Celebrated and embraced with passion, the Maori people are the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Archaeological evidence indicates they discovered the country some time between 800-1,000 AD, on one of the last deliberate voyages of colonisation across the Pacific. Originating from South-East Asia some 5,000-7,000 years ago, they are thought to have arrived in waka hourua (voyaging canoes) from their ancestral homeland of Hawaikimore than 1,000 years ago.
Today, about 14 per cent of NZ’s population claim Maori descent (most live in the North Island) and their language and culture has a major impact onKiwi life. Maori culture is rich and varied, including many elements from traditional spiritual and philosophical beliefs, right through to the active preservation of traditional and contemporary arts –carving, weaving, kapa haka (group performance),whaikorero (oratory) and moko (tattoo) are practiced throughout the country.
Practitioners who follow in the footsteps of their tipuna (ancestors) continue to use the same techniques from hundreds of years ago, yet also develop new ones. Today their culture includes art, film, television, poetry, theatre and hip-hop.
How to immerse yourself
Visit a marae: This ornately carved meeting house is found in almost every large NZ community. Sacred to the Maori, certain etiquette must be used when entering. Welcome speeches, songs and a paying of respects to ancestors are observed on a marae andonce protocol has been satisfied, you’ll be spoiled by Maori hospitality.
Waitangi National Reserve: The Waitangi National Reserve is where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Europeans and Maori leaders.The treaty is controversial as the promises made to the Maori regarding land rights and protection were changed in the translated English version, leading to the Maori Wars in the late 1840s. The reserve is beautiful, and includes a stunning marae, a 35m Maori war canoe and the treaty house where the document was signed.
Museums: Many of the museums in New Zealand boast excellent Maori exhibits, ranging from wakas and carvings to weapons and traditional songs. The Museum of New Zealand in Wellington – Te Papa (‘our place’) – has Mana Whenua, a presentation on the Tangata Whenua – people of the land – and the Te Hau ki Turanga, one of the oldest meeting places in existence. The Auckland Museum has daily performances of Manaia, a look at Maori culture through narrative, song and dance. It also houses the largest and most significant collection of Maori treasures in the world.
The Maori have been involved in tourism since 1870, when the Tuhourangi people south of Rotorua owned the ‘eighth’ wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces – impressive and beautiful layers of thermal pools. Visits to them were operated on a commercial basis. Despite its destruction by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, Rotorua has become a hub for Maori tourism, taking advantage of the many geothermal fields and attractions of the central volcanic plateau.
Maori entertainers can be seen at many venues performing a concert for the entertainment of tourists. Some of these performances are accompanied by a ‘hangi’ –a meal steam-cooked in a traditional Maori way.
Land: The Maori acknowledge the beauty of land and refer to themselves as ‘tangata whenua’, loosely translated as ‘the people of the land’. This interpretation is fast becoming more widely accepted as ‘the people who are the land’.
Spirituality: Maori people see things in terms of physical and spiritual realms. A simple example would be a rock – Maori believe a rock has a physical being but also a spiritual essence. This spirituality is expressed continuously and implicitly throughout Maori culture.
Ancestors: The Maori believe they carry their ancestors on their shoulders – in everything they do. They believe that we are not individuals but the result of the collective knowledge and experience of all who have gone before. Therefore, knowing your genealogy is important to Maori. They also believe that genealogy connects humans to every living thing through Papatuanuku– the original mother. Under this philosophy, humans and trees share ancestors and are therefore related.
Many NZ place names are of Maori origin and it takes time to figure out how to say some of these seemingly-impossible-to-pronounce names. But Maori language has a logical structure, and (unlike English)has very consistent rules of pronunciation. Maori consists of fi ve vowel sounds: a e i o u (‘a’as in father; ‘e’ as in pen; ‘i’ as ee in feet; ‘o’ as in fort and ‘u’ as oo in boot). Many Maori pronounce the‘wh’ sound similar to our ‘f’. The ‘ng’ is like our ‘ng’sound in a word like ‘sing’, except that words canstart with ‘ng’.