While pōwhiri are typically reserved for the marae (tribal meeting grounds), they are also used in modern day New Zealand at schools, government departments and other institutions to welcome special visitors in a ceremonial manner. In less formal situations, a mihi whakatau or informal greeting will be used instead. Visitors who find themselves a part of either ceremony must strictly follow protocol so that no cultural offence is transmitted.
A pōwhiri begins with a karanga (Māori call of welcome) from an elderly woman of the tangata whenua (people of the land). The visiting party will respond in kind, uttering their own call of welcome back to the hosting party. As the two woman trade back and forth their calls of welcome, three or sometimes just one warrior will saunter down the grounds towards the manuhiri, or visitors. Wielding his taiaha (Māori staff) the warrrior(s) performs a wero to test the intentions of the visiting parties.
In eras gone by, this was done to ascertain whether the visitors came in war or in peace. So as not to invite them fully onto their tribal grounds, the hosting party would send out warriors to lay down a rautapu or taki, a symbol of peace. Should the visitors receive the offering in their right hand, they would be welcomed on the grounds. However, should they receive it in their left, it meant that the party came in war and they were to be prepared for instant battle.
This is a tradition that carries on today, and while no cases of combat have been recorded in recent times, this protocol should be carefully observed. Following the welcome on the grounds, the group will be ushered to the speech grounds where men will exchange whaikorero (Māori speeches), with each being followed by a song appropriate to what has been expressed. Both parties will then come together to perform the traditional Māori greeting or hongi. Finally, the tangata whenua and manuhiri will share food in tandem. This process is of the utmost importance as the sharing of food acts as a normalizing or whakanoa agent to relieve the visitors of their sacred duty.
While there are several outfits around New Zealand that offer this experience to tourists, none are better than that seen in the Tamaki Māori Village of Rotorua. With its long history of proven hospitality, the Tāmaki Māori Village is certain to provide a truly authentic pōwhiri experience that will help visitors deeply appreciate the richness of Māori culture.