An introduction to Maori culture in New Zealand

If you love history and adventure, get ready to immerse yourself in the most paramount aspect of New Zealand's identity: Maori culture.

Maori are the tangata whenua, the indigenous people, of New Zealand.  They came here over 1000 years ago from their mythical Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki.  Today Maori make up 14% of the population and their history, language and traditions are paramount to New Zealand’s identity.  All Kiwis now learn about Maori culture, as part of their own heritage Maori culture is a vibrant and essential part of the New Zealand experience for everyone.

A bit of history:

Maoris are believed to have arrived in the 1200s.  Polynesian in origin, their features, as well as traditional dances and cooking, are similar to Hawaiian or Tahitian.  But the personalities of the Maori are very different from other Pacific Islanders.  The importance of status and an 'eye for an eye' mentality meant that warfare between tribes was more common than for other Polynesians.  Fortified villages, surrounded by walls made from tree trunks, served as protection in wartime.  The Maori were one of the only native peoples to defeat the European cannon.

Today most Maori people are extremely welcoming with a laid-back, surfer attitude of brotherliness and a justifiable pride of their culture.  Like Aboriginal influence in Australia, Maori impact can be found all over - from art to the names of places; Maori is part of the culture and integrated in every way.  Most visitors will see a song and dance performance and try a traditionally-made feast, but as recently as the past 5-10 years, more interested tourists have been able to hire a Maori guide for a hike, storytelling, and even city tours that show you historical events sites.  If you are extremely lucky, you can even stay overnight in a reconstructed village or meeting house and have a night to experience the locals’ traditional way of life.  Below is a list of our favourite places to visit, for a Maori experience like no other!

Rotorua and Taupo: the North Island has three times the population of the South Island and many more Maori people.  Most people visit here to have a Maori experience.  The geothermal center of the island is found around Rotorua and Taupo, both are by far the most prolific in terms of offering Maori experiences.  You can hire a private Maori guide to show you around the active volcanic region, with phenomenal storytelling and insight into the historically hunter-gatherer way of life of the Maori people before Europeans arrived. 

Rotorua also has the best hangi feasts and indigenous performances, as well as a great cultural centre that acts as a museum and art gallery.  Hangi is a method of cooking with a deep pit holding scalding hot rocks that cook food wrapped in leaves (now more commonly, aluminum foil) which are all buried under a healthy layer of dirt to heat properly.  Kumara (a kind of sweet potato), taro (a root veggie), fish and meats like a whole pig are common, but if all you want is a fruit salad to eat, know that they cater to all.  Hangis traditionally brought people together for a festival or celebration, and it’s very entertaining to taste this local food while watching Maori men perform a haka or women perform a poi dance. 

Auckland: Maori history and influence abounds in the city of Auckland, even though it’s the biggest city in New Zealand with some 1.5 million residents.  A guide can take you to significant historical sites and offer an excursion into the hinterlands with stories and loads of information.  You’ll find nearby many Maori villages and meeting houses, where you can actually stay overnight and have a taste of what Maori life was like before the Europeans. 

East Cape: Located on the North Island, East Cape is by far the least tourist traversed region, and is the most Maori in terms of where people actually live, but they’re mostly private homes.  Minimal tourism means it takes more time and energy to actually meet people here.  At certain times of the year, when they have annual gatherings, you can participate in fishing contests or rugby matches.

Bay of Islands: Far north of Auckland and the Northland peninsula, the Bay of Islands is home to Waitangi where the Maori signed the treaty with the British in 1840, effectively founding the British colony of New Zealand.  An interesting fact, and controversy to this day, is a small translation error from English to Maori which misled the indigenous people into thinking they were merely agreeing to allow the British to use their land. 

Wellington: The capital of the country has the fantastic Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum.  Here you’ll not only find artifacts of Maori and European history, but also some unusual wildlife evidence and hands-on exhibits, as well as a reconstruction of a beautiful Maori meeting house covered in majestically ornate wood carvings.

South Island: Far fewer Maori live on the South Island, mostly because of less favourable climates, but there are a number of pockets with great insight into Maori culture.  Shark Nett gallery and museum, found on the northern coast of the island in Havelock North, is tiny but well worth a tour.  Ask us to find out how to receive a traditional Maori greeting dance and tea with the local chief and his wife.  It’s tough to find a chief willing to open his doors to wayward tourists.  In Hokitika, on the west coast, you’ll find more shops where you can buy traditional greenstone jewelry made from the rare stone deposits found in the area.  You can even go fossicking in rivers around the South Island to search for greenstone- good luck!

Coromandel Peninsula, Nelson & more: Here you’ll find the artsier hubs of the country, mostly on the North Island but there are a few to be found on the South.  Make sure you get the chance to make your own jewelry by carving cow bone or greenstone into a beautiful, swirling design inspired by Maori lore- a fishhook that pulled the country out of the sea; as well as other traditional shapes.

When visiting Maori culture, remember to always have the utmost respect.  Some traditions, like hongi or the haka, may seem funny to you, but to the Maori they’re of the most importance and if you laugh or turn down an invitation, you could be insulting someone’s entire family history.

For more information on New Zealand, give us a call at 312-951-8517, or check out one of our unique sample itineraries by clicking here.

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