It starts with a friendly kia ora. Soon you’ve locked eyes with a wide-eyed warrior in the war drills of the haka.
Next you’re parked beside an ancient freshwater spring, or tucking into an earth-oven-cooked hangi feast. Or being schooled in whakapapa – the Maori practice of genealogy – in the shadow of an erupting geyser. It’s all par for the course in a country whose indigenous culture is less a part of the fabric than a defining spiritual feature. It may be the pristine landscapes of New Zealand that draw us, but it’s the human aspect that truly leaves an imprint. Come and experience the mighty Maoritanga in the 'Land of the Long White Cloud'.
The Maori are a tribal people with many different facets to their culture, such as a strong sense of kinship, warrior roots, sacred spaces (such as the marae, or meeting place), facial tattooing, and the idea of mana (an inner power or respect). Music and singing is traditionally a strong element, and the Maori were a purely oratory culture prior to European settlement. The Maori language (Te Reo Maori) is unique to New Zealand, spoken only in this part of the Pacific. Though most Maori people today live a modern European-style life, a small number of Maori still live a traditionally.
The Maori people are originally from eastern Polynesia and settled in what is now known as New Zealand (or Aotearoa, the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’) sometime before 1300 CE. Though they are the indigenous people of New Zealand, they were not necessarily the first people to inhabit the land. Scientists have argued that there were pre-Maori settlers in New Zealand, pointing to fossil evidence, but nothing has been definitively proven.
The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand – a formal agreement between 500 Maori chiefs and the British Crown, signed on 6 February 1840. Signed in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s far north, it outlines the terms on which Maori people and European settlers could co-exist under a common set of laws.
The Maori word for New Zealand is ‘Aotearoa’ (pronounced ow-tee-yah-ro-wa), and ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ is the common translation of this name. It’s said to have come from the wife of the early voyager Kupe, who exclaimed 'He oa! He oa! (A cloud! A cloud)' upon seeing a cloud that meant land was nearby (ao meaning 'cloud/daytime/world', tea meaning 'white', and roa meaning 'long/tall').
Kia Ora is the key word to know – it’s a common go-to greeting, wishing good health. Kai is another significant one, especially in the context of a hangi meal, as it means 'food'. Whakapapa (also the name of a town on the North Island) refers to the Maori practice of genealogy.
There are some fantastic Maori words that don’t translate neatly into English and are interesting to know. Mana is one – it can mean inner power, respect, social standing, or a kind of supernatural force within. You might also hear waka (boat), especially if you’re on a historical tour in the Bay of Islands. Practical words like yes (ae), no (kaore) and please (koa) are good to keep up your sleeve, though it’s unlikely you’ll be in a position where the Maori language is the only one being used.
Outside of New Zealand, the word ‘Maori’ tends to be pronounced phonetically (‘Mow-ri’. But when you’re there, you’ll notice non-Maori people pronounce it and other Maori words correctly – either 'Mardy' or 'Mouly', depending on the region. Do as the locals do and run with it! It’s a bit like 'pho' in Vietnam; once you’ve been there, you’ll never go back to saying it inauthentically.
One in seven New Zealanders are Maori – around 15% of the population. That’s about 700,000 people. A further 7.5 per cent are non-Maori Pacific Islanders. Most of these Pacific peoples are of Samoan descent; others originate from the likes of the Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue.
When two people touch noses and foreheads in Maori culture it’s called a ‘hongi.’ Think of it as the formal handshake of the Maori people. It’s used to transmit the ha – the ‘breath of life’ – between two people.
Maori tribal tattoos, or moko, are traditional markers of identity and cultural heritage. Traditionally, men wore such tattoos not only on their faces but on their buttocks and thighs; women traditionally have their lips and chins tattooed. In earlier times, tribespeople could identify each other on their tattoos alone; tattoos also signified social standing and marriage eligibility. Moko has had a renaissance in recent years, with increasing numbers of young Maori getting in touch with their Maori heritage in this way.
A hangi feast is the traditional Maori practice of cooking a meal beneath the earth, in an underground pit – the earth being the source of all life. It’s a hearty feast and a great way to experience another aspect of the Maori way of life. Traditionally a hangi would involve fish, chicken and sweet potato; these days it often includes pork or lamb, pumpkin, potato and other vegetables.
The haka has its roots in tribal times as a display of a tribe’s strength and unity. It was used as an intimidation tactic, and essentially still is – by the All Blacks national rugby team, for instance. Despite the violent intensity of the ritual, the haka would also traditionally be performed when groups came together peacefully.
Boy (2010) is a great place to start, as is The Whale Rider (2002) – both coming-of-age movies that appeal to all ages. White Lies (2013) is a powerful statement on race relations and identity in the context of European settlement. Once Were Warriors (1994), though not for the faint-hearted, is a devastating and enlightening depiction of Maori life in the suburbs. Book-wise, The Bone People (1985) is a must-read, a story about a half-Maori woman in exile. King Potatau (1960) is a historical-fiction classic. More recently, Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History has been lauded as a ground-breaking document of Maori history.
Read more about Maori culture