Digging Deep: A Lesson in Maori Culture

March 11, 2015 Nellie Huang

“He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!”  What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people! –Maori proverb

These wise words of Shiloh, a young leader in the local Maori community, encapsulate the spirit of the Maoris. They strongly believe it is the people that matter; it is people who make a country and who make the difference.

As part of the “Best of New Zealand” tour, I got to visit a Maori village just outside the town of Rotorua. It’s one of the two remaining living Maori villages in New Zealand, and we were privileged to be here with Shiloh who, dressed in an American baseball cap and jersey, wasn’t quite how I’d imagined a Maori to look like. Contrary to his appearance however, he was a man wise beyond his years, and his words were poetic, powerful and deeply spiritual.

During my visit, I asked questions and dug deep into the Maori culture and lifestyle. Here are some of the things that I learned about the Maoris from Shiloh:

Dwindling numbers but growing spirit

According to Shiloh, Maoris make up 20% of the total population of New Zealand (approximately 800,000 people) today. 250,000 of them currently live in Australia due to more job opportunities. While the Maori population is slowly dwindling, their presence in New Zealand is stronger these days than before. There is more and more emphasis on the preservation of indigenous culture; the Maoris are taught their own culture and language in schools and are encouraged to embrace their heritage. Many of them are also actively involved in New Zealand’s sporting culture and politics.

Shiloh shares with us his cultural heritage

Shiloh shares with us his cultural heritage.

Guardians of the land

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was formed between the British government and Maori chiefs of New Zealand. The treaty established a British Governor of New Zealand and recognized Maori ownership of their lands and other properties.

Today, Maoris still own almost 80% of the land on the South Island of New Zealand, but that’s sadly changing. The government is buying more and more land through tribal deals, the largest of which approached $1 billion.

The marae, or meeting place of the Maoris.

The marae, or meeting place of the Maoris.

A respected culture

The Maoris are well-respected people in New Zealand. It’s clear there isn’t any difference in status between the Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders. They receive the same education and privileges as everyone else.

Shiloh shared that as a Maori, he is very proud to be from the most respected indigenous tribe in the world. Indeed, many indigenous tribes around the world have suffered under the hands of colonialism.
When I asked how he thinks the Maoris earned their rights, he answered, “Because we fought. We come from a warring culture, and we will always fight for what we stand for.”

Polynesian tribal statues

Polynesian tribal statues.

Polynesian roots and cannibalism

The Maori cultural history is inextricably tied to its Polynesian roots. Their ancestors had originally sailed from Polynesia to arrive on New Zealand around 1280 CE. These days, they still share similar language and cultural traditions such as religion and social organization with the Polynesians.

One of the most interesting practices the New Zealanders shared with the Polynesians was cannibalism. Eating enemies did not only provide them with a food source but also gave them the ability to gain power over the enemies. They used to dismember people and slow cook them over a tapu, or burning ground.

This church is built over the tapu.

This church is built over the tapu.

Spiritualism runs in their blood

The centre of the Maori community life is the marae, an enclosed area of land where a meeting house or wharenui stands. It is where the villagers gather to discuss issues and pay respects to the Maori ancestors. The interior of the meeting house is often adorned with woven leaves and intricately carved masks, for which Shiloh explained, “We believe that the blood of our ancestors still flows through here.”

Just before we entered the marae, Shiloh sang us a beautiful tune in Maori to welcome us into his spiritual house. Here’s a short video of his singing:

People of the land

Just before we left the marae, Shiloh bid us farewell the traditional Maori way – with a hongi. As he explained, a hongi is done by pressing one’s nose and forehead to another person. Here, the ha (or breath of life), is exchanged and intermingled, signifying the sharing of both souls.

Through the exchange of this physical greeting, one is no longer considered manuhiri (visitor) but rather tangata whenua, one of the people of the land.

Maori carvings in Rotorua.

Maori carvings in Rotorua.

Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures to New Zealand encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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