Maori Culture

Maori’s origins are traced back to Eastern Polynesia wherein they travelled towards Aotearoa through their canoe (voyages) for quite some time. The journeys they have had during that time made them as one of the greatest travellers of all time.

For several centuries, the Maori people inhabited the land of New Zealand and arrived in canoes from the Pacific about 1000 years ago, keeping their Polynesian culture. This Polynesian culture was then  adapted over the next years to these new surroundings found in New Zealand.

Accounting 14% of New Zealand’s population, Māori are the country’s indigenous people and were believed to be the early settlers of New Zealand. The story of how Māori came and conquered the paradise country is long, intriguing and mythical. Based on oral records, these indigenous people arrived in New Zealand in the thirteenth century AD.

Maori Culture

Maori marea meeting house New ZealandMaori people and their rich culture influenced mainly how the Kiwis or the New Zealanders are living to this day. Although Maori culture may have mixed with European influences, there are still areas in New Zealand wherein authentic Maori community still thrives, which they refer to as Marae. A marae is a community plaza that features a wharenui (meeting house) and a wharekai (dining room).

Maori people are differentiated from one another according to their tribe (iwi), sub-tribe (hapu), awa (river) and maunga (mountain). Their family, to which they refer to as Whanau consists of their immediate family, in-laws and other people to whom they may have blood linkages to.

New Zealand people today pay high respects to their roots by inculcating Maori culture to its younger generations. In the past years, Maori languages (kohango reo) are included in the curriculum for preschool children as well as their primary and secondary schools.

Maori culture features bone, wood and stone carving, as well as reeds, weaving of flax and feathers. Beautiful carvings can be admired by tourists visiting the Maori meeting houses across the country. Singing and dancing is also present  in the Maori culture, such as the poi dance of women and the haka, a war dance performed by men. Tourists can experience Maori singing and New Zealand haka dancing participating at numerous cultural centres allover New Zealand. The Auckland museum and Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington have excellent sections dedicated to Maori culture.

Maori History

The Early Maori

Maori culture was believed to be of great ties to with the Polynesians. This is primarily because Aotearoa (New Zealand) is one of the three islands that make up the Polynesian Triangle. Islands that belong to this triangle share similar languages, religion, myths, material culture and social organization.

Back then, Polynesians were already known to be great navigators of the sea. In fact, the settling of the first Maori in New Zealand was not by accident but rather a deliberate navigation.

Way of Living

Giant Moa New ZealandThe early Polynesians, particularly the Maori hunt Moa – a large flightless bird for food. Other foods that form the diet of these early people include fish, sharks, seals, shellfish, native dogs and rats.

During this stage, Maori rely on stones in performing major duties such as chopping woods, slicing foods, fishing net and waka anchors. They also performed different burial methods and used hangi or earth ovens back then.

Growing and cultivating sweet potatoes was also predominant during those times but it didn’t flourish all throughout the region, though. They were noted also to be doing seasonal activities such as gardening, bird hunting and fishing.

Men and women have already established different tasks for each gender. However, there were also activities that were done in groups such as food gathering and cultivation.

Maori Culture during the Classic Period

During the classic period, Maori people are less nomadic, are already settled in bounded territories and are keener in gardening. It was also during this stage that they learned to store foods to protect it from prowling neighbours. Shellfish and fishes were common in Maori plates during this period. They also hunted birds and ducks.

Maori settlement was called a whare puni (a small hut) characterized by a low roof, a single low entry, earth floor with no windows. During cold weather, they warm themselves through a small open fire. They don’t cook foods inside. They cook raw food in the open or under a kauta.

Maori and European Influence

Abel Tasman route of the first and second voyageThere were only few Europeans who came to visit New Zealand between the 18th and 19th century; hence, their culture was not totally changed. However, during those times Maori displayed their eagerness with the possibility of change that advanced culture may bring forth.

In the South, where Maori population is small, it was already common for the chiefs to offer their women to European men. At that time there were about 200 Maori women who were married to European men.

Intermarriage between these two different cultures had paved way for the Maori to access the material culture off England. They were introduced to other food sources such as onions, goats, pigs and chickens. Another thing that they learned about dealing with Europeans is how trading really works.

Maori in the 20th Century

Maori culture continued to transcend during this century. Towards the middle of the century, many Maori have been settling in urban areas. Many of them were attracted to urban life because of the jobs, city living has to offer, money, recreation and other lifestyle activities were also some of the reasons for urban migration among Maori people.

Over time, educated Maori people initiated the inclusion of Maori language and culture in all aspects of their education. They also have risen to the realm of politics that saw voters changing preferences from Labor party to other political parties. New generations of radicals have risen to demand for more influence for Maori people and their culture.


Maori Marea Tanenuiarangi New ZealandThe Maori people are split in various tribes or  iwi’s, many living in Marae based communities. Tourists must get permission from the elders in order to visit a Marae, and a special ceremony will take place to welcome them.

A marae is the core of a Maori community. It is the venue for meetings and other cultural events that are generally important for the Maori culture. Attendees for such events use the Maori language while those who don’t speak the language are provided with translators for better understanding of discussions. In essence, more and more schools in New Zealand have put up their own marae wherein they can facilitate their teaching about the Maori language and culture.

The marae is the rendezvous for Maori people where they hold meetings and ceremonies that are line with the culture’s protocols. To them it is the symbol and unity among them. Authority is given to the elderly. This is also the venue to where they impart their tradition to the younger generation.


Traditional Maori hangi New ZealandMaori people call the Marae protocols as tikanga or kawa which may vary depending on the tribe they belong to. But generally, locals and visitors who come to visit marae should respect the protocols they impose. Guests are called manuhiri while the hosts are referred as tangata whenua. As part of their protocols, previous visitors who happen to meet new group of visitors in a single marae, they will be considered as the hosts.


Locals and tourists who’ll visit marae will be treated to a sumptuous meal made out of their traditional hangi. The hangi way of cooking is done by digging a shallow hole in the ground and stones are placed on top heated up by fire. When these stones are already hot, food will be placed on them placing the meat first and then the vegetables. These will be covered with leaves or mats.

Oral Tradition

The rich culture of Maori is well kept and transcended over time through oral traditions such as songs, chants and narratives. To them, it is very important for a speaker to include oral narratives and other sayings.

Maori Language

The Maori language is not so popular anymore to the Maori people, but in recent years there has been a growing interest in learning TeReo.

The Maori language is an official language of New Zealand.

Maori Art

Maori Statue in Rotorua New ZealandJust like oral traditions, Maori Art is also an important aspect of the Maori culture. During the early times, they made use of wood, pounamu (jade or greenstone), bone, paua shell, feathers and flax as their materials when creating a great work of art. Today however, Maori artists have already taken advantage of modern materials.

Although black is their national color, Maori art also used red as part of their artistry. To them, red is a symbol of prestige which is why they usually incorporate it in most important things and structures such as the marae and waka.

Maori Tattoo

Maori performs traditional haka danceRegarded as a clear depiction of commitment and respect, Maori Tattoo or Ta Moko is a core component of Maori Culture. Unlike normal tattoos, Ta Moko is characterized by textured grooves in the skin instead because the process uses uhi (chisel) to carve an image on the skin rather than puncturing it using a needle. The process of Ta moko is done by a tohunga ta moko or a tattoo expert.

Maori haka performed New ZealandMen are required to have Ta Moko carved on their faces, arms, buttocks and thighs while women are only required to have them on their chin and lips. Tattoos in the Maoi culture are not just any design you’d pick up from a list of pictures. The design of the moko is in line with the Maori’s tribe, status and achievements.

Tattoo experts back then used chisels to carve images on a Maori’s skin. The chisels are made from materials like that of an Albatross bone and may come with different edges – either straight or serrated.

These days, modern tattoo experts have already taken advantage of machines making the image looking smooth rather than grooves. However, there are an increasing number of artists who started using chisels in making tattoos.

Maori Haka

All Blacks New Zealand Rugby team performs maori hakaMaori’s traditional dance is called Haka. This dance performed for different important reasons such as celebration for achievements, pre-battle challenge or as a welcoming gesture.

Ka Mate is a very popular Haka, thanks to New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team. The Ka Mate is a pre-match traditional that was touted to be created by a chief of the Ngati Toa tribe during the early 1800s and was first performed by the All Blacks Team in 1906 and remains to be a predominant dance for the team for almost a century now.

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