oracle cards, mediums, witches, psychic, mystic stuff. The environment I grew up in – small town, big Māori whānau, 1970’s-80’s, pōhara, and my mother was a young solo mum at the time (she’s only 15 years older than me). It was pretty challenging and left some painful and lasting scars. Being quite a sensitive child, I developed a lot of inner fears and insecurities. Many were due to my situation, but from an early age I had been experiencing things that I couldn’t really comprehend or explain. You could call them night terrors or ghost visits, I’m still not sure but they always happened just before I fell asleep. They would happen more frequently during my teenage years. This lead me into a dark and self-destructive period, a very pōuri time of my life.

I guess it’s no surprise I was attracted to Tarot cards way back when. I thought Tarot possessed some powerful wisdom – that they could tell me my future or somehow connect me with the spirit world. They kinda scared me actually. I could never truly relate to the images or the kōrero very well. And those scary cards – the devil, tower and death. I just hated getting those… and I seemed to draw those a lot! Eventually, I stopped using Tarot altogether, I’d only pull them out every now and then. It wasn’t until I began my journey that they resurfaced and became essential in developing the NIU project.

The tradition of Tarot has been said to have started in the 1300’s in Europe with interpretative cards dating back to ancient Egypt. What made you want to build on this tradition from a Māori world view?

I remember being more inspired by the artist of the Rider Tarot herself, Pamela Colman Smith. She was a woman who was doing really creative things in a very patriarchal backdrop. I admired her journey, but like so many women of her time she was never really acknowledged for her achievements. She eventually died pōhara and largely unknown until the Rider Pack was printed, around 1971.

I didn’t know much about the Egyptian connection back then. My view now is that Tarot is an ancient taonga that has evolved through the ages. It morphs and modifies itself to suit the culture or social context it falls into. Oracle cards are essentially an extension of Tarot. They have much more freedom and expression in terms of their content, while the Tarot kinda stays within the boundaries of its own kaupapa. That’s how I understand it anyway.

Long before the creation of the NIU cards, I was already thinking about elevating our Māori culture, specifically our Atua Wāhine (Māori Goddesses). The ripple effects of colonisation and racism, their impact really hit home for me. I actually witnessed and experienced them first-hand, through behaviours of wāhine within my whānau, within my extended whānau, and within myself. They have absolutely eaten away at the heart and soul of our Sacred Feminine and tainted much of our ancient female knowledge, which is hardly recorded anyway. 

Sometimes I get really hōhā about it, so I do something to express how I feel. I create some art but not in an angry way, instead I like to portray a healing message. I do have some artworks that touch upon colonialism in a controversial way, but the overall kaupapa of Tarot is all about healing and well-being. So early on, I envisioned the NIU Oracle Deck helping our wāhine Māori, a contribution to slowing down that ripple effect.

Symbolism in Aotearoa/South Pacific storytelling is wild. It’s beyond varied, intense and rich, so how do you select the archetypes and messages that you do? 

On a deeper level I believe all creativity is downloaded from the spiritual realm connecting, interacting and harmonising with our Mauri. It’s our intuition. From a scientific perspective this might sound like “all knowledge can be accessed from the information field, as life is essentially an accumulation of information. It is an energetic event”. Doesn’t sound as poetic though! (Laughs)

Being creative is a natural process, I don’t really think too hard about it. The initial ideas come, then the vision forms, and then the overall message. The detailed kōrero usually follows much later on as I have to be thorough with my research – especially if I’m incorporating Mātauranga Māori. Basically, I just trust in the process and let it unfold and flow in its own time.

I guess nurturing (the mother archetype) and babies/children (the child) obviously play very big roles in my mahi. Along with powerful messages of higher wisdom and knowledge (the wise old woman), which I acknowledge through my interpretations of Atua Wāhine. I think these make up the main archetypes in my mahi. You might interpret more.

Why I chose (or rather, why my subconscious chose) these archetypes to convey my messages, could be for a number of reasons. On a personal level my work has always been a way for me to heal from my past – essentially come to terms with the things that had happened to me as a child.  It has helped me to forgive my mother and to let go of some very painful mamae that I’d been holding onto for years.

Another level talks about healing for the purpose of helping others, individually and also collectively. My goal is to influence people, to help feed that consciousness kaupapa into their minds. They pass this onto their children, and so on. It ties into that seven-generational kaupapa thing. It’s how our Tūpuna operated, which has since been broken by the disassembling of our Mana Wāhine. I believe our ancient feminine wisdom can help bring that balance back. I believe it’s the right time because there is momentum, especially with all the energy shifts that has been happening around our planet.

What was your process in making the deck. You say you began the process, and almost four years later, you emerged a different person?

I look back now and I did assume it was going to be a straightforward process.  I was like: “Yup, I’ll do some meaningful art and match these up with some Māori kōrero, easy”. Geez, how wrong was I? 

The journey turned out to be life changing, which I didn’t really expect. The experience really sparked my spiritual exploration and knowledge gathering, so I’m grateful I persevered.
Each card is essentially a journey I had either taken (past experience) or had to take (yet to experience). This was challenging in itself, because I had to face up to certain things I didn’t want to come to terms with. So this is the main reason why it took about four years to complete. 

Oh, and the writing. This was hard because I’m not that good at it.  (Editor note to reader: She’s good at it). I’m a huge believer in walking your own talk, so you can’t really be teka about this stuff either. Because people are going to be influenced by what you say. It was important to me that the cards were created with the right intentions and with Pono. From the heart.

Towards the end though – about 6 months before, I was struggling with two or three cards. I just couldn’t quite visualise them, or find the right dialogue or pūrākau. One of these cards was ‘compassion’. I was wrestling with this one big time because I thought myself a bit of a failure in this area. Might sound a bit silly, but I remember having Mother Teresa in my head. So my mind-set was stuck at a very high standard!  To cut a long story short, I relied on Tūpuna guidance and the answer naturally revealed itself (in its own sweet time). It came through a friend of mine who just happened to walk into my life at the right moment. She helped me to look at myself with fresh eyes, gain a new perspective and more clarity. Sometimes it takes that one person to come along at the right moment to save us from ourselves! (Laughs)

The process was quite long and challenging, but well worth it in the end. And the ‘end’ was such a welcome relief. In reality, it was only the beginning of another stage.

Was it scary to have the process lead you? Be out of your control? Or were you surrendered to the project having its own schedule?

No, not scary at all. I totally surrendered to a ‘whenever it ends it ends’ attitude. I didn’t really have a deadline except the one I set for myself. Although, it was a little bit hard social media wise to keep reassuring people about when, what day, month, year it was all going to finally come together. Some people were quite impatient. 

It was the journey itself that had a personal impact more than anything else. The evolution and quality of NIU truly depended on how much personal growth I had experienced. Whether  our shared Mauri was enhanced.

Of course there were loads of times it went all cray-cray. Moments where things just didn’t and wouldn’t go right. But there were times of profound realisation and inspiration. Release and forgiveness. There were those awesome moments of creative flow. And the amazing people I connected with, people who supported my kaupapa the whole way. On journeys like this, support is key. 

Oracle cards are obviously a diverse and dynamic way to explore traditional stories. Is this partly about making our spiritual ideas more accessible? A new angle?

Oracle cards definitely express Māori Spirituality, pūrākau, and especially our sacred feminine ideologies to a much wider audience. Although I would put a lot of emphasis on the ‘quality’ and ‘pono’ of the content. For example, the Maori Tattoo Tarot by Roxana Paul is very vague in her approach to Mātauranga Māori, compared with The Māori Oracle by P.A. Minnell. In fact, this taonga (Minell’s) had a lot of influence in the conceptualisation of the NIU cards.

In my view, the rejection and absence of our Māori spiritual practises has caused a lot of cultural suffering, which has shaped our Māori cultural attitudes today. I also think some of our Atua Pūrākau (creation stories) are annoyingly one sided, twisted and packed with patriarchal prejudices. There’s such an imbalance which really needs to improve or change. Because there isn’t a lot written about our ancient female knowledge anyway, it means we have the opportunity to create a space to re-tell, revive, reinvent, re-mould, and re-frame. Basically give emphasis to Her voice, so she can tell Her version of Her own story.

How do you translate a dense whakaaro, a misunderstood Atua or a broad kupu… then transform that into a boiled-down image? Is it heavy alchemy? Is it trusting your personal intuition? Or is it a fairly researched, academic process?

All of the above, depending on the message in regards to that particular Atua or kupu. I do make a big effort to be pono and back up what I say. Research would have to play a big role in what I do, especially when I’m referring to the cosmic whakapapa. I haven’t had anyone pull me up or tell me I’m full of teko yet! (Laughs)
Intuition is key though. ‘Mauri flow’.

I view my images as just another version of the same story – my interpretation, through my eyes. And when people buy or see my work, they’re essentially doing the same thing. We all see the world with diverse lenses according to the conditioning and environments we were brought up in.  

Does the idea of tohungatanga influence or even enter into this mahi for you?

Yes, absolutely. To quote Charlotte Mildon – ‘The preservation and the transmission of Tohunga knowledge (tohungatanga) is vital to sustain the future generations of all living and nonliving things in the metaphysical world of Māori.’

How I see the role of the Tohunga (and our understanding of ancient knowledge) is like looking at an infinite staircase made up of vibrational steps – poutama. I see the staircase split into three main parts. The Hindu religion describes this as the ‘three strides of Vishnu’ which represents earth, heaven and the space between …

1. At ‘face value’ is Te Kauwae-raro which is the understanding of the physical plane … kōrero for the masses, ie our history, stories, whakapapa etc. These include Tohunga type people at base level who are knowledge holders, educators, storytellers, creatives.  

2. Then the middle stage is a combination of Te Kauwae-raro and Te Kauwae-runga, which is the understanding of the interconnectedness of the macrocosm and the microcosm, of energy fields and frequencies. These include Tohunga type people who are healers, Matakite (clairvoyants, visionaries), esoteric/traditional knowledge holders and story tellers/creatives.

3. And then the top level is Te Kauwae-runga which is high level vibration. These are essentially Tohunga/Tohuna Tipua … or Matekite (seers of sickness and death) who are basically illumined or enlightened. They have the ability to link freely and naturally within these fields of frequency. They have the skills to draw from the information field effortlessly and have capabilities of manipulating other people’s energy fields.   

I’d like to think the NIU Oracle falls somewhere in between the first and second stages because the kōrero and intentions centre around consciousness, energy fields and are for the purpose of well-being. A source of information. So when people are choosing to bring the NIU kaupapa into their lives, it’s really up to them how they use it and whether or not they are prepared to work towards raising their vibrations.

There is so much reframing with your mahi required which I love. As an example, we have Hine-nui-te-pō. To many she is simply considered the Māori Goddess of death. And every time one draws that card obviously their subconscious or surface-level associations could kick in, it could lead them to think the worst. But she’s actually a positive, powerful tohu. In your deck she actually symbolises a drastic call for change, reawakening, even opportunity. 

There is always an alternate aspect to everything. The metaphors behind Hine-nui-te-pō and her kaupapa are so powerful, you can understand why the patriarchal psyche would want to shut her down. So it’s even more essential that we retell and re-frame our divine feminine, and I think Hine-nui-te-pō can help raise the mana of this divine voice for that space to be created. Especially when we can look towards changing attitudes with things such as Māori birthing and Te-Awa-Atua rituals/ceremonies. Having them be more accepted and eventually part of the norm.

In another of my guide booklets ‘Poutama Atuatanga: The Nurturing Pathway’ I also write about Hine-nui-te-pō.

“I am the great mother of Te Pō, Atua and ruler of the Underworld of Spirits. I represent the cycle in which physical life conforms. As the daughter conceived between worlds, I hold the abilities to control my own destiny. Born into the light, I experienced form and flesh as the mother of humanity, predestined to transition to the mother of the After-world. You are the mirror of my very existence – the physical manifestation of my light, my life and my renewal (death). Know that I AM the consciousness of humanity.”

The world is changing and we are moving into a new state of awareness and elevation with regards to our collective consciousness as a whole. People naturally build upon the efforts and hard work of others, in whatever field that may be, in order to accelerate this transition. This is what I hope my mahi is doing.

There’s a lot of decolonising going on with a project like this. In the 21st century we see more indigenous people wanting to take control of their narratives and not have them be at the mercy of colonial interpretation. How do you feel this mahi contributes to the revival of that?

These are quotes from Moana Jackson’s korero at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. They summarise my thoughts and understanding of colonisation:

“Colonisation has always been a process which people are disposed of their lands, lives and power, it is an inherently brutal process that has been defined by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. In this country there has been a reluctance to either acknowledge its true nature or the costs that it has exacted upon Māori …”

“Colonisation is an inherently abusive process  …. It has always been genocidal …”

“Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group … spiritual leaders are persecuted with spiritual practises forbidden, and objects (taonga/stories) of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed … families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next …”

“Indigenous incarceration were ‘system-based’ rather than ‘offender-specific’ …”

The kaupapa behind my work aims to bring balance back to the narrative … not only to decolonise, but also de-patriarch. I believe the Christian dogma twisted our female sacred ancestors into sexualised and deviant variants to fit the Christian obsession with original sin and punishment/control.

 I hope to encourage and inspire current and future generations of wāhine Māori (and wāhine in general) to step into, and help raise the vibrations of Mana Wahine. To restore the natural order and balance that Māori had in the past. I’d like to think the nurturing aspects that come from the NIU Oracle sheds light on getting back to the foundations of our wellness and our matriarchal ideologies. It’s about giving people the opportunity to discover the answer is actually inside themselves. 

What is your personal relationship with the taonga you made? How do you as the creator, use them or is that something you don’t really do?

They’re pretty sacred to me so I don’t let anyone touch or use them. I do have a sample deck though which I use when I need to show people and do readings for them. To me, your NIU taonga hold’s your essence and blends/bonds/interacts with your Mauri.

I feel my Tūpuna speak through my cards. Quite often I will draw a card that will sit at the top of the deck, which I place next to my bed. And I only really do a spread for myself when I’m feeling a bit lost and can’t find clarity. I think because I’m sort of aware of myself, accepting of my failings and my shadows, I don’t necessarily need to consult the cards as much?  And I’m pretty clear in my path … what my life’s kaupapa is. So not much card reading goes on in my house. 

It’s a personal and private thing for me. I know others use them with their spiritual mahi to help and elevate people, and that’s awesome because that’s the nature of oracle cards. Sharing is caring! And these people are natural at it too, some have Matakite abilities and others having very good social media skills. They help to spread the kaupapa and build upon the intentions of the NIU Oracle deck.

I do make it a policy not to interfere with other people and their taonga. This was something I decided right from the beginning. To me, it’s their Tūpuna energies that come through for them so I don’t like to get between that. Would kinda muck things up I think. But if someone wanted a reading, I’m more than happy to do that too. (I’m just not that skilled at reading cards for other people).

You talk about the personal relationship between someone and their cards. Or making sure if you’re reading for someone, your intent is tika. Tell me about the sacred connection you want people to have when they’re making an inquiry, when they’re interpreting and reading into those answers.

To be tika and pono, and respectful of the kaupapa and supporting kōrero … as well as being open with yourself, is probably all I ask when people connect with their taonga. I think if you’re not open to seeing your true self (which means accepting your shadow side and how ego plays out in your everyday life) then it makes it much harder to absorb/interpret the messages. Because each person’s journey is unique and we all have to follow our own path. So being open and willing to look at yourself in an honest way is vital if you want to grow.

And then of course there are some people who try to test my skills by giving me absolutely nothing. These experiences are really stink because the process makes if hard for me to tune into opening up that space to experience the full potential of the moment … for Mauri to flow from the higher plane. And so you get a bit hōhā and wonder why they even bother to engage in the first place. But on the other hand, it’s good practice.

The accompanying eBook that goes with the Oracle cards is incredibly dense and detailed. I imagine writing something that ambitious must have been hardout!

It was a long process alright … extremely challenging at times, and way too time consuming. At least the journey taught me I can put something together that is coherent enough for a wider audience to understand. I just have to be faster at it. (Laughs)

 The research was tedious, but absolutely necessary. On a personal level it fed my knowledge base. This helped me understand the mechanics of the cosmos and our purpose in life better. I actually enjoy researching, although I don’t really have the memory to maintain it.

The decision to turn the guide into an eBook was purely for financial reasons. I didn’t want to compromise on the quality of the cards so something had to be sacrificed. (Artists are always on a budget!)  Some people were hōhā with this, but most were sweet-as. Ebooks and oracle cards is a fairly new concept, people generally have an expectation that a hard copy will always accompany the deck. So I guess ebooks are another great platform to tell our stories. And self-publishing this way is really easy and far less expensive.

I always emphasise that I’m just a conduit, a vessel for this information. This is how I try to stay humble in the gifts I was given. It helps me refrain from letting ego taint the intentions of what I’ve done and what I continue to do. And I’m always careful not to preach too much about it either. My attitude has always been – if there is something that resonates, it’s supposed to. So take it in, use and acknowledge it. If it doesn’t, then throw it away. Simple.

You actually add cards to the deck that people can order, it’s a fluid thing not fixed. Were these random transmissions? Did you know you had to keep building the world despite the ‘product’ being complete?

To be honest, I really thought that was it when the cards were finally printed. All I had to do was sit back and sell. How misguided I was. The selling part was just another phase in the cards evolution, which had me still very much evolving alongside their growth. (Laughs) 

Plus having to continue to connect with people, I didn’t anticipate this was going to be an ongoing process either. I wanted the cards to speak and represent themselves.

I actually had no intention of creating more cards. No ideas surfaced until recently when I was guided to design the Takarangi card – the double spiral of creation. The image for this card actually comes from my Poutama Atuatanga project which involved the Kundalini meditation kaupapa. I felt it was the right time to introduce it to the deck and to those who were interested in the ideas I was expressing.

Did you always know the aesthetic of the cards? There’s the tino rangatiratanga red black & white color scheme obviously, bold graphic line work, striking faces and physiques. Did you already have a developed style, or was that something that developed especially for this?

Yes, the graphic mahi and style I was already doing at the time so I actually used a lot of my previous work for many of the card images.  The red/black and white colours were specific to the NIU – they had to feel and look Māori. I wanted the cards to stand out and be bold, but at the same time not look too cluttered either. Simple clean lines.

I had to keep in mind though, they were basically miniature artworks because printing small is of course the opposite of printing big!  The colours had to be rich also. So when they finally arrived, I was overwhelmed by how close and spot-on they were to my original vision.

Māori, Pākehā or anyone really, do you ever encounter any traditional opposition to what you’re trying to do? Conservative or weary attitudes?

There were, two people (namely tauiwi) come to mind. They commented on my Hine-nui-te-pō artwork during my 2018 Matariki exhibition. Hine-nui-te-pō has a red moko kauae that extends to her vagina area. They didn’t like that at all and had no problem saying it to my face. (Laughs).  It was interesting to witness their behaviour. I had assumed their dislike obviously had something to do with their view, or rather Pākehā views, on period blood. I remember I was wearing my Hine-nui-te-pō pendant necklace at the time too when we were speaking. The pendant suddenly fell off its chain, which it had never done before. So I took this as a tohu from Tūpuna. Spooky.  

I can only recall Māori opposition once, well, I wouldn’t call it opposition, maybe more like a warning. Half way through my NIU journey I had attended a small wāhine business type hui. It came around to me to kōrero about my NIU idea and before I’d actually got to the heart of what I was trying to achieve, one wahine Māori piped up. She said “you know, you should really make sure you’re actually tika in what you’re doing”. Then she began to ask (or rather drill me on) where I was sourcing my knowledge. I think she’d concluded that I wasn’t much of a researcher or academic and I was quite offended, because she had already made up her mind about me and my ideas. Fair enough about being tika in sourcing knowledge, but there was no need to lecture me about something I already knew. I didn’t really stand up for myself because there was no manaakitanga in her approach which kinda hurt (and peeved me off). She was an academic and maybe she was clued up in her Māori knowledge, I don’t know. But she shut me down pretty quick in front of everyone.

Obviously didn’t put me off though!

In my experience I do feel a little bit intimidated by academic type people who have studied and are knowledgeable in all, or some, things Māori. They know what they’re talking about and can articulately transmit this information well to others. Unfortunately, there’s a generalisation that self-taught, non-tertiary educated and creative healer types don’t have a lot of credibility. This is because our information actually derives from intuition, experience and universal/collective consciousness. 

I suppose there might with more of my controversial pieces such as Wahine Kotahi and Wahine Mā. On one level these artworks bag out Gordon Walters for appropriating Māori motifs, and on another, they touch on colonialism. There could be some potential kōrero, but nothing directed towards me personally. Tauiwi have bought these artworks.

Finally — you connect our Māori language with our spiritual fortitude. The cards are obviously a normalising tool for Te Reo Māori, but to me this always leads to Te Aō Māori. The Māori universe, the mindset. 

Te Reo Māori, Māori spiritual beliefs and ancient knowledge all go hand-in- hand. You can’t truly grasp the essence of the language without its foundation. And I think a lot of the blame absolutely lies with colonial views and Christianity.

I’m all for Tauiwi (non Māori New Zealanders) learning Reo. I think anything that elevates our culture is a good thing. However, I think if you are going to learn Te Reo you also have to buy into the Māori belief system. A lot of Tauiwi are learning Reo today and I’m thinking… the language is only going to get them to a certain point. They won’t be able to just rock up to any Marae, or be part of Iwi happenings just because they know the lingo. There’s a way to speak the lingo too (and every Iwi, hāpu, whānau have slightly different ways of doing this). Plus there are different expectations and social behaviours, cultural history, as well as genetic memory – an inherent knowing of the way things are/should be.  A lot of humour and laughter is tied in to how Māori speak with each other too and I think tauiwi do struggle with this sometimes. I should know, I’m married to one! 

I do worry about the future of our Reo. When you really think about it it’s essentially developed into an extension of the English language in many ways, especially if you compare it with the Reo my grandmother was speaking back in her day. It has changed a lot.  But I guess when you’re looking at the survival of something so precious you are going to work within your means and boundaries set at that time.  And these boundaries are obviously why ancient Māori spiritual knowledge and practices have not been integrated into our curriculums.

Our stories are metaphors. They have deeper layers of understanding. We do need Tohunga, or people with that certain vibration, who can comprehend those deeper layers. They help interpret and convey those layers to a wider audience. That’s the Te Kauwae-runga, Te Kauwae-raro thing. I feel kids are only exposed to the outer layers of our stories, which is kinda stink really. I think kids are capable of absorbing a lot more of this kaupapa if we choose to offer it to them. Because it’s for the betterment of their mental well-being.

And of course there are further levels of understanding which are not meant for everyone. You do need those higher levels of vibration to attain and sustain that information. That’s that ‘guru’ level – the true Tohuna status – the ability to be at one with all that is.

How can people best support your work? 

My son and husband will say … by not bothering me! (Laughs) They know me so well. No seriously … to help me share and build my social media profile would be awesome. Obviously buy my work. Help to build and support the kaupapa in their daily lives!