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Culture of the Maori

Maori culture is distinct from New Zealand culture as is primarily observed only in Maori society and social gatherings that have a significant Maori aspect. Generally the Maori language is spoken, though translations and explanations are provided when the primary participants are not Maori speakers.

Many Maori cultural events traditionally take place on a Marae, an area of land where the Wharenui or meeting house (literally big house) sits. However such a venue, though traditional, is not essential and any place appropriate to the occasion can be used.

Significant Maori cultural events or activities include:

  • The Haka - an action chant, often described as a "War Dance", but more a chant with hand gestures and foot stamping, originally performed by Warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess and generally abusing the opposition. Now regularly performed by New Zealand representative Rugby and Rugby League teams before commencing a game. There are many different haka.
  • Kapahaka groups often come together to practice and perform cultural items such as waiata or songs, especially action songs, and haka for entertainment. Poi dances may also form part of the repertoire. Traditional instruments sometime accompany the group, though the guitar is also commonly used. Many New Zealand schools now teach kapahaka as part of the Maori studies curriculum, though this was not always the case. Today, national kapahaka competitions are held where groups are judged to find the best peformers, these draw large crowds.
  • The Powhiri or Maori welcome, where distinguished visitors are welcomed onto the Marae, or other place. The ceremony generally includes an aggressive challenge dance by a Maori warrior armed with a tiaha or traditional spear, who then offers a token of peace, such as a fern frond, to the leader of the visiting delegation. Acceptance of the token in the face of such aggression is a demonstration of the courage and honour of the visitor. Following the challenge there may be speeches of introduction, as well as karakea or prayers and the singing of waiata or songs.
  • Tangi or funeral rites may take 2 or 3 days and include a lying-in-state where the whole whanau, or family, hold an all night vigil, with the deceased in an open coffin, to farewell them, before a church or marae funeral service and/or graveside interment ceremony. It is traditional for mourners to wash their hands in running water before leaving the cemetery. After the burial rites are completed, a meal is traditionally served. Mourners are expected to provide koha or gifts towards the meal.
  • Koha are gifts, generally in kind and often of food or traditional items, though equivalent monetry donations are also called and accepted as koha in many circumstances.

Cultural Concepts

Maori have an number of cultural concepts that have been taken up into the predominant New Zealand culture.

  • Whanau or extended family, this includes any relative, no matter how distant. The whole whanau are responsible for raising the children, not just the parents. The concept has more to do with social relationship and friendship than genetics and bloodlines, and is often difficult for tauiwi or non-maori to properly comprehend. While the Whanau is the smallest social unit, Hapu or village or settlement and Iwi or tribe are larger subdivisions.
  • Meeting, with discussion and debate where all viewpoints are heard and considered before a decision is made.
  • Apart from place names, many Maori words have also been taken up into New Zealand English language.



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