Pōwhiri – the Māori welcome

The pōwhiri or pōhiri, a central part of Māori protocol, is a ceremony of welcome involving speeches, dancing, singing and hongi.

The pōwhiri or pōhiri, a central part of Māori protocol, is a ceremony of welcome involving speeches, dancing, singing and hongi.

While traditionally used to welcome visitors on to marae - the sacred space or courtyard usually in front of Māori meeting houses - the ceremony is also commonly seen in everyday New Zealand life.

Pōwhiri can happen anywhere that tangata whenua (hosts) wish to formally greet manuhiri (visitors).

This custom frequently takes place in the workplace to welcome new staff and important guests, at schools, sports and leisure clubs, and at significant occasions or ceremonies, such as a building dedication.

Spiritual or religious journey
The pōwhiri signifies two groups coming together, negotiating the terms of their engagement and finishing with guests joining their hosts as one.

It is a spiritual or religious journey where gods, heaven and earth are acknowledged, ancestors remembered and kinship ties reinforced. It is also when intentions are ascertained, issues debated and lobbying carried out.

A pōwhiri is often reserved for special visitors or for tupapaku (the arrival of the body of the deceased) for a tangihanga (funeral). However, pōwhiri are also often performed for tourist groups as part of special events.

Wero - the challenge
For most observers, the taki or wero, an aggressive challenge of the visitor at the beginning of the ceremony, is the most spectacular part of the pōwhiri.

During this part of the ceremony, three Māori warriors will advance cautiously towards the guests with ceremonial weapons, and perform threatening gestures and grimaces, calling out battle screams, and generally giving an impression of being ready to explode into violence against the visitors at any moment.

Historically, this has roots in both showing off the martial prowess of the iwi (tribal) warriors, as well as testing the steadfastness of the visitors.

By accepting the rautapu, a symbolic offering - usually a leaf or carved effigy - placed on the ground by the leader before the visitors, this part of the ceremony is concluded.

Karanga - the call
On some occasions the pōwhiri begins before the karanga (call); at other times, it begins after the karanga has started. At some point the karanga and the pōwhiri will take place at the same time.

For the pōwhiri, the kai karanga (female caller) usually stands to the side and slightly to the front of the tangata whenua. Those who take part in the pōwhiri include elders and young people - men and women.

After the manuhiri and tangata whenua are seated, both sides will present speakers, beginning with the tangata whenua. The ceremonial tapu (sacred separation) is lifted when tangata whenua and manuhiri make physical contact through hongi (pressing of noses) or hariru (shaking hands).

Pōwhiri - two concepts
The word pōwhiri encapsulates two concepts that are important to Māori.

According to Waitangi kaumatua (elder) Wiremu Williams, of the Nga Puhi iwi, po can be translated as a venture into ‘the unknown’ or a new experience, while whiri is derived from whiriwhiri meaning the act or experience of exchanging information and knowledge.

Māori is the language used during pōwhiri. While pōwhiri may vary according to the occasion and the tribal area, Māori language still guides pōwhiri.

Basic pōwhiri include the following elements:

  • Karanga is a unique form of female oratory in which women bring a range of imagery and cultural expression to the first calls of welcome (and response) in the pōwhiri.
  • Whaikōrero (formal speeches) follows the karanga. Some of the best Māori language orations are given during pōwhiri when skilled speakers craft the language into a series of verbal images. The protocols for whaikōrero during pōwhiri are determined by the kawa (practices) of the marae or local iwi if the pōwhiri is not held on a marae.
  • Waiata (song) is sung after each whaikōrero by the group the orator represents. It is common to hear traditional waiata during pōwhiri.
  • Koha (gift) - generally an envelope of money - is laid on the ground by the last speaker for the manuhiri. A local kuia (female elder) may karanga as an expression of thanks. A male from the tangata whenua will pick up the koha.
  • Hongi (pressing of noses) signifies the joining together of tangata whenua and manuhiri. Tangata whenua invite the manuhiri to come forward to shake hands (hariru) and hongi.
  • Hākari (feast) - a shared meal - usually signifies the end of the pōwhiri.