Maori Culture in New Zealand

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Maori culture: While visiting Rotorua (both as part of shooting the tv show – as well as subsequent visits when staying with friends), I had the opportunity to visit two Maori villages and cultural shows. One was Tamaki Maori Village, and the other was Mitai Maori Village. Both were very educational, and the experiences complimented each other nicely.

This post was originally published in 2010. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Rotorua is the hub of Maori culture in New Zealand, and just walking down the street you see evidence of this in a large contingent of Maori locals. And their identity remains strong; even chatting with my heli-sledging river guide Geni, she identified her tribe’s history and customs in the context of our conversation. It was at these cultural presentations though, that I gained a sense of the history and traditions of the Maori people.

Having been descended from the Polynesian islands, I see many similarities between the Maori and the Hawaiians. Where I sense the Maori are unique is in their continuous upholding of language, song, and dance even today. It is not entirely uncommon to see a Maori (male or female) with traditional facial tattoos, and many customary dances and rituals are still taught and practiced in daily life. There are even public schools that teach solely in the Maori language.

Please check out this short video to gain a sense of the Maori culture, song, dance, art, and food.

Here are a few of the Maori cultural terms traditions that you see in the video:

Waka: This is a hand-carved war canoe. It is quite impressive to see, especially when paddled in the traditional manner with chants and all.

Pohiri: This is a traditional welcome ceremony for visitors. Initially it seems far from welcoming, as a representative from the tribe makes a fearsome show of presenting a peace token to the visiting tribe’s chief. (In our case, a member of the group was nominated to be our chief). Once the token is accepted in a very specific manner, peace between the tribes is established. Today the ceremony is always done with peaceful intentions, but the fearsome display is meant to intimidate the visiting tribe just in case the purpose of their visit isn’t peaceful.

Haka: The Haka is a very powerful dance and chant of strength. Literally translated, Haka means “breath on fire” or “words of fire”. The Haka is different for every tribe, and learned and practiced in Maori culture today. Traditionally it is meant to welcome visitors, but also to (again) demonstrate their power and readiness to fight should the visitors decide to attack. One of the typical moves in a Haka is for the males to stick their tongue out and bulge their eyes. It is both funny and scary to see, and the traditional meaning of the move is to say to the enemy “my mouth waters and I lick my lips for soon I will taste your flesh”. Like the Pohiri, it is done with peaceful intentions today, but also demonstrates the warrior mentality that has allowed the Maori people to remain “unconquered” for thousands of years. The hair stood up on the back of my neck at one particular Haka, which was excellently performed.

Poi: I wrote about my foray into fire spinning and poi, which actually originated in New Zealand. Poi aren’t traditionally set on fire though; originally they were balls filled with stones and designed as practice tools to strengthen warriors’ wrists for holding and using battle clubs. Since then, Maori women have lightened the weight and adopted it as a beautiful art form and dance. I look forward to acquiring a set of traditional Maori poi myself as my New Zealand souvenir.

Hangi: A Hangi is a traditional Maori way of cooking. A pit is dug into the ground into which a layer of coals is placed, then the food (a selection of meat and vegetables), and another layer of coals. It is all covered with burlap or leaves and baked for many hours. It’s delicious!

Please click here to see the Maori Culture video if you can’t view it on this page.

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12 thoughts on “Maori Culture in New Zealand”

  1. I too am a big fan of maori culture! I think one of the reasons for their strong traditions today is because of their history. When the “white man” (the British) first came to claim New Zealand for themselves, the Maori fought back. But unlike other native groups which fought tribe by tribe, the maoris put aside their differences and fought as one group vs the British.

    Of course the Maori lost but because they had fought as one group the british had to admit that they were conquering a nation and had to make a treaty with the maori that gave them many rights.

    Other groups, such as the Maori and the Native Americans for example, weren’t so lucky. They acted more as individual tribes and groups that fought/cooperated with the British and so when they were finally defeated they weren’t afforded the same rights.
    Interesting, no?

    Also, if anyone is interested in seeing a real life Haka, they should watch a rugby game in which the New Zealand All-Blacks play. They dance the Haka before the game and it is something to see!

  2. @Becky – I haven’t seen an All-Blacks game yet, but I’m eager to, especially now that I know they do a Haka! (And for those who don’t know, Maoris are sometimes referred to as “black” people in New Zealand. I haven’t yet determined if this is considered derogatory, so I don’t use it myself. And this is obviously different from “black” people in America – who are usually of West Indian or African descent.

  3. Ooo.ya becky if never been to NZ but would one day be there to see the maori people because the haka that All Blacks dances in a rugby mathc just shows it all(they”maori people” are great fighters so i would say but some people dont seems to agree with just goes to show that they know nothing about hard living

  4. Becky I hope you get around to watching the all blacks lay a game as it is what makes any new zealand a kiwi. As for the haka, well it’s still good but the real maori’s make it look real good.

  5. Just for clarification: it’s powhiri not pohiri, pronounced paw-fi-ri with the emphasis on the first syllable and the r being like a flipped italianate r

  6. I wonder how many of the people commenting in this site have actually lived in NZ, as I did for 4 years and worked with ” Maoris” The Maoris raped, tortured and murdered and almost completely wiped out the Maoriori Peoples, also from polynesian islands. In comparison with other “indigenous peoples”, such as most north american native peoples, who understood the value of their environment, and preserved it, Maoris, in a very short space of time, wiped out more than half of all living species in New Zealand. There are no pure blood Maoris left in NZ due to inbreeding. They want to prevent pakehas, as they deem all non Maori peoples (stupidly-uncaringly, including themselves) accessing beaches. They demand equal rights yet they are not equal, both biologically and intellectually. They die young, sadly, perhaps for them , with diabetes and more rapidly degenerative disorders than other homo sapiens. Because of this rift, and “political correctness” Maori students are granted bonus additions to their poor academic scores to enter colleges, at which they perform poorly, yet the political correctness passes them- for what- poor work performance, which has a very negative outcome for poor new zealand productivity.

  7. Have you ever lived in nz. All is not as it is proclaimed to be > Maoris some slightly brown skinned people who don’t retain the hideous gargoyle features of full blooded Maoris photographed a century ago, of which there are none left due to inbreeding, make atrocious claims on the islands which they settled in, a very short time before the europeans settled there. But they want to make unrealistic claims, such as on the foreshore. They seem to forget that they are warlike beings- their greatest exposition is the haka- I am going to eat you- bla bla bla. They annihilated their compatriots , the maoiriori at the chatham islands a most hideous and brutal way.

    • Colin ( oh knower of everything) the world is not just in black and white bro! There is so much more to the history of the maori yes there is brutality but there is also spirituality and music and dance as well. You seem to be stuck in a dark place, was NZ not kind to you?

  8. Colin, you seem to have a beef towards the NZ Maori. Thanks for bringing down the conversation, bro! You could almost attribute what you have said to all conquering and non conquering creeds and races throughout history. Why not try focus on the positive? Did something happen to you in NZ?

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