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All About the Diverse and Influential Culture of the Maoris

Maori Culture
The Māori community is native to the island nation of New Zealand. Modern Māori lifestyle is a lot more westernized. However, remnants of a rich traditional culture exist even today. Here is a brief look at this culture.
Marian K
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
People native to New Zealand often associate the word Māoritanga with their culture. Not surprisingly, this word actually means being like the Māori people or Māoriness. Let us now witness a Māori way of life that evolved sans 'civilized' influences.
Arrival of Māori
Māori lineage is described using the term Whakapapa, which means to place one's antecedents layer-wise, one upon another in proper order of genealogy, starting from the first.
The Māori community is said to have its roots on the islands of Polynesia. By nature, Māori ancestors were excellent at navigation, seafaring and astronomy. The first Māori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand in their traditional waka (canoes) around 14th century AD from an island called Hawaiki, presumably near Hawaii in Polynesia. Some of the most famous wakas or canoes that arrived were the Arawa, the Tainui and the Mataatua.
Māori Tribes
Maori Tribes
Interestingly, the term waka also means a tribe in Māori language. This might have been on account of separation of members of each waka or canoe into separate iwi (tribes). Members of each tribe set up their new homes in the areas where their canoes landed. As per research, some of the earliest Māori settlements can be traced back to South Island of New Zealand. Each iwi was further divided into hapu (smaller clans). Members of these clans were treated as extended family. Members of each hapu were encouraged to pick their life partners from within their own clan. Each member of a particular tribe shared a common ancestry and exhibited loyalty to their respective chieftains.
Soon, they named their new land as Aotearoa (Māori name for New Zealand) meaning the 'land of long white cloud'. Although the original Māori culture had a stark Malayo-polynesian influence, it gradually underwent a change as the community adapted to the natural and climatic conditions of New Zealand.
Lifestyle and Customs
maori women
Land was owned communally within each clan. The tribals mostly engaged themselves in hunting, agriculture and fishing. They even engaged themselves in creating traditional Māori art.
The Māori stayed in traditional style houses known as wharenui. These structures had slanting roofs and wooden pillars carved with intricate designs that were dedicated to their deities or tribal chieftains. These houses were primarily painted in bright red color.
Traditional Māori food is known as kai and is cooked in a natural earthen oven called hāngi. Basically, it is a shallow space dug in the ground. A fire is lit, on which stones are placed and heated. When the stones get really hot, marinated meat and vegetables are placed on them. The food is then covered with wet sacks. This ensures that sufficient heat gets trapped in the hāngi and food gets cooked. This slow cooking process is popular to this day. Traditional diet prominently consisted of sea-food, fowl meat, wild herbs, potato/sweet potato breads, manuka honey, and dried algae.
Māori people made their clothing out of flax fiber called muka or bird feathers. Clothes would be dyed in colors such as black, tan, or yellow and designed to look like kilts or long cloaks. Typically, a flax belt was worn around this attire.
Maori Clothing
Both men and women wore traditional Māori jewelry. Hei-tiki is popular piece of ornamental jade pendant worn by women in this community. It depicts a human fetus form and is regarded as a symbol of fertility.
Greeting Style
Māori people greet each other by a traditional way called hongi (exchanging breath of life). This is done by touching each other with one another's foreheads and noses, respectively.
Deities and Religion
According to Māori mythology, creation of their deities and human beings began with first parents, Papatūānuku (Earth, the mother) and Ranginui (Sky, the father).
maori god
tane maori god
maori war god
They had 70 male children, including eight divine offspring known as :
  • Tāne Mahuta (or Tāne nui a rangi), the god of humans, forests, birds, and animals
  • Haumia tiketike, the god of uncultivated food
  • Rongomatane, the god of peace and agriculture
  • Tāwhirimātea, the god of weather
  • Ruaumoko, the god of earthquakes
  • Tangaroa, the god of the sea
  • Tūmatauenga, the war god
  • Whiro, the god of darkness and evil
In addition to these, there existed countless other deities and spirits such as:
  • Hine nui te po, the goddess of night and day
  • Maui, a fabled demi-god
The marae (sacred area) in a Māori village was generally located in front of whare runanga (communal meeting house). Traditional Māori life practically revolved around the marae. Customs such as christening ceremony, weddings, tangihanga (funerals) and tribal reunions took place in this area.

Since antiquity, this community has been celebrating its new year day or Matariki, sometime in the month of June. Earlier, the new year celebrations coincided with viewing of Pleiades cluster in the Taurus constellation. However, in current times, the festival is celebrated for three consecutive days starting from the full moon day that immediately follows Pleiades viewing. Some prominent attractions of this day are family reunions, traditional hāngi feasts, planting of new trees or crops and making offering to Rongomatane, the god of agriculture.
Spiritual Beliefs
Traditionally, the Māori believe that all things, alive or inanimate, are connected by common descent to gods who resided in mountains, rivers and lakes. Probably due to this belief, the Māori community had strong ties with nature and land, in particular. They also believed that everything possessed a mauri (lifeforce) and wairua (spirit).
The terms mana and tapu were often used to describe spiritual essence present in all people or things, again derived from gods and corresponding social code for appropriate behavior, with regards to maintaining sanctity. Disregarding the rules/restrictions of tapu implied disobedience to the gods, which could invite punishment. The degree of mana and tapu in things or in people varied, depending on social rank, spiritual powers, etc. and consequently made its possessor holy or unchaste.

Most of the Māori ceremonies take place in accordance with protocols called tikanga. Certain kawa (customs) might vary according to an iwi. The word tikanga is used to describe the Māori customs and traditions which have been passed to each generation for centuries. Māori people believe that their past is in front of them in order to guide them. On the other hand, the future is said to be behind, because nobody can see it.
Māori Tattoos
Maori Tattoos
Probably, Māori community is best known for their tattoo art. In fact, the word tattoo has its origin in the Polynesian word tatau which refers to marking something. In Māori language, the tattoos are known as moko, while the tattoo application process is called ta moko (literally meaning 'to strike' or 'to chisel'). Primitive tattooing techniques were quite painful and tedious. They literally involved cutting of skin surface and inserting a special ink derived from caterpillars to create beautiful designs.
Tattooing commenced with puberty and involved several rituals. Generally, tattoos were symbolic, depicting a person's transition towards adulthood and other important events in the life of the tattoo bearer. Intricate tattoo designs were used to adorn faces of tribal men, since head was considered to be the most sacred part of human body. At times, men would also tattoo their torsos and thighs. Tattoos for women were usually confined to the lips, chin, arms, and abdomen.
Arts and Culture
Carving was an intrinsic part of Māori routine life. Among the Māori relics that survive today, are some 500 year old carvings. Traditionally, carvers were considered as agents through whom the Gods communicated and were held in high esteem out of respect. An image that resonates through their carvings is manaia, a side-faced, birdlike figure. A famous manaia carving stands to this day on the Easter Island. The Marakihau carvings that are found in Bay of Plenty area, represent deep sea monsters and ocean gods.
According to Māori legends, Hine te iwaiwa was born from the divine union of Tāne Mahuta and Hinerauāmoa, a tiny star. Hine te iwaiwa is considered to be the goddess of weaving and childbirth.
The art of weaving has always been associated with women in Māori culture. Māori people give huge importance to weaving. A Māori girl can start to learn weaving after a special ceremony, under the tutelage of two experienced women. Māori women often weave beautiful fabrics and baskets in traditional designs from natural fibers.
Today, the Māori language or te reo Māori is one of the official languages of New Zealand. It has its own North island and South island dialects. A lot of original Māori words have now been absorbed in New Zealand English language, for instance, kiwi (an exotic bird or kiwi fruit) and kea (a parrot species). Most of the Māori culture, stories and legends have been passed down orally from one generation to another through speeches. These are considered to be important cultural possessions. A set of proverbial sayings, called whakataukī, is quite popular in Māori community.
Normally, at any social gatherings, the tangata whenua (hosts) welcome their manuhiri (guests) by performing traditional dance forms called haka and powhiri. A haka dance signifies respect for the guests, while a powhiri performance signifies that the community is welcoming the guest. These performances are accompanied by shouts and action songs.
A haka dance is basically of two types; peruperu is performed with war weapons and haka taparahi is performed without them. These dances are energetic and full of life.
Traditional Māori music or Te Pūoro Māori involved songs that were sung as solos, duets or in unison. Vocal songs or waiata were often accompanied by music played on traditional musical instruments such as flutes, bull-roarers and trumpets created from wood. Māori music has gradually undergone a change on account of influences from western music. Today, efforts are being made to revive the traditional Māori music.
The Treaty of Waitangi
Treaty of Waitang
Since early 19th century, European nations started having trade relations with New Zealand. This period also saw a significant immigration of Europeans, especially English population to New Zealand. Finally, it was decided that New Zealand would be turned into a constituent of the British Empire. Accordingly, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6th, 1840 between Māori tribal chieftains and representatives of the British Crown in New Zealand. Since then, February 6th or the Waitangi Day is treated as a public holiday in New Zealand.
By mid-20th century, a careful study of the treaty revealed a stark variation in English and Māori versions of its articles. The Māori interpret the contents of this treaty as granting of temporary rights to the British for using their land. It is also claimed that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in order to allow the British to govern New Zealand in exchange of general protection of Māori land. Therefore, a tragic history of Māori community includes years of legal battles against the British government and European settlers for getting back their ancestral land. Their battle for return of 'unjustly taken' Māori land is still on.
A stark discrimination between Māori and non-Māori population of New Zealand became more pronounced in the 2001 census. As a result, the Māori community is striving to achieve an equal social standing. Their greatest concern now is ensuring that right support is provided in terms of education and health care, to ensure their success in society. Widespread racial discrimination is another cause for distress among the Māori community. In spite of this, huge consistent efforts are being made to preserve and revive Māori traditions.