Five burly men are seen paddling down a short stream. One by one, they exit the waka, a hand-carved war canoe, with spear-like weapons or taiaha in tow. They stand before us, vocalising and sticking out their tongues. It is both funny and scary to watch. This move, after all, has been traditionally employed to intimidate visitors. It’s their way of saying: “My mouth waters and I lick my lips, for soon I will taste your flesh.” But as long as guests pick up the tokens — often a branch or fern — laid down by each man, it signals that they’ve come in peace and they are friends; rather than foe or food.
The pōwhiri, a welcome ceremony, at New Zealand’s Tamaki Māori Village, an award-winning cultural attraction, is capped off with a hongi: the ancient Māori greeting, which involves pressing the noses together to symbolise the sharing of breath, is an ancient practice that is still practised today.
“Which part of Māori history do you most appreciate?” a visitor asks our guide, Toroa, after the ceremony. “That’s a hard question. I thoroughly enjoy modern history. So, anywhere from 1980 to 2005. Reason being that during this period, our people began a renaissance of our tikanga, our culture,” Toroa shares.
In the late 19th century, Māori people — the first inhabitants who landed in Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) over a thousand years ago on waka canoes — accounted for just over 40,000 out of the millions of European settlers who had decided to call this country home. War with the settlers over land and rampant disease led the Māori to be declared a “dying race”. Hoping to “smooth down the dying pillow” of these indigenous people, the government launched initiatives designed to help the Māori population thrive in their own land. This not only gave the race time to recuperate but allowed them to eventually assimilate into the Western world and gain access to modern healthcare.
Fast forward to today, and this resilient race now number over half a million. Many are of mixed heritage but reassert their identity as Māori. Central to this sense of identity is the emphasis on Māori language as an integral part of their culture. Major Māori language recovery programmes launched in the 1980s reached out to youngsters through the New Zealand education system.
But Māori was never intended to be a written language taught in the classroom. It was through song that stories were recorded and ancestral myths and folklores shared. And this has allowed the world to experience one of the culture’s most pulsating traditions — the Haka, essentially a Māori ceremonial dance or chant that tells a story.
Arapeta, a cultural performer at Tamaki Māori Village, explains: “Haka is often seen as a war dance, but it’s also usually performed on other occasions, at weddings, funerals and even simply to welcome guests.”
The most famous Haka composition has to be the traditional Ka Mate, performed by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, before every international game until 2005 when a new version was introduced. The ceremonial Haka, written by eminent Māori warrior chief Te Rauparaha of the Ngāti Toa tribe, is about the celebration of life triumphing over death.
Māori action songs like the Haka are characterised by a combination of dance and poetry, gesture and rhythm that effectively complement verbal expression. A typical move in a Haka is for the performer to stick their tongue out and bulge their eyes. Just like with a pōwhiri, it is done to scare people off. While it has evolved into more of a symbolic gesture, done with peaceful intentions, it demonstrates the warrior spirit that has allowed the Māori people to remain robust for thousands of years.
Besides singing, dancing and sticking out their tongues, symbolic stories were also embodied in wood carvings that often line traditional Māori buildings as well as the human body, including one’s face. When you see someone with a ta moko, a traditional tattoo, it’s as if you’re looking into their genealogy and past achievements — almost like a permanent resume for all to see. Facial tattoos under the eyes represent physical achievements while those above the eyes represent spiritual wisdom.
A big part of Māori spiritual wisdom is guardianship, protection and preservation of the environment. In this view, protecting the environment preserves the natural world while, at the same time, upholding and strengthening its traditions and culture across generations.
“A lot of people around the world are struggling to find ways of looking holistically at the developed world. We are lucky in New Zealand to have this indigenous culture. Our Western way of living has actually exploited the planet to the point of where we are now, and we’re leaving nothing for our grandchildren. Most people have an understanding now that something has got to change and the indigenous worldview has a lot to contribute to the more holistic way of managing the planet,” says Katherine Peet, a workshop leader with Christchurch-based Network Waitangi Otautahi, which supports the development of a multicultural society.
So, how much of traditional Māori culture still exists in New Zealand today? After witnessing the cultural performers at Tamaki Māori Village reenact how their ancestors would have used the taiaha — killing their opponents with a strike and a twist to remove one’s crown and reveal the brain — it’s hard to imagine that being done now. “The brain was definitely a delicacy for my people,” warns the acting Māori chief. “But don’t worry, we eat McDonald’s now.”
Paul Moon, a New Zealand historian and professor at the Auckland University of Technology, reveals: “Yes, much of Māori culture is often put on show or brushed off as museum-type art instead, because traditional Māori culture hasn’t, in a full sense, existed in this nation for over 100 years. Major parts of the culture don’t happen anymore, such as communal ownership and cannibalism. That world doesn’t exist and probably won’t ever exist again.”
Even so, the nation continues to relearn some of the more holistic traditional Māori customs, as founder of Taki Rua Theatre in Wellington and Māori actor Rangimoana Taylor concludes: “It is a difficult thing to be in a multicultural society because the goal post keeps shifting, but as you learn more, you grow more. And the goal post may just get bigger.”
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.