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Maori culture plays an important role in New Zealand
Maori culture plays an important role in New Zealand | © Barni1 / Pixabay
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11 Things You Should Know About Maori Culture

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 25 April 2018
Anyone who has done even a modicum of research about heading to New Zealand will know at least a little something about Maori culture and the importance it plays in the modern-day country. Just in case though, here are 11 aspects that are worth knowing.

Ta moko

This is the art of Maori tattooing, which is so well known by the rest of the world due to the art of ‘ta moko’—the tattoos that Maori traditionally covered their faces and heads with because of their belief that the head was the most sacred part of the body. One of the most interesting facts about Maori tattooing is that no two tattoos are alike, even if they seem exactly the same. This is because each tattoo symbolises that person’s geneology, knowledge and social status within their tribe, and no one person will be exactly identical.

The poi

Many tourists may be familiar with the poi. They may have seen Maori women of a tribe use the poi to tell a story along with a dance and song. This is indeed what they do and the poi is now synonymous with feminine grace and beauty. However, legend has it that the poi was originally used as a training item among Maori men. They were reportedly said to have used it to strengthen their wrists, hone their dexterity and keep the muscles of their arms supple for close combat in times of war.

Tongariro National Park

In 1993, Tongariro became the first place in the world to be listed as a World Heritage Site for the spiritual and cultural values that the landscape holds for the Maori people. It is very much a special place for the Maori and, even for those New Zealanders who are not of Maori descent, this place holds a significant place in the heart. It is a part of the land that seems to encapsulate everything about New Zealand that people come to love. Namely, herb fields, forests, lakes, streams, desert-like areas, snow and volcanoes. There are few places like this on the planet and the fact you can hike a day through this landscape makes it particularly special in its accessibility.

Tongariro National Park is full of wonders
Tongariro National Park is full of wonders | © Pedro / Flickr

A culture of no language

The Maori are some of the best storytellers you will ever meet, and there is a simple explanation as to why this is. Before European settlers arrived, there was no written Maori language like there is now (Te Reo Maori) so the Maori had to pass on their histories orally. This is why they have so many fantastic legends to describe the creation of their lands and to explain things that they didn’t understand. They used to carve characters and gods from their historical stories into wood and stone, tell tales and even tattoo their histories into their own skins.

Stories through carving
Stories through carving | © Sids1 / Flickr

A hangi

This may be one of the more familiar facets of Maori culture. A hangi refers to the traditional method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. You’ve got three to five hours—depending on what you’re cooking—to prepare the food whilst the fire of a hangi burns down. When it comes to what tasty treats you can put in your hāngi, the sky is the limit, with the exception of seafood. Root vegetables, like potatoes, and kumera (sweet potato) should be peeled, portioned and put into a sack, then soaked in water. If you get the chance to share in the building, preparation and eating of a hangi then never turn it down. This is a key aspect to true Kiwi life.

The hongi

It can be tricky not to get the hangi and hongi confused when you speak about them, but they are entirely different parts of the Maori culture—although a hongi can often lead to a hangi. This is the traditional Maori greeting, and could most easily be compared to a handshake … with your face. When meeting certain Maori, you press your noses and foreheads together and share in “the breath of life.” It’s a simple–albeit unusual at first–greeting that signifies the blending of two souls.

David Beckham experiences a hongi
David Beckham experiences a hongi | © Kiri Dell / Flickr

The idea of whānau

In a nutshell whānau means family. You may hear a New Zealander, when asked what they are up to at the weekend, say that they are going away with the whānau. This basically means they are going on a family trip. However, it can’t always be construed as meaning immediate family. The idea of whānau within the Maori community can indeed mean blood relatives, but it can also encompass the whole tribe or just mean anyone that that particular person is fond of. Whānau is a layered dynamic based on the Maori world view. The whānau is responsible for the history, traditions, ideals, and values of the marae and the people.

The marae

The marae is the for all intents and purposes the centre of a Maori community. Marae refers to community meeting grounds and these are generally fenced-in areas with carved buildings that belong to a specific tribe, or iwi. It’s a cultural and spiritual center where people and whanau would gather to share food and just hang out. If you imagine the Maori equivalent of a university quad or a town hall you’re on the right sort of track.

Pas

Due to the way they were constructed mostly from wood and earth, not very much remains of these old Maori fortified villages, which were often found on hills with terraces dug into the sides and surrounded by high fences.

Many Maoris will know where their ancestors’ pa sites were located, but usually not much remains other than the terraces. However, some Maori tourism groups have remade villages, particularly in Rotorua and Gisborne, to give people an idea of what they used to look like.

The site of a Maori pa in Hawkes Bay
The site of a Maori pa in Hawkes Bay | © Barb Nicolle / Flickr

Being welcomed with a powhiri

To be welcomed onto the marae, you must first be welcomed through a powhiri. This usually involves a challenge by a Maori warrior, some singing and chanting follows, and then you must show that you come in peace. Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds! In fact, it’s one of the must-do Maori experiences in New Zealand if you’re visiting from overseas, and will give you a little taste of how things used to be—and still are. Any important visit from dignitaries, celebrities or anyone of that nature is usually still heralded by a powhiri.

The haka

This is perhaps the most famous aspect of Maori culture in New Zealand thanks mainly to the All Blacks national rugby team who perform this war dance before every game. However, there are actually many types of haka used for different occasions, from funerals to the motivation of a tribe or individual. So while many people think the haka is only a dance to intimidate opponents—traditionally before battle—it also has a softer side, as seen at the funeral of the late Jonah Lomu.