Experience Māori Culture in New Zealand

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New Zealand is a land that has long captivated visitors with its otherworldly natural beauty and equally vibrant cities. However, these aren’t the only aspects that make the islands so authentic. In fact, New Zealand is widely celebrated for its Māori culture, born and nurtured by a group of people who inhabited the land over a thousand years ago.

You already know about the Māori people, but how well do you know their culture? To enrich your knowledge and infuse your travel adventures with unique experiences, in today’s article, we will pay tribute to the Māori community and celebrate its uniqueness and identity. We’ll take a closer look at their language, traditions, and cultural practices, as well as highlight their significant impact on modern New Zealand society.

maori, men, leap

History of Māori people

The history of the Māori community tracks back its origins in terms of several migrational waves. However, this occurrence of the Māori people always merging between countries culminated in the 14th century (around 1300CE), with the arrival of a ”great fleet’ from Haiwaiki (modern-day Tahiti). It is precisely in this period that history began to take shape and embedded the Māori origin in New Zealand, proving these people reached the shores with their waka hourua (canoes).

The Māori have first started settling along the coast, living off hunting seals and moas. After a while, they learned how to grow their own food, and some of them began moving to the forests. For years, they lived in small tribal groups and weaved their strong traditions and culture, turning them into Māori ancestry.

person, maori, indigenous

Te Reo Māori language

Speaking of the unique Māori culture, we can’t avoid mentioning their native language- Te Reo Māori. The origins of Māori language go back to Eastern Polynesia, where the indigenous people of Māori spoke it. Fun fact: did you know that at the beginning of the 19th century, this language was predominantly spoken by the people in New Zealand? But as the Europeans began settling in greater numbers, the Māori language started dying out.

Nowadays, Te Reo Māori is an official language in New Zealand (one of the three), spoken by 4% of the population – around 140,000 people. However, it is valued and respected by the locals, who consider it a national treasure or taonga!

    Kia Kaha - Stand Strong, Te Reo Maori, Maori Language

    Māori traditions and customs

    If you’ve ever come across something related to the Māori culture, you’ve probably noticed its distinctive characteristics. Given that the Māori people were the first to inhabit New Zealand, you can only imagine how great of an impact their presence imposed. Not to mention the fact that after the 19th century, this community has experienced quite a turmoil. However, even when the Māori traditions seemed slightly left behind, they reemerged stronger than ever. Therefore, we’re here today to bring the Māori culture closer to as many people as possible, giving you a glimpse into a world you’ve never experienced before.

    maori, art

    Below, you’ll discover the most notable Māori traditions, which will help you get a sense of their uniqueness.

    • Traditional Māori arts – these include carving, weaving, kapa haka (group performance – think, the All Blacks pre-rugby game, to give you have mental image! Its both a living-art form and a challenge to the opposition), as well as moko (tattoo). People who practice these arts follow in the footsteps of their ancestors (tipuna). During this process, they try to replicate the very techniques used for hundreds of years and merge them with modern technologies.

    • Taking off your shoes and hats– a part of the Māori culture involves taking off your foot and headwear before you enter the wharenui or the meeting house. During this act, only the Chief is allowed to keep the shoes on. The symbolism of this meeting house is the following: you are leaving the outside world (the place where the god of war, Tūmatauenga, resides), and you enter the inside world (the home of Rongo-mā–Tāne, the god of peace).

    • Ta moko- these are traditional Māori tattoos that people often wear on their faces. Why are they doing it? As an act of honour to all the things sacred and valued by the Māori culture. In that sense, tattoos above the eyes represent spiritual wisdom, while those below are a sign of physical achievement.

    • Karakia– these are traditional Māori prayers and incantations that people use when they need spiritual guidance and protection. Often, you can see karakia being used as a formal greeting before a ceremony.

    • Hongi– this is a traditional greeting where two people bring their noses together and share a breath. This type of greeting is often used in traditional meetings, as well as ceremonies. As a visitor, you’ll be expected to hongi and shake hands with your host after a welcoming speech. To make sure you get it right, you need to bend your head, lower or close your eyes, and press your nose to your host’s before stepping back.
      Today, if you want to experience the unique sense of Māori culture in its original form, it’s best to do that on a ‘marae’- a sacred communal space where weddings, funerals and other occasions are held. During this welcoming ceremony (powhiri), the ‘manuhiri’ (guests) receive the unique opportunity to be hosted by the kāinga (local people).

      Te Puia Maori Weaving

      Image Credit Graeme Murray

      The Significance of Māori Culture in New Zealand’s Society

      Today, Māori people live throughout New Zealand. Many are passionate activists united by the same goal- to keep the Māori culture and language alive. Hence, to these people, being Māori means understanding and honouring Māori ancestry while, at the same time, living by its core values.

      If we’re to talk about all the impact Māori culture had (and still has) on New Zealand and its modern society, we can talk for days. This is because the Māori groups had influenced and even shaped today’s New Zealand society. Māoritanga, the term people use to refer to the Māori culture, is now shaped by the increasing urbanisation. Although the people from its community still honour the ancient Māori customs, the Māori society of today is also influenced by the close contact with the New Zealanders of European descent, also known as Pākehā.

      We talked about the core values, but what would culture be without art? The Māori traditional arts also play a significant role in the contemporary arts of New Zealand. By applying different techniques, which include carving, weaving, and tattooing, they’ve created stunning crafts that literally all travellers admire. Doesn’t matter whether you travel to the North or South Island. You will see these patterns and characters who reflect the core Māori beliefs.

      However, one of the greatest historical impacts of the Māori was when they joined the New Zealand parliament. They have had a crucial role in leading the country since the 19th century, holding 7 out of 120 seats.

      Ultimately, the two different cultures influenced one another. But, what is most fulfilling is that dispite some challenges, they have together created a cohesive community, and continue to work for this today, learning to embrace each other’s uniqueness, and contribute to mutual development.

        “If you walk in the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew”

        Lyrics by Judy Kuhn
        Song – Colors of The Wind
        Movie – Pocahontas

        Te Pa Tu, Couple taking offering from tribe member

        Image Credit Mile Holden

        FAQ about Māori culture

        1. What are the main values in Māori culture?

        If you try to understand the Māori values, you need to see through their eyes. The values of the Māori people emerge from how they make sense of the world. And despite the colonisation and deprivation of their unique culture, they still managed to keep nurturing their original values. We’re talking about 5 pillars on which the whole Māori culture relies:

        • Whakaiti – humility
        • Ko tau rourou and manaakitanga – altruism
        • Whanaungatanga – others
        • Tāria te wā and kaitiakitanga – long-term thinking, guardianship
        • Tikanga Māori – cultural authenticity

        2. What is typical of Māori culture?

        As you’ve probably noticed by yourself, Māori culture is an incredibly rich and varied one. It revolves around a set of values that many Māori follow and which shape their essence. You will be surprised to discover that they think people are the most important thing in the world. This notion alone has shaped the Māori community into one of the most cheerful and good-natured ones in the world. They are genuinely virtuous and care for each community member. 

        3. What traditions do the Māori people have?

        Because of Māori culture’s rich ancestry, the people have a whole palette of traditions they believe in and value even today. Most are connected to traditional arts, such as carving, weaving, kapa haka (group performance), and moko (tattoo). Of course, we cannot forget about the core traditional māori segment – speech. Whaikorero (oratory) is one of its most cherished values.

        4. What are Māori celebrations?

        Every culture has its own staple celebrations that enrich and shape its identity. When it comes to celebrations, Matariki is one of the most important. This event signifies the coming of the New Year for their culture, and it is a time of peace, joy and remembrance. Other traditional māori celebrations include ritual fires, making offerings, and many that honour the dead.

        Regarding these authentic traditions, New Zealanders are really respectful. To nurture and honour their culture, they organise yearly Māori festivals dedicated to celebrating these indigenous people.

        5. What are Māori groups called?

        Essentially, the Māori society is made up of several groups. The biggest one of them is iwi, which means tribe. In this tribe, there are various clans and descent groups known as hapū. When it comes to their members, the groups can be as large as several hundred members. Throughout history, their role was to defend the Māori land and support the community.

        Te Puia, Maori Woman Wahine

        Image Credit Rotorua NZ

        Māori Cultural Experiences Available in New Zealand

        Now that you’ve explored the Māori culture better, it’s only natural to want to experience it first-hand. Luckily, with New Zealand praising its roots and century-old traditions, you now have amazing opportunities to explore Māori customs and delve into its rich cultural environment.

        Whether you’re interested in exploring the Māori culture through food or perhaps through its art or customs, we’ve prepared a list of experiences you sure don’t want to miss!

        Visit Māori villages in Rotorua

        You may have heard of Rotorua as New Zealand’s capital of natural thermal waters and spa relaxation. But did you also know it’s where you can gain an incredible insight into Māori culture? Before you dip into the warm pool to enjoy the warm bubbles and call it a night, you better have your whole day filled with cultural activities. The good news is Rotorua is sprinkled with many indigenous Māori villages- perfect for exploring their history, culture and traditions.

        Here are some of the activities we recommend:

        • Maori cultural evening experience– it’s a three-hour Māori evening feast in Te Pa Tu where you get to see how traditional performance and dining are done. You’ll feel the extraordinary dynamics of these people and feel their culture from different aspects.

        • Māori cultural experience– another evening filled with cultural events, only this time, it takes place in the Mitai Maori village. People who have been here say this is the most authentic Maori experience they’ve witnessed, transporting you back in time of sacred tradition and Māori customs.

        • Te Puia Guided Tour & Cultural Performance– if you want to combine the relaxing geothermal experience of Rotorua with the unique Māori culture, this is the event to sign up for. The activity includes a 1.5 hour guided tour of Te Puia, visiting its geothermal wonders and the Kiwi Conservation Centre, as well as witnessing the vibrant Haka dance first-hand!

        Te Puia welcome

        A Te Puia welcome – Image Credit Cameron MacKenzie

        Visit the New Zealand National Museum

        Is there a better way to explore people’s cultural heritage than visiting a museum that displays it all? Te Papa Tongarewa is one of New Zealand’s most innovative and inspiring museums. Located on Wellington’s waterfront, Te Papa covers 6 entire floors, containing intriguing exhibits that stand as witnesses of Kiwi history and Māori culture. It features traditional artworks and amazing flora and fauna.

        The best part about it? It’s easily available for everyone, even for those who travel on a budget, as admission is free.

        Manea Footprints of Kupe

        The Footprints of Kupe is one of the most unique activities you can take during this exploration trip of yours. It’s a multi-sensory experience right into the Māori culture and tradition, allowing you to explore the history and everything you need to know about the people. It is a 75-minute storytelling journey, a combination of art, taonga, film, performance, and digital interaction. It’s designed to help you to witness as the story of the great explorer Kupe comes to life.

        Waka Abel Tasman

        Another way to experience the amazing Māori culture is to sign up for the Waka Abel Tasman Tour. It’s a water experience that starts at Kaiteretere Beach, near the top of the South Island. The tour takes you on a fantastic journey through the ocean, giving you a glimpse of the charming coasts of Aotearoa. If you allow yourself to surrender to the journey fully, you can put yourself in the shoes of the Māori when they first discovered these lands themselves.

        Te Ana Māori Rock Art

        Are you a passionate artist? Or perhaps someone who enjoys exploring different cultures through the visual heritage they’ve left behind? Regardless, this tour will surely leave you with your mouth open as you explore the ancient Ngāi Tahu Māori rock art.

        Here, you’ll be able to explore the limestone caves and granite overhangs and how intriguingly the colour red is painted on them. All of these paintings are a craft of the Māori tribal group, Ngāi Tahu, who have left over 750 such works in the area.

        Visit Marae: Māori Meeting Grounds

        As we mentioned, a great part of Māori culture is the ceremonies and meetings they hold. Therefore, Māori meeting grounds are the focal point of the communities throughout the island. That said, the best way to get a feel of the meeting experience is by going to one of the many ‘marae’ scattered around the country.

        In Polynesian languages, ‘Marae’ means a space cleared of weeds and trees. It comprises carved buildings, like a communal, that belong to a particular iwi (tribe), hapū (sub-tribe) or whānau (family). For the Māori people, the Marae are their tūrangawaewae- the place where they stand and belong. These places are usually used for different kinds of meetings, celebrations, religious ceremonies, and even funerals. Moreover, they’re also where people gather for educational workshops and other important tribal events.

        Marae, Maori meeting grounds

        Kai: Māori cuisine

        On a final note, we have one of the quintessential elements of any culture – the cuisine! Trust us, immersing in the Māori culture won’t be complete without tasting the traditional cuisine. Also known as Kai, this blend of Māori meals is loved both by New Zealanders and visitors. No matter whether you decide to savour an exquisite dining experience or sample the delicious hāngī takeaway, we promise you this will be something you’ve never tried before. But what makes Kai so unique? The secret lies in the combination of flavours from the forest, sea, field, and river, which always results in something absolutely delightful.

        What will you explore more?

        We truly hope this insightful article will make you eager to discover the amazingness of Māori culture. If you’re interested in reading more insightful content, feel free to explore the rest of our blog pages. We are sure you will find something to fuel your wanderlust!

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