Maori Culture

Powhiri, hongi, hangi - what are they?

Maori culture arrived in New Zealand with the people, over 800 years ago .They came from Hawaiki, Polynesia in their long canoes or waka.Quite a feat!


Historical Background About Maori

Settling in different areas around New Zealand, althoughrelatively few were in the South Island, they did not have a name for their people as a group.

Each tribe was a separate entity, so each have their own Maori culture specific to their tribe. Nor did they have a written language. Their history and ancestry was passed down verbally, making them great orators.

With inter-marriage there are no full blooded Maori left, but many very much relate to their ancestry and traditions and there has been a resurgence of learning of their language and Maori culture, which had been absent from the older generation.

Traditional Housing

Maori traditionally lived in a Pa (village) which was either on a promontory - surrounded by water on three sides, or on the top of a hill.

Here, they surrounded the hill at several levels with barricades made of rings of stakes and trenches, giving them time to gather their warriors, as the enemy negotiated these difficulties.

Many of these Pa sites are still visible. Not with the fences, but the distinctive steps down the mountain show this was once a Maori Pa.


Each Maori tribe has their own land with their Marae (ma-rye.This is the meeting place for their people. Much of the Maori culture visitors will be exposed to, will either be on a Marae, in a meeting house or at a tourism venture for visitors.

Some have opened their Marae to paying overnight guests.Maori concert parties perform at many hotels, in the Auckland Museum,< at tourist venues or at social functions.

Traditionally,the grandparents looked after the children while the younger adults worked. Fishing, gardening, carving, weaving, cooking, and all that was required to provide for the tribe.

Maori Language

Maori was a dying language,although there were a few areas where they still spoke their own language in their day to day living in the 1950’s.


It is now much more widely spoken as younger Maori study the language. We have a Maori channel on TV, and many young people study the language at school and university.

Some families prefer to put their children into schools called Kura Kaupapa, where they learn by total immersion in the language.

Being such a young written language, they are quickly having to introduce new names for modern appliances, science etc.

Many place names, streets, mountains, rivers, and lakes have Maori names – which for visitors can be difficult to pronounce.Many people these days refer to New Zealand as Aotearoa (Ar-o-tay-a-ro-ha) which means Land of the Long White Cloud.

There are several different stories as to how this name was given.It actually only applied to the North Island until the 20th century, but is now used for the whole of New Zealand.


Rotorua is the most popular place to see Maori culture.Here you can see Maori Concert Parties perform in hotels, Tamaki Village, or Te Puia at the Maori Arts and Crafts Centre. I recommend this as a great experience. There is quite a choice of tourist ventures featuring Maori Culture as it was, for a uniquely New Zealand experience

Te Waka Huia

Singing and Entertainment

Singing comes naturally to Maori people.I have never met a person of Maori ancestry who cannot sing beautifully. They have a very distinct sound, harmonising naturally as they perform a variety of traditional songs, dances, and haka.

While the haka is the most famous of Maori cultural activities, the poi ( por-ee) – a ball on a long string they swing skilfully as they dance and sing, is a wonderful sight.

Stick games, are another skilful activity the children learned, requiring concentration, co-ordination and skill.

If you would like to see more enjoy a selection of concert exerts on these Maori Videos.

Traditional Maori Dress, Weapons, Cooking

Traditional Maori cultural dress is distinctive. The women wear finely woven tops- usually in the traditional red, white and black colours, with a piupiu.(pee-you-pee-you).

This skirt is made from the flax bush. The women scrape the pattern into the leaves before they are dried, curling into a long thin straw shape. These are attached to a woven waistband.

As they dance, the click clack of the moving strands, along with the dull thud from the pois, become part of the sound.

Headbands often with a feather, are worn by the women and sometimes men. The men also wear piupiu, while greenstone ( New Zealand jade) tiki hang around their necks.


You will see a variety of carved wooden weapons including the tiaha (tee-ar-ha) This is a long carved stick, with a pointed end seen in dances and welcomes,(powhiri)

A mere – (mer- ree) is a club originally used for hand to hand combat, made of stone or greenstone. Maori cultural weapons were all hand held.

Many of our famous international singers are or were of Maori heritage, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Inia Te Wiata.


Cultural Maori cooking the traditional way, is in a Hangi (hung-ee).


If you do go onto a Marae, you may well be greeted with a Maori Powhiri.

The chanting/singing sound is the karanga – a call the women make. You will almost certainly be greeted with a hongi – which is a pressing of noses. This is the equivalent of shaking hands in European culture. This is still used a lot in events where Maori are involved, as a greeting.


You may be intrigued by the real ( or sometimes fake) tattoos on many Maori, especially their faces. The tattoo on their chins – including some women is called moko and will almost certainly be a traditional design for their family or tribe.

Only a very few men wear the full facial tattoo these days. It does not really go with modern life in the office!




The third area for Maori culture that many will want to plan to visit is at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. Only about 2 kilometres past Paihia, you will find this small historic place where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.

The founding document ceding the country to Britain, there is a replica of it in the historic Treaty House.

Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day, February the 6th - is a Public holiday, celebrates the signing of the Treaty. It is well worth going through the Treaty House, strolling the grounds, looking in the Meeting House, checking out the waka stored down by the shore, and envisaging Hone Heke, attempting to cut the flagpole down in protest (erected by the British). Not once............ but several times!



Useful Maori Culture Links

Maori Powhiri

Maori Videos



Bay of Islands

If you are interested in the Maori language have a look here:

'100 Maori words every New Zealander should know'

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