Experts in Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific

Your cultural guide to New Zealand

Posted 18 January 2018
Sun, sea and sand are not the only reasons we embark on a far-flung holiday. There can be another key motive: to immerse ourselves in exotic cultures. And there’s none as unique and fascinating as New Zealand’s Maori culture.

New Zealand, a group of islands on the furthest extremes of the South Pacific, is a fascinating destination of bucolic landscapes. It’s a picture-perfect embodiment of homeliness, yet it is also entwined with some of the most dynamic scenery found anywhere in the world. For this reason much of the country has been used as the location for many fantasy movies; none more famous than The Lord of the Rings.

However, before there were Hobbits in New Zealand, or European settlers for that matter, a group of Polynesian nomads have called this beautiful island chain their home for well over a thousand years. They are of course, the Maoris.

New Zealand has been shaped and continues to be heavily influenced by the traditions of these tribal people. Although colonised by Europeans in the 1800s, it is the Maori culture that holds a deep cultural significance around New Zealand. From tattoos that have captured the imagination of body-modifiers the world over, to the fearsome warlike spectacle of the haka at sporting events, the Maori influence upon this country is indelible.

Early Polynesians

The first Polynesians to settle in New Zealand were thought to have arrived as early as 1280AD. Before this date, their settlements were scattered across the Pacific in the region known as the Polynesian Triangle; connecting Hawaii in the west, to Easter Island in the east and New Zealand in the south.

These Polynesians were accomplished navigators who used astronomy to explore large swathes of the Pacific Ocean in search of new territories and stones for tool-making. They were very adept at reading the movements of the sun and the stars, and the sea knowledge of their ancestors was even called upon by Captain James Cook for safe navigation through unchartered waters.

According to legend, the Maoris came to New Zealand from a mystical island called Hawaiki. However, recent research has shown that this is more likely to be the Society Islands, or even the Cook Islands.

Maori tribes of New Zealand

There are many different tribes (iwi’s) that make up the Maori population of New Zealand, but the three largest tribes in order of size are:

Ngāpuhi iwi – the largest tribe in New Zealand are from the northland region found near the Bay of Islands.

Ngāti Porou iwi – traditionally located in the East Cape of the North Island, this tribe’s name descends from their ancestor Porou-ariki Mata-tara-a-whare, te tuhimāreikura o Rauru.

Ngai Tahu iwi – known as ‘the People of Tahu’ and among the first Polynesians to arrive on the South Island.

Maori place names

Maoris do not see themselves merely as individuals, but as part of a community where places, not just people, are regarded as family members. For this reason you will find many districts, towns and cities in New Zealand that insist on bilingual translations of street names and landmarks. Some examples of Maori place names are:

Aotearoa – New Zealand or the Land of the Long White Cloud

Tapeka Del Mar – Bay of Islands

Aoraki – The Cloud Piercer also known as Mount Cook

Turanganui-a-kiwa – the resting place of Kiwa, the Maori chief who settled on the east coast of the North Island.

Maori cultural attractions

A trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without experiencing some form of Maori culture. Here’s a list of our top suggestions should you find yourself in the Land of the Long White Cloud:

1) Waitangi Treaty House – Bay of Islands

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, as the name suggests, is the place where the 1840 treaty between Maoris and the British Crown was signed. In fact, the Treaty House itself is one of the oldest European buildings in New Zealand. The agreement was called for by Maori chiefs in an effort to curb lawlessness of the new settlers, who numbered some 2000 when the treaty was signed, compared to 125,000 Maoris.

The treaty was an effort to protect the balance of culture upon the islands. Maoris gained the right to keep their lands and the agreement stated that all Maoris would have the same rights as British subjects. Although still a contentious document today, the treaty is seen as an important artefact of New Zealand history and a foundation stone upon which the country still rests.

To this day, the anniversary of the signing is of huge importance to all in New Zealand. The 6th of Feburary, known as Waitangi Day, is celebrated with a big event held on the Treaty Grounds.

2) East Cape Drive

Any self-drive holiday through the stunning landscape of New Zealand is a privilege, but the East Cape of New Zealand retains a strong Maori presence. The Pacific Coast Highway passes through many Maori settlements and there are whakatane (carved meeting houses) to visit along the way.

Along the Te Araroa Trail (Long Pathway) near the small town of the same name, you can find a pohutukawa tree known as Te Waha-o-Rerekohu (the Mouth of Rerekohu, a Maori chieftain who once used the tree to store food) that is estimated to be over 600 years old. The pohutukawa tree is of cultural significance because the species is widely found across the Pacific, so when the early Polynesians arrived in Aotearoa, the sight of the tree instilled in them the belief that they had found a new home.

3) Te Papa Museum – Wellington

Te Papa is New Zealand’s national bi-cultural museum located in Wellington. It has a permanent exhibition dedicated to Maori culture and history with innovative and interactive features to enhance your appreciation of the traditions of the Maori people. The exhibition celebrates the ancestral treasures, contemporary art and stories of New Zealand’s indigenous people.

4) Tamaki Maori Village – Rotorua

The best place to observe Maori culture is on an organised marae (traditional welcoming ceremony). At the Tamaki Maori Village in the district of Rotorua, Maori singing and speeches are given, plus tours of carved Maori houses (whakatane). You receive the nose-pressing greeting called hongi, where incidentally, both nose and forehead touch.

In the hongi, the ha (the breath of life) is also shared. Once the hongi has been exchanged the visitor is no longer a stranger but is regarded as one of the people, and one who now shares responsibility to look after the land.

Nowadays there is so much to occupy the modern traveller in New Zealand, from white-water rafting, stunning lakeside retreats, cosmopolitan cities and awe-inspiring nature trails. But make sure you take the time to explore the cultural identity of the Maoris too.

Just as the natural landscape is central to the wonder of the Land of the Long White Cloud – so too are the people whose ancient tribal lands we walk through. In short, you simply can’t experience one without the other.