Aotearoa - New Zealand's unique Māori culture

"Kia ora!" Many New Zealanders welcome visitors with the traditional greeting of the indigenous Māori people.

"Kia ora!" Many New Zealanders welcome visitors with the traditional greeting of the indigenous Māori people.

Māori are the tangata whenua or 'indigenous people of the land' of Aotearoa New Zealand, and Māori culture is central to New Zealand's fresh, invigorating and adventurous national identity.

So, while Māori make up only about 15% of New Zealand’s population, their cultural impact is huge. There probably isn't an area of Kiwi life that's not been influenced by New Zealand's Māori side.

Māori culture places high value on the natural environment - the forests, sea, rivers, lakes and mountains - a living treasure that's unique to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Today Māori operators are heavily involved in tourism activities, and throughout New Zealand there are many opportunities for visitors to meet Māori people, learn about their culture and discover New Zealand through their eyes.

Māori culture, arts and crafts

Rotorua, in the centre of the North Island, is a major tourist destination not only because of its geo-thermal activity, but also because it showcases traditional Māori culture, arts and crafts.

The lakeside city has a huge choice of interactive Māori culture tourist experiences, including the national arts and crafts centre at Te Puia.

A visit to the traditional Māori village of Whakarewarewa is one of Rotorua's unique attractions. Local Māori still live and work in the village that sits in a spectacular thermal landscape.

New Zealand's national museum Te Papa Tongarewa in the capital city, Wellington, and the War Memorial Museum in Auckland, the country’s most populous city, have rich stores of Māori stories, carvings and artefacts.

Inside Te Papa Tongarewa there is a modern representation of a wharenui or Māori meeting house. In Auckland, museum visitors can see a huge war canoe and an original wharenui. There are also daily performances given by one of New Zealand’s premier Maori cultural groups.

Māori marae

Outside the main centres, the New Zealand countryside offers frequent visible evidence that traditional Māori culture is alive and well.

Māori are a tribal people and their tribes are known as iwi. Today most live in urban areas, away from their marae or tribal ground. However, many Māori gather at their marae for important occasions.

On the outskirts of most country towns, the typical marae is a collection of long low buildings distinctively decorated with ornate carvings and surrounded by a grassy or paved area. The marae is a community facility for the local Māori hapu and their extended family group.

A marae usually consists of a wharenui or whare whakairo (carved meeting house), a wharekai (dining hall and cooking area), and a marae-atea - sacred place in front of the wharenui where formal proceedings and speeches take place.

Modern urbanisation has also seen many Māori groups establish new marae in cities. These are often attached to schools or on university campuses.

In many places, tourists are welcomed for marae visits to learn about Māori culture and protocols.

Māori hangi

Māori foods - such as the kumara (sweet potato) and traditional herbs gathered from the wild - have imparted a distinctive flavour in New Zealand's modern cuisine.

Many hotels and tourism experiences, especially in Rotorua, offer traditional Māori food including a hangi meal. This method of cooking food is found throughout Polynesia, and is sometimes known as an umu.

The hangi - typically pork, seafood and vegetables like kumara - is cooked in a deep pit dug in the ground and heated with hot stones. The stones are heated in a fire before food is placed in the pit and covered with leaves or mats woven out of flax. Earth is heaped over the mats to keep the heat in, and the food is left to cook slowly over several hours.

Māori heritage

Māori are a Polynesian people whose ancestors moved to New Zealand - and settled on both the main islands - about 1000 years ago from a legendary homeland in the eastern Pacific that's referred to as Hawaiki.

Kupe, the original Māori ancestor, first discovered the islands of New Zealand and gave it the Māori name - Aotearoa or ‘the land of the long white cloud’. New Zealand is often referred to as Aotearoa - New Zealand.

According to a Māori legend, the South Island was the canoe of an ancestor named Maui, Stewart Island became the canoe's anchor, and the North Island was an enormous fish he pulled from the sea.

Research by anthropologists and scholars largely confirms Māori oral history that some of the early visits were actually return trips. Guided by the stars, sea currents, wave patterns and birds, Maui returned to Hawaiki and a migration of several canoes followed.

Modern Māori trace their tribal origins - whakapapa or genealogy - back to one of these huge double-hulled canoes.

Early Māori 

The first Māori settlers brought food items to help survive in the new, cooler country - the kumara / sweet potato, yams, taro and gourds.

Early Māori lived by burning the forest to establish kumara plantations, trapping the abundant bird and marine life, and by gathering fern and other roots. The loss of forest is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the moa - the world’s largest flightless bird - which was a major food source.

By about the 16th century, Māori population density had increased and competition for resources led to warfare between tribes and the construction of pa which were fortified villages on hilltops.

First Pakeha

The first Pakeha / white-skinned people to make contact with Māori were the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1642, followed a century later by British explorer Captain James Cook. In 1769 Captain Cook claimed Aotearoa New Zealand for Britain.

The first European settlers in New Zealand were missionaries and whalers.

Colonisation was formalised in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi - at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands - between the British Crown and Māori chiefs. The treaty gave the British Government sovereignty over Aotearoa New Zealand.

The site of the treaty signing - at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, in New Zealand's most northern region - is now a national reserve of historic significance.

The Treaty of Waitangi, which promised Māori people equal status with British subjects, is recognised as New Zealand’s founding document. However, for a century after its signing the colonial government ignored its principles.

The New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s were the result of resentment between the British colonists and Māori who refused to relinquish their most fertile lands on which they had established a flourishing trade in wheat, potatoes and other food commodities.

Draconian land confiscations combined with the impact of European diseases and intertribal warfare using the musket, decimated and demoralised the Māori population during much of the 19th century.

Modern Māori culture

The past 40 years have seen a remarkable resurgence of Māori vitality and culture, and governments determined to make good past wrongs.

This has been stimulated by the establishment in 1975 of the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate Māori claims of wrongful treatment committed by the Crown against the terms of the 1840 treaty. These claims relate to land confiscations or unlawful acquisitions, and resolutions have involved the Crown in restitutions and compensation amounting to millions of dollars. This is an ongoing process.

The Waitangi Tribunal has also been responsible for giving te reo Māori - the Māori language - status as the official second language of the country. The Māori Language Commission was established in 1987 to promote te reo Māori through education, government departments and national broadcasting networks.

Kohanga reo or Māori language kindergartens, primary and secondary schools have contributed to the big increase in the number of Māori speakers. Universities have thriving Māori language courses, government departments have bi-lingual titles and law courts are required to provide interpreters.

The Māori language is also enhanced through Māori Television - new service broadcasting in Māori and English that went to air in 2004.

Such developments are helping Māori and Pakeha New Zealanders face the 21st century with their feet firmly planted in the two worlds of their forebears and the contemporary western world.