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The Maori Culture in New Zealand

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Traditions meet contemporary life in this fascinating New Zealand culture.

During your amazing adventure around New Zealand, do doubt you will hear Maori legends, learn about their short but fascinating history, and be entertained by their arts. In this quick guide, we’ll go through the Maori culture in New Zealand.

The Maori were the first settlers in New Zealand. Over a 1000+ years, the Maori have developed an intriguing culture. Of course, there has been huge changes when sharing New Zealand with Western societies, but many Maori traditions are still evident in the globalising culture of New Zealand.

We go through some of the key aspects of the Maori culture, from carvings on wood (and skin!) to the captivating war dance, the haka.

The Maori Language

The last New Zealand Census (2013) stated there were 598,605 Maori people living in New Zealand, in which 1 in 5 people can have a conversation in the Maori language, te reo. Te reo is taught in New Zealand schools. You can even watch some TV shows completely in te reo.

When backpacking in New Zealand, you’ll no doubt see certain Maori words over and over again. Here are a few to help you out:

  • Aotearoa – New Zealand
  • Kia ora – greeting wishing good health
  • Marae – Maori meeting ground
  • Wharenui – meeting house
  • Whanau – extended family
  • Hapu – sub-tribe
  • Iwi – tribe
  • Hangi – food cooked in an earth oven
  • Waka – Maori canoe
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Maori religion

Traditionally, Maori religion and spiritual life revolved around various gods. Most commonly referred to are Rangi-nui (the sky father) and Papa-tu-a-nuku (the earth mother). Even today, it is common to greet Rangi-nui and Papa-tu-a-nuku when speaking formally in a marae. You may also hear a lot about Maui in the creation story of New Zealand. Legend tells it that the demigod used the South Island as a canoe, and fished up the North Island. Such Maori gods are often depicted in Maori carvings, especially on Maori buildings like the wharenui.

Christianity has been incorporated into Maori beliefs with the arrival of the Europeans. Where some christians will worship in mainstream churches, there are also two major Maori churches – Ringatu and Ratana.

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Maori Media

Radio, websites, magazines and TV channels: you can find news and views concerning the Maori across several mediums. For us backpackers in New Zealand, an insight in the Maori culture can be achieved by simply tuning into the Maori Television channel available in New Zealand. Shows are in both English and Maori with subtitles. Plus, more than 90% of the shows are New Zealand-made. For a TV channel purely in the Maori language, switch over to Te Reo. Even if you don’t understand the language, you can at least get a feel for what it sounds like.

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Ta Moko (Maori tattoos)

After travelling, many backpackers get inspired to permanently ink themselves to remember the good times. Getting a Maori tattoo is one way to go about it. However, just when you thought getting a modern day tattoo was pretty uncomfortable, not many people nowadays would opt for the traditional Maori Moko.

Moko are permanent grooves chiselled into the skin using pigment and sharp bone. This art form is unique to each wearer, as it depicts the wearer’s genealogy, knowledge, and social standing within their tribe. Men usually get moko on the face, thighs and buttocks, while women get it on the face and chin.

Although the moko hand tool method still exists, tattooing is more popular. For non-Maoris getting a Maori-inspired tattoo, this is called kirituhi (skin inscriptions).

Find out where you can get your own Maori tattoo in Where to Get a Tattoo in New Zealand?

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Maori Carvings

Maori carvings will slap you in the face as soon as you step off the plane in New Zealand. Well, not literally, but Auckland international airport has a gateway of carvings welcoming visitors to Aoteoroa.

Maori carving designs are used on many sculptures, Maori buildings, waka, but you will most commonly see them on wharenui. Carvings on wharenui are specific to its tribe’s ancestral background and history.

History buffs can see some of the traditional Maori carvings in New Zealand’s museums: Auckland Museum, Te Papa, Otago Museum, Taupo Museum, Te Manawa, Waikato Museum and Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Pounamu (greenstone)

Pounamu, otherwise known as jade or greenstone, is a valuable stone in New Zealand. Originally, pounamu was used in weapons, tools and as jewellery to show high social status.

Today, you can view some finer pounamu carvings and tools in museums or buy jewellery from, most probably, every souvenir shop in New Zealand! But if you really want to keep with tradition, you must buy pounamu jewellery as a gift, not for yourself.

Why not try your hand at carving your own pounamu? Find out where on our list: 10 Places to Experience Maori Culture in New Zealand.

For more information on pounamu, check out The Greenstone Pendant Meanings.

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Kapa haka (Cultural dance and chants)

To this day, people are captivated by the kapa haka – a Maori form of dance that dates back before the European arrival. The dance that springs to mind for visitors to New Zealand is the haka, as many will have seen the war dance carried out by the All Blacks rugby team before each match.

The Haka, which uses vigorous body movements, pulling distorted faces and chanting, is not just used to signify war but is used to welcome visitors, honour achievement and to express identity. Find out more in The Maori Haka: Its Meaning & History.

Compared to other song and dance types, the haka is an exception in contemporary kapa haka. The music is usually vocal and has a European-style harmony with accompanying acoustic instruments. Nonetheless, Maori language, and haka-styled facial expressions and body movements are incorporated. See kapa haka performed live at experiences like Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua.

Marae: the centre of Maori community life

LEarn more about the Maori meeting grounds

A marae is a meeting ground consisting of a meeting house, kitchen, dining area, bathroom facilities and an open space. Meetings and ceremonies in accordance to traditional protocols will take place in a marae.

There are many opportunities to visit a marae when backpacking in New Zealand, some even facilitate visitors staying overnight. Before you visit a marae, make sure to learn all about the etiquette in our guide of what to do when visiting a marae.

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