New Zealand’s Maori culture is yet another draw-card to this unique country. As the first settlers in New Zealand more than a thousand years ago, the Maori are described as New Zealand’s indigenous people. A great way to immerse yourself in the culture is by visiting one of the many marae in the country. To respect ancient traditions, there’s a few rules of etiquette that you need to know about when visiting these Maori meeting grounds. For this reason, we” go over what to do when visiting a marae in this guide.
A marae is a Maori meeting ground that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe) or whanau (family). They usually consist of a meeting house (wharenui), which are full of carvings both inside and out, an open space in front of the meeting house, a dining hall, kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Marae are used for tribal events, such as meetings, funerals, celebrations, educational workshops and to share the culture with tourists.
Where to have a maori cultural experience
The only way you can visit a marae is by being formally welcomed. Backpackers are most likely to visit a marae by doing a Maori “cultural experience” usually carried out for tourists.
There are more opportunities to take part in cultural experiences in the North Island, especially in Rotorua, as the North Island had more Maori settlers when they first arrived in New Zealand. Find out more here.
These cultural experiences often involve Maori dance, storytelling, a Hangi meal (food cooked in an underground oven), and the traditional welcoming ceremony. The powhiri (welcome ceremony) is where most of your etiquette as a visitor comes into play.
Starting The Powhiri
Now’s your chance to witness fascinating Maori traditions. Some aspects of the powhiri differ from tribe to tribe, but the following is what generally happens.
Before the ceremony goes underway, a member of the iwi or whanau will come and greet you before taking you onto the marae. They will let you know what is about to happen and go through the customs, so you don’t get into any awkward situations.
This next bit is not always performed but, well, it’s pretty cool to see. It is a more traditional aspect of the welcome.
A warrior will challenge the visiting tribe (this is you and your group) to see if you are a friend or foe. This might involve a dance or chant, such as the famous Haka you might have seen the All Blacks rugby team do. Remember, when a warrior gets all up in your grill, pulls a face with his tongue out, and rolls his eyes into the back of his head, don’t laugh! That’s very disrespectful. Just remain expressionless.
The warrior will lay down a token, usually a branch, on the ground for the leader of your tribe to pick up. So, if you are in a group of people, pick a tribe leader to pick up the branch and show that you come in peace!
Karanga, song and speech
As you walk onto the marae, the women of the host tribe will sing a karanga (a welcome call). Traditionally, a woman from the visiting tribe would respond with their own song. If you have a song, great! If not, the member of the iwi who initially greeted you will tell you what to do.
Either on the grounds or inside the meeting house, the host tribe and the visiting tribe will sit on chairs and face each other. If going into the meeting house, it is customary to take off your shoes before entering. Speeches and song will be made from the older members of each tribe. Obviously, the Maori tribe will speak and sing in their native language. You and your tribe should reciprocate the best you can with a song. Who doesn’t like a good song?
Hongi and Hangi
The welcome ceremony ends with hongi – an with similar intimacy as a handshake or hug. Place your hand on the other person’s shoulder and touch noses and forehead. Some people touch noses once, some twice, and if you want to get married to the other person, touch three times… no pressure!
Congratulations! You are now part of the whanau! Time to eat far too much with a delicious hangi meal.
Key Maori rules of etiquette to remember.
If you somehow forget everything you just read. Just remember these key things.
Take your shoes off before entering the meeting house.
Is someone performing a Haka in your face? Make sure your face remains expressionless.
Don’t sit on a surface where food is. It is considered rude.
Don’t eat your meal before a blessing from one of your hosts has been said.