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Welcome to Ao-tea-roa, Land of the Long White Cloud, also known as New Zealand. This is the homeland of an ancient Polynesian people, the Maori, who made epic journeys in waka hourua (voyaging canoes) from their Pacific Island origins to reach these shores over 1,000 years ago.
The rich culture of the Maori people is an integral part of New Zealand life. Unlike so many historical cases where colonisers spared no regard for other cultures, the New Zealand story is one of partnership. In 1840, in the Northland settlement of Waitangi, Maori signed an historic treaty with the British Crown. The spirit of tolerance and justice remains an important aspect of the New Zealand identity, even as the finer points of what this means are healthily debated. Today Maori make up over fourteen percent of the population and their culture influences life in New Zealand in many different ways.
Visitors will find many opportunities to experience Maori culture. Those interested in exploring the nation's history should include a visit to Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, where the Treaty was signed. At the Waitangi National Trust Estate visitors can see the Treaty House, as well as a fully carved Maori Meeting House and one of the world's largest Maori War Canoes.
Rotorua is another region well known for cultural experiences. Here visitors can enjoy a Maori powhiri (welcome), visit marae (meeting grounds) and listen to kapa haka (song and dance). They can also enjoy a hangi, food cooked on hot stones in an underground oven.
You can also take part in activities with Maori guides, from horse trekking to white water rafting – a chance for a unique cultural insight.
A striking feature of Maori culture is the practice of traditional tattooing. Full-face tattoos (moko) became rare in the twentieth century but are gaining popularity as Maori seek to preserve their culture. The full-face moko is worn by men, while on women the moko is restricted to the chin, upper lip and nostrils. The moko differs from other forms of tattooing in that it is carved into the skin. Traditionally, Moko had very personal significance to the wearer: the markings signified the wearer's status and participation within the tribe, whether they were an authority on the occult or an expert on the battlefield, for example.
Visiting a Marae
A Maori marae, or meeting house, is a sacred space and visitors should be respectful. The powhiri or formal welcome onto a marae begins with a wero. Visitors are ritually challenged to determine their intent. A fearsome warrior confronts the visitors, twirling a taiaha (long club) and flicking his tongue. He will lay down a token, such as a small branch, before the visitors. Picking up the token demonstrates that the visitors come in peace. Women will than perform a karanga (chant), calling the visitors onto the marae.
The Maori population in New Zealand is very integrated into the general population. In the 1950s there was a major drift of Maori from their traditional tribal homes into the cities. Since that time there has been a high rate of mixed marriages between Maori and Pakeha and, as a result, there are very few of pure Maori descent remaining.
A number of political, economic and social institutions promote the interests of Maori people. Maori radio and television stations promote the use of Maori language and Maori children may attend special schools rather than the general state school system. Maori may choose to appear on either the general electoral roll or the Maori electoral roll. To ensure Maori are adequately represented in Parliament, there are a certain number of Parliamentary Seats allocated specifically to Maori representatives: this number changes depending on the number of people on the Maori roll.
Maori and Pacific treasures
Weaving and carving – in wood, bone and greenstone – are an important Maori tradition and magnificent examples of he taonga Maori (Maori treasures) can be seen at museums and galleries throughout New Zealand.
Where to see Maori and Pacific treasures
Auckland Museum houses the most significant collection of Maori and Pacific treasures in New Zealand.
He Taonga Maori, the Maori Treasures Gallery, displays over 2,000 priceless Maori treasures, including rare carvings and the last great Maori war canoe used in battle. Experience Maori hospitality by joining Manaia in a lively performance of song, dance and stories. Their compelling show gives an insight into Maori tradition, genealogy and spirituality. Performances three times daily. Admission charges apply.
Where to purchase Maori and Pacific treasures
Apart from admiring traditional artworks, there is also the chance for visitors to purchase their own. At the Maori tribal settlement of Waiwhetu in Lower Hutt is the Maori Treasures complex, where visitors can see artists weaving, sculpting, carving and potting. Te Puia in Rotorua and the Arts Centre in Christchurch also showcase Maori arts.
Recommended reading for an insight into Maori culture
The Penguin History of New Zealand
A History of the New Zealanders: From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century
The Story of a Treaty