Lessons About The Maori People Of New Zealand

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A people with a fascinating history.

The indigenous people in New Zealand are the Maori. Coming to New Zealand, I had little or no reference or understanding about them. Being here I’ve learned a lot about this fascinating people.

Traditional Maori dancing.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

The Maori legend, as I mentioned in a former post, is that the demi-god Maui fished New Zealand out of the sea with his hook, which is why you see this symbol everywhere in the country. (If you didn’t know, the movie Moana is based on this legend.) They came here from the Polynesian islands (and some say from even further away) and settled more in the northern island than the southern one because they found the south had a harsher and colder climate.

“An indigenous people who, after suffering in the past, may yet find a better future in their own country.”

The treaty of Waitangi is an unfortunate example of how the Maori were poorly treated. This treaty was signed by the Maori people when the British Crown wanted to establish a colony in New Zealand. This treaty and the wars that followed due to the Maori and English translations of this treaty being different, led to them losing much of the land they had previously owned. However, it seems that in more recent years, the government is trying to work with them to treat them more fairly. For New Zealanders, the signing of this document is seen as the founding document of New Zealand. But, for the Maori, it represents the loss of their lands.

An example of the intimate and intricate Maori tribal tattoos.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

The Maori are often covered in tattoos. They represent where each of them come from. I met a Maori shop owner who explained that on her left arm was her family – her husband and children. On her right arm were her ancestors, her parents and grandparents. The specific design is unique to her tribe. She explained there were seven boats that originally came over to New Zealand and then there are over 100 sub-tribes. Each of them has its specfic tattoo design, and to become a tribal tatoo artist, you must study each and every tribe’s design. Women sometimes tatoo their face, but only their chin, whereas a man would tattoo his entire face.
Wandering around the Maori village in Rotorua, I notice many carved figures. Most of them have their tongue sticking out. So, I asked my guide why that is. He explained that only male figures have the tongue sticking out, so that’s one way to know the gender of a figure. This pose is about strength and intimidation, as if to say, “You can’t take us over.” The Maori people have celebrations and dances and songs they used to perform before war. In them, they would open their eyes wide and the men would stick out their tongues to prepare for battle. Today, some of these are still used to prepare for rugby matches!

Maori are highly spiritual. When Christians came to their country, they saw their god as a way to add more gods to their repertoire, the more gods, the better. When the bible came to New Zealand they saw it as a way to learn to read and write English and be able to translate their own stories. Interestingly, men and women always saw each other as equals, and if there is an inter-tribal marriage, you become part of two tribes, as opposed to one marrying in to one tribe and no longer being part of the one they were born in.
In farmer’s markets you can find interesting Maori products made straight from local herbs. There’s Kawakawa balm that acts as an antiseptic, Kumarahou Balm that’s an anti-inflammatory (kumara is how they call a sweet potato in New Zealand) and Calendula used for many anti-fungal needs. And that’s just from the Packhouse Market in Kerikeri where I came across Rongoa Magic, the person that makes them.
The Maori, today, make up less than 1/3 of the population in New Zealand. However, by 2050 they may comprise more than 1/3 the population. Some of them hope this means that education will contain compulsory learning of Maori culture and language, and they might form a larger part of the country’s government. In the meanwhile, I find it inspirational that New Zealand government opens it’s Covid-19 update briefings with a greeting in Maori . I hear “kia ora” frequently, which means hello. This is a country who, unlike some, is trying to make reparations to the first inhabitants. If you want to learn more about Maori culture while in New Zealand, head to Rotorua and visit Whakarewarewa – The Living Maori Village. And, in Paihia, visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

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