Māoritanga - Māori culture explained

Māori culture has its origins and customs in the mists of time, predating the Māori migration to New Zealand.

Māori are the tangata whenua (indigenous people of the land) of Aotearoa New Zealand and their culture is an integral part of New Zealand life.

Traditionally Māori were skilled artisans, known for their intricate weaving and carving as well as accomplished hunters, fishers, gardeners and warriors. Late in the 18th century, Europeans started arriving in New Zealand - first whalers and sealers, then missionaries and settlers.


The concept of whānau (family) is central to Māori social structure. Whānau refers to family and extended family. The whānau is a member of a hapū (sub-tribe), which is a member of an iwi (tribe).

Even in modern society, Māori are more likely than non-Māori to live in extended families, indicating the continued importance of traditional living arrangements. But smaller nuclear families have also become prevalent among the Māori population, as it has become more urbanised. Around 20% of Māori live in private dwellings with extended whānau. More than half of those have three generations of family under one roof.

Other aspects of Māoritanga

Music and dance are a vital part of Māori culture. For centuries, Māori culture has been passed on from generation to generation through waiata (song), dance and kapa haka (traditional performance) as well as through carvings, weaving, story-telling and reciting genealogies (whakapapa).

The strength and beauty of Māori art is evident in the architectural carvings of whare whakairo (carved meeting house) and in the other taonga (treasures) that are carved from wood, bone and pounamu (greenstone / jade).

Carving and weaving skills arose from the practical requirements of the traditional Māori lifestyle. There was no written language for Māori, so histories and whakapapa were told through the whakairo on the marae. The carvings at the front of the whare whakairo (carved meeting house) for example, told the history of the marae and the marae ancestor was the figure at the apex.

Fibre for clothing, ropes and cooking, for example, was created by weaving flax and other natural fibres. Hard New Zealand pounamu (greenstone / jade) was originally made into weapons and carving implements. Native wood was carved into spiritual objects that adorned wharenui (Māori meeting houses) and waka (canoes). The modern outlet for the creation of such traditional objects comes through artworks, many of which are highly sought after.

Natural environment

Māori have a rich and dynamic culture with special affinity for the natural environment (forests, the sea, rivers, lakes and mountains). Māori culture is a living treasure, indigenous and unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. Through their whakapapa (genealogy), Māori trace their families back to the waka that their ancestors sailed in across the vast Pacific Ocean.

These whakapapa are still recited today in Māori speechmaking when welcoming visitors onto the marae or a hui (gathering). Speakers may identify their maunga (mountain), their awa (river), their waka (canoe), their iwi (tribe) and their tūpuna (ancestors) within these mihi (speeches).

Visitors to New Zealand are presented with many opportunities to experience Māori culture first-hand. Best known for the Māori cultural experience is the thermal region of Rotorua in the North Island, where tourists can sample kai (food) cooked on hot stones underground as part of a traditional hāngi (earthen oven). They can also enjoy a pōwhiri (welcome), visit local marae, enjoy kapa haka and relax in the thermal pools.

More information

Aotearoa - New Zealand's unique Maori culture

Introduction to Māori culture

Māori and tourism

The haka: New Zealand icon

Tā moko

Māori connection to land and sea

The Māori marae

A new era: the Māori renaissance

The Treaty of Waitangi

New Zealand icon: Silver fern