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Maori culture in New Zealand
Haere mai ki Aotearoa!
Welcome to New Zealand! (‘to go-here-to-New Zealand’)

Maori culture can be seen everywhere in New Zealand - you may have already seen the iconic haka before an All Blacks rugby game, adored beautiful Maori carvings and tattoos or heard about the nose to nose hongi greeting.
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80 mio years after the separation from the ancient Gondwana continent, New Zealand was finally discovered and populated by the courageous Polynesian tribes who later became known as Maori (“Maori” is simply the word for “normal”, as opposed to spirits or gods). Thanks to them, New Zealand now has a unique Pacific identity.

Who are the Maori?

The many ocean going wakas (‘canoes’) who arrived between the 8th and 14th century are still the root of today’s tribal society. Most people would know which waka brought their Maori ancestors to New Zealand and identity is still based on the tribes, the subtribes and the big individual families that belong to them.

Waitangi - the waka NgatokimatawhaoruaThey all share their common language, Te Reo Maori, which is similar to many other Polynesian dialects. The exact islands where they sailed from were not handed down, but they all refer to the mythical home of Hawaiiki, which is maybe more spiritual in nature than geographical (which would probably be around the Cook Islands area).

The Polynesian spirit has survived until today and will hopefully be conserved for many generations to come. The Maori influence is certainly rising, once again Maori find pride in their culture which for so long was suppressed by Pakeha society. Although most modern Maori don’t give this impression, the culture still runs deep and many dedicate their lives to preserve the inherited treasures from their ancestors.

Maori in New Zealand - Kapa HakaMaori history itself has been quite dramatic before the European settlers’ arrival:

  • The huge land mass of New Zealand must have brought an incredible abundance of resources to the early arrivers until the 15th century. Even though the climate was colder and most crops except kumara did not grow well, the land offered enough for survival: flax for weaving textiles, bracken fern roots to boil and eat, seals, sealions and penguins as easy prey. Most amazing must have been the giant Moa birds who were so easy to catch that they offered a big surplus of meat for everyone. Many more flightless birds and a coast teeming with fish and shellfish must have made New Zealand seem like a new paradise.  
  • The new inhabitants didn't fully understand the vulnerability of the New Zealand ecosystem. Eating all these defenseless animals, using their eggs as a travel snack and the introduction of Polynesian rats (Kiore) was fatal for many species. By the 16th century they had resource problems which led to inter-tribal conflicts. From now on birds were caught with decoys and snares, more berries were collected, native forests were burnt and kumara crops became more and more important. To protect their food storage and people from enemy raids many pa sites (fortresses) were built, a real competition between tribes and chiefs developed. Enslavement of conquered enemies and even cannibalism were the culmination of many battles for resources and leadership. Not only the art of war progressed, there was also cultural refinement and a development of the arts. The lack of resources led to strong conservation values. Places and species were declared tapu (‘forbidden’) by experts - often for transitional periods to allow for the recovery of species or to support the natural reproduction cycles.

Maori-Pakeha relationship

Maori culture New Zealand: Waitangi - the marae Te Tiriti o WaitangiOnce European settlers arrived the conditions changed again. The initial co-existence of the different cultures had many advantages for Maori, such as progress in cultivation, medical treatment and a general advance in western knowledge. After a while the warring chiefs took the opportunity to improve their warfare with muskets and new alliances. Deals were made with individual settlers and there was no governing law or order to regulate what was happening. The first New Zealand town - Russell, then called Kororareka - was known as “the hell hole of the Pacific”. Maori were not completely subdued like natives in earlier European colonies. There was even a humanistic influence in favour of indigenous peoples, but of course the settlers were not all humanists and as they took extreme risks to find a future on the other side of the world, mainly concerned for their own fate. Many sought cheap Maori labour, the aquisition of land or to manipulate the political control of the New Zealand territory. It was the missionaries who were truly interested in the community. Maori culture was soon adopting christianity in a flexible and successful way, harmoniously and without oppression.

Maori culture New Zealand: Waitangi - inside the maraeThe Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 gathered the signatures of most chiefs and should have remedied many misunderstandings between the new settlers and Maori but was misunderstood itself and never corrected. The English and Maori versions of this contract differed especially in the terms used for the sovereignty over the land, whereby Maori thought they would keep the absolute power which the British ceded to the Crown. The treaty brought protection by the most powerful nation on earth and was also thought to pacify the tribes, but as a platform for the distribution of land to Pakeha it was the start of many conflicts and even violent land wars. A wave of immigrating farmers from the UK and a rising European population led to a fast and often unfair decline of land ownership for the Maoris within the following decades  (today only around 6% of the total land area is still Maori land). Being exempt from the parliament Maori responded by selecting a common King in 1858 who symbolically safeguarded the land of all his tribes, but this rather contributed to the conflicts with the government, culminating with his exile in the „King Country“ near Waitomo in 1864. The kingship has survived and the current Maori King still unites the tribes from his residence in the Waikato.

Reconstruction of a Maori houseThe colonial ideal was to fully assimilate the Maori population through marriage and English language. As a result the Maori heritage was not supported well by New Zealand culture until the second half of the 20th century. Maori language was not encouraged at home and forbidden in schools, people moved away from their marae into the cities where customs were not always upheld. The „treasure“ of Maori culture threatened to disappear within one or two generations. Maybe globalisation was necessary for people to realise what a unique culture was disappearing. A new pride of Maori identity emerged, parents sent their kids to specialised Maori schools whose first generation of pupils now influence the public agenda from their prominent positions and the Maori media. While the language and the arts are recovering there is still a sad on-going fight for other aspects: many elders dedicate their lives to pass on their wisdom and knowledge to the youngest generation, but amidst video games and hip hop their attempts are not always successful.

Who is Maori these days?

Nearly 650,000 New Zealanders identify themselves as of Maori descent, a number that has increased by 30% in the past 15 years and is far from the lowest number of 43’000 in 1896 which was caused by epidemics, warfare and alcohol. Also the Maori population lives mainly in the cities, with strongest concentrations around Rotorua and Northland. The largest tribe with 120,000 people is the Ngapuhi tribe from Northland.

120,000 Maori live in Australia! Mainly because of higher salaries many have moved over the Tasman Sea to find jobs in mining, shearing, construction, entertainment or security. Others claim there is less prejudice hindering a successful career and less pressure from family obligations. On the other hand they have less access to Maori cultural and social life and there is less consideration for their cultural requirements.

Maori values

Maori culture New Zealand: Waitangi - at Te Tii MaraeMany thousands of years of Polynesian and 1,000 years of Maori history are the basis of the unique ‘Maori way’. It’s not easy to understand (and we don’t claim that we are experts), but the following values and concepts can give an idea of what still is important to many modern Maori:

  • Mana (‘prestige’ or ‘power’): Mana is the supernatural authority to lead and take decisions, it is the status of a person or a tribe. It can be passed on from the ancestors or increased by positive actions.
  • Tangata (‘people’): People orientation is at the heart of Maori culture, people are considered to be treasures in themselves, respect grows with one’s age and it’s the kaumatua (‘elders’) who are the ultimate guardians of the wisdom and mana of their people. That a hongi (nose greeting) can go on for minutes is symbolic for the deep encounters between people. The profound demonstrations of respect during a tangi (‘funeral’) are another.
He aha te mea nui?
 What is the greatest thing?
He tangata,
 It is people,
He tangata,
 It is people,
He tangata!
 It is people!
  • Tapu (‘sacred’ or ‘forbidden’ or ‘restricted’): A sacred state of places, things or even people, tapu is like a law that regulates how things and people should be treated. For example, the dead carry a lot of tapu and are treated with utter respect. Mountains can be tapu because people have been killed or buried on them. Sometimes a tapu needs an appropriate ceremony to be removed. Please respect any request based on a tapu even if you don’t fully understand the reason behind it.
  • Maori in New Zealand - WakaTe whenua (‘the land’): Maori have a profound relation to their land, they are the ‘tangata whenua’ (‘people of the land’). They regard themselves as stewards of the land, willing to pass these assets to future generations, exercising old conservation rules which prevented overfishing or overhunting. A Maori who introduces himself will mention the mountains and rivers who supported his tribe for centuries. After birth the placenta is traditionally buried in the earth, the land is where you come from and where you go back to. Land ownership is consequently an important topic in politics, be it disputed between different tribes or against Pakeha.
  • Whakapapa (‘lineage’): The Maori genealogy traditionally reaches back even to how plants and animals came into this world, constituting a natural relation to everything alive within the same ecosystem. Due to the inherited mana and responsibility the tupuna (‘ancestors’) are the roots and basis of identity, all the way back to the arrival of the waka (‘canoes’). It’s a duty to pass on the  land and knowledge to the generations of tamariki (‘children’) who follow.

Travellers are welcome by tangata whenua, as long as they respect the Maori customs. Hospitality is a very important tradition between the iwi (‘tribes’) and hapu (‘subtribes’). Invitations include formal ceremonies, plenty of food and lengthy socialising. Welcoming manuhiri (‘visitors’) to their land and marae involves serious duties, also for the honoured guests who are embraced as members of the family for the length of their stay. As a traveller to New Zealand you are always a welcome guest of the tangata whenua.

Te reo Maori (Maori language)

Waka in the Bay of IslandsOnly 4% of New Zealanders or every fourth Maori speak “Te reo” (‘the language’) fluently these days. Te reo resembles other Polynesian languages, it slightly differs in dialect all over New Zealand and only became an official language by 1987. Early missionaries developed the written form of today as it was only a spoken language, but English was enforced by the government and schools until it was nearly too late. Due to the spiritual and traditional importance of the language it has mainly survived during ceremonies in the marae. Thanks to language immersion schools and the Maori media the usage of Te reo is now slowly increasing. Radio channels broadcast in Te reo and Maori Television is revitalising the language and heritage. Every year has a Maori Language Week that promotes the language in the media (last week in July).

For travellers Maori language is not necessary, but to know some pronounciation and words certainly help to better understand the Maori aspects of New Zealand. Especially if you think you will receive an invitation onto a marae some language knowledge is a good start to improve the experience.

Maori Language Course

See our comprehensive Maori language course for travellers

Pronounciation is with some exceptions similar to German:

A  as in ‘dark’ or ‘car’
 as in ‘net’ or ‘ted’
I  as in ‘need’
 as in ‘not’
U  as in ‘moon’ or ‘book’
NG  as in ‘singer’
WH  spoken like an ‘F’ in most places
  Pronounce each syllable

Maori culture: Tane

10 useful words for travellers:

 ‘New Zealand - the land of the long white cloud’ (‘land-white-long’)
Kia ora
 ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ - you can use it as a greeting wherever you go, or as a thank you to Maori (‘have-health’) 
Haere mai
 ‘Welcome’ - often used in written form or on the ‘marae’ (‘come-here’)
Tena koutou
 ‘Hello’ - used as a formal greeting to more than 2 persons (‘that-you’)
 ‘Courtyard’ - it is used for meeting houses and the whole meeting area
Powhiri  ‘Invitation’ or ‘Welcome ceremony’ - when you get invited to a ‘marae’ for the first time you will follow a sacred ceremony
 ‘Prayer’ or ‘Blessing’ - often a prayer is said before meals or events 
 ‘New Zealander of European descent’
Ka pai
 ‘Well done’ or ‘OK’ (‘<time form>-good’)
 ‘Extended family’ - the word family is very generous and can include many more members than a Pakeha family would

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Maori culture: Wahine

Maori arts

Maori in New Zealand - CarvingTravellers have a good chance to acquire a beautiful piece of New Zealand in the form of Maori art. For many decades the arts were neglected and in decline, but the current revival is doing very well, Maori culture is trendy!

  • Whakairo (‘carving’): This is probably the ultimate art form in New Zealand, the carving styles are also unique in Polynesia. Carvers work with excellent local woods, with the rare and precious pounamu (‘green stone’) and with bone. The breath-taking carvings on the marae have been carved by tohunga whakairo (‘carving experts’), involving rituals and tapu, being representations of ancestors they are more than just decorative but filled with a spiritual force. The items for sale often portray fish hooks, koru (‘fern fronds’) or hei tiki (spiritual human images). Once you’ve seen a typical fish hook pendant you’ll suddenly spot travellers all over the world wearing one.
  • Maori in New Zealand - Flax Weaving (Kete)Raranga Harakeke (‘flax weaving’): Being an indispensable fibre for these colder climates, working with flax has turned into an art form. The process itself is tapu similar to carving - for example you shouldn’t eat during weaving and always give away your first creation as a gift. Traditional products are floor mats, kete (‘bags’) to collect shellfish and kumara, cloaks, sails or housing. Nowadays also beautiful putiputi (‘flowers‘) or ornamental shapes like fish are in fashion.
  • Ta Moko (‘tattoo’): The art of tattooing is in a way a carving of the body, with lines chiselled deeply into the skin. Men usually wore moko on the face, buttocks and legs, women on the chin. They were a recount of whakapapa and accomplishments, a sign of status, profession and hierarchy. Face moko clearly identified the leaders of society, which the Europeans took advantage of in battle. As an absurdity of history there was even a global trade of tattooed Maori heads in the 19th century. Subsequently some Maori tattooed their slaves in order to sell their heads. As a tradition you have to earn the right to wear a specific moko but next to a modest revival of traditionally tattooed faces it is now fashionable all over the world to use Maori designs.
  • Maori culture New Zealand: Kapa HakaKapa Haka (‘dance group’): There’s more to Maori music than the challenging and impressive haka (‘posture dance’). Kapa haka mainly means waiata (‘songs’), but also poi (swinging light white balls on a string - designed to train the wrists for wielding weapons) and expressions like wiri (trembling of the hands), pukana (glaring with protruding eyes) and whetero (showing the tongue, only by men). Traditional instruments like flutes and conch shells can accompany the dances, although mostly guitars are used these days. The performances are very emotional and would be a highlight of every trip to New Zealand.

There’s much more to Maori art than described above, you will be able to find out more in the galleries and museums during your stay. You can also find very interesting contemporary Maori art, many artists have brought their profession into the 21st century.

Some famous Maori

  • Kupe: According to some tribal legends he is the first discoverer of New Zealand and named it Aotearoa. Impressed by the abundance of the islands he returned to Hawaiiki in order to initiate a migration later on, proving once more the incredible navigational skills of early Polynesians.
  • Hongi Hika: A Maori chief with an unusual life story, Hongi Hika from Northland (Ngapuhi tribe) was born at the end of the 18th century and gathered much dramatic warfare experience in his young years. He grew fond of muskets and their superiority over traditional weapons and his success even allowed him to visit Sydney in 1814 where he met Samuel Marsden, the great New Zealand missionary. He helped Marsden to establish his first mission in the Bay of Islands and from then on protected missionary activities. His interest in European advances was great and in 1820 he managed to travel to England, supporting the development of a Maori dictionary and meeting King George. He also collected whatever arms and gunpowder he could get his hands on and at his return immediately set out with 2’000 warriors and 1’000 muskets to avenge the death of his son-in-law near Thames in the Coromandel. The huge military success enabled him to continue a raid over many other parts of the North Island that lasted until he died from his battle wounds in 1828.
  • Download the Tourleader New Zealand website! Potatau Te Wherowhero: The first Maori King was born around 1800, a warrior and chief from Waikato. He didn’t sign the Treaty of Waitangi but had very close links to Europeans and even signed an agreement to protect Auckland and the Governor. Later on when he was disappointed by the Crown and some of his land confiscated, he accepted a vote by a selection of tribes to make him the first King to unite Maori in opposition to the Crown. He kept a moderate position until his death in 1860 three years later.
  • Sir Apirana Ngata: Born 1874 near the East Cape with 14 brothers and sisters, he advanced so well in schools that he succeeded to be the first Maori graduate in a New Zealand university. His mission was to help his declining people and through the Young Maori Party he became a member of Parliament by 1905 and later of Minister of Native Affairs. His efforts were the focal point of countless initiatives and programmes for Maori education, economy, arts and culture,saving them into the new reality. He features on the $50 banknote.
  • Te Puea Herangi: Born 1883 and descended from the first Maori King, her steady hard work and vision led to many successful Maori farming communities, the recovery of seized land of the Waikato tribe, the settlement for the King at Ngaruawahia and the acceptance of the Kingship by the Pakeha world. She was also very important for bringing back Maori customs and arts. She became the most renowned Maori personality in New Zealand, her funeral in 1952 was attended by 10'000 people.
  • Whina Cooper: Born 1895 as a local chief's daughter in a poor Hokianga region, she was given the role of a real leader due to her strong nature and despite having 4 older brothers. She coordinated Maori farming in Northland and later supported Maori in the cities, leading the Maori Women's Welfare Leage and countless other welfare projects, she was even the first female president of a Rugby Union. Her famous land march in 1975 protested the loss of Maori land, initiating new efforts to reach settlements via the Waitangi Tribunal.
  • Tame Iti: Coming from the Tuhoe tribe that never signed the treaty of Waitangi, Tame Iti has had an (in-) famous career as one of the most prominent Maori activists since he was denied speaking Maori in school. He’s a very colourful character with a full face tattoo who shocked the nation when he spat in front of ministers, organised protest marches, showed his buttocks a lot and even got arrested in an overcooked 2007 police raid. But he also has a surprisingly endearing side when he enjoys eel fishing, performs as an artist or radio DJ, helps youth as a social worker or tours the world in a Shakespeare theatre performance. We’ll certainly hear more from him.
  • Maori culture: carving in TorereTe Arikinui Tuheitia Paki: He is the current Maori King since 2007 and 7th in line since Potatau, based in Ngaruawahia near Hamilton. He doesn’t really fit British expectations of a monarch as he didn’t even speak Maori language when he took office and besides regular schooling took jobs in meat works, farming, the army and construction. His sympathetic down to earth attitude and humility are typical characteristics in New Zealand and probably appreciated by the majority.
  • Willie Apiata: He’s the war hero every nation would love to have. This SAS corporal was the first New Zealander to receive a Victoria Cross for New Zealand. Right through all the media hype he carried on being an extremely sympathetic and humble soldier who saved his mate’s life during a very dangerous mission in Afghanistan in 2004. In 2008 he succeeded Sir Edmund Hillary as the ‘most trusted New Zealander’ and gifted his precious medal to the nation.
  • Temuera Morrison: A great New Zealand actor from Rotorua, he was the energetic and breath-taking star of the violent ‘Once Were Warriors’ with sequel ‘What Becomes of The Broken Hearted?’ and has since appeared in Hollywood films like ‘The Beautiful Country’, ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control’, ‘Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’. He also played other roles with a Maori focus like ‘River Queen’, ‘Broken English’ and ‘Rain of the Children’.
  • Ruben Wiki: One of New Zealand’s greatest rugby players, this Auckland born league star with Maori and Samoan heritage was the first New Zealand player with a record of over 300 first-grade games. He once led a famous haka in front of Buckingham Palace.

Tourleader tips

  • Maori in New Zealand - Pataka (storage house)

    Go to a cultural Maori performance.
  • Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Northland with its beautiful carved marae and the largest war canoe.
  • When in Rotorua stroll through the original Ohinemutu village with a carved marae and interesting church. See the window where Jesus is depicted wearing a Maori cloak.
  • Look out for Maori art souvenirs made in New Zealand (and not foreign mass produced items).
  • Choose a guided tour by Maori operators to learn more about culture and the Maori perspective.
  • Brush up on Maori protocol in case you visit a marae.
  • Try to watch Maori Television while you’re here or New Zealand Maori films like ‘Whale Rider’, ‘River Queen’, ‘Utu’, ‘The Man who lost his Head’ etc.
  • Respect privacy and ask before taking photos in maraes or during ceremonies.
Source for population data: Statistics New Zealand

New Zealand - ALL FLAX Maori flax weaving

Aroha mai mo nga taku he! As we are not Maori, we would like to apologise if there is any incorrect information in our text.

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