Maori culture is a crucial part of New Zealand’s identity. The Maoris are an indigenous community that originate from Polynesia, a collection of islands around 4000 kilometres away from New Zealand. They are believed to have settled in New Zealand in the 1200s and 1300s, arriving in hand crafted canoes.
Today, around 15% of New Zealand’s population identify as Maori. That’s about 1 in 7 New Zealanders. Maori is also an official language of New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language.
Nowadays, the Maoris are most commonly associated with the All Blacks rugby team who famously perform their haka before every game. Their loud chants and aggressive facial expressions are used to scare the opponents, and to call on the gods to guide them to victory.
However, Maori traditions go much deeper than the All Blacks’ haka. It’s a rich and fascinating culture, and learning all about it should be at the top of your list during your next trip to New Zealand! We’ve put together some top tips for how best to do this.
New Zealand is immensely proud of its Maori history, and offers ample opportunities for visitors to learn all about it in fun and immersive ways. For example, most local museums have extensive exhibitions about Maori history. Head to the Museum of New Zealand (located in Wellington) or Auckland Museum to see for yourself!
There are also many museums dedicated solely to Maori culture and history. Our favourite is Tamaki Maori Village and we're not alone - it has been voted the 7th best experience in the world on TripAdvisor! A trip to Tamaki Maori Village is a spectacular experience, and will surely be one of the highlights of your trip. It is much more than your average museum. Here, you can fully immerse yourself in Maori culture, connect with real local Maori guides, sample their food and learn about their customs. You can even stay overnight in their ancient tawa (a tree respected by the Maoris) forest, to get a deeper insight into the Maori experience.
A marae is a kind of meeting ground or community centre in Maori culture. In most cases, it is painted red and white, and bedecked with images and sculptures of various ancestor figures. The marae serves as a central gathering point for the community and is used for many important communal events and rituals such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. Most have cooking and sleeping facilities, to cater for community members who may travel from afar to attend the events.
There are several marae in New Zealand where you can stay the night, to truly immerse yourself in the culture. The town of Rotorua is usually the best place for this. Rotorua is an important landmark for many Maoris and it has one of the largest Maori populations in New Zealand, with 38% of the town identifying as Maori. During the evening, you can enjoy cultural performances such as the haka, and eat traditional hangi food. Hangi refers to a method of cooking food, involving heated rocks buried inside a pit oven. The food is covered with a cloth and damp earth, to stop the heat escaping from the oven. Fish, chicken and root vegetables such as sweet potato and pumpkin are just some of the delights that you can try!
What better way to immerse yourself in a culture than to learn the basics of the language? Almost all Maori people speak English of course, but learning a few basic phrases of Maori will help to give you a better insight into the people and culture. If you only learn one phrase, it should be ‘kia ora’!. This is the traditional Maori greeting and it wishes life or health upon the person you are greeting.
Other useful phrases include:
Kia ora can also be used to mean thank you
When saying goodbye, if you are the person leaving you should say e noho rā. If you are the person who is staying, and saying goodbye to someone who is leaving, you should say haere rā.
Ko … ahau means my name is…
You can combine all of the tips we’ve mentioned so far in one of the many Maori cultural tours that are on offer across New Zealand. Roger at Arrow Tours offers a range of tours beginning in the town of Rotorua. He’ll take you through the fascinating history of the Maoris and their relationships with the surrounding forests and lush green forests. Later, you will be guided by another local expert through a traditional Maori cultural performance at a local marae. You will even witness the famous haka! The tour lasts for 6-7 hours, and guarantees a fully immersive and intimate experience.
Jade, or ‘greenstone’, is a deeply important symbol in Maori culture. It is regarded as a true treasure, as ancestors’ spirits are believed to live in the stone. It had many uses for the early Maoris. It could be used as a weapon, as a handy tool, as a form of currency, or for spiritual purposes.
There are several workshops where you can carve your own greenstone, mostly in New Zealand’s South Island. The carving experts can tell you all about the value of the stone, and how to preserve its raw beauty. Maori people believe that the first greenstone that you find should never be given away, or you will incur bad luck. So make sure to keep your treasure safe!
So what are you waiting for? Head on over to New Zealand and surround yourself in this fascinating and beautiful culture.Back to overview