Just a small taste of Maori culture

Since I’ve started my job, it’s become even more apparent how important and special the Māori culture is here in New Zealand. The other day I answered the phone at work, and a client asked to leave a message with me. As she gave her name and the company she was calling for, I scrambled to guess how to spell it as I scribbled down some random letters, and even more embarrassingly tried to pronounce “Tairawhiti” (say Tie-daf-itee) in a shameful American accent when delivering the message.

Māori culture is so engrained in Kiwi life. It’s in the names of the cities, in the every day phrases, the sporting events, churches, and schools. Almost every natural landmark has a Māori legend behind it.

So when my family and I traveled through Roturua, we took some time to learn a bit more about the culture at Te Puia, New Zealand’s Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. Here we got to experience just a taste of the traditions (and meals!) that Māori’s hold so sacred.

Our evening started with the pōwhiri (ceremonial welcome). This unique custom was used traditionally to challenge a visiting party and find out whether they came in peace. (You may have seen this when Prince William recently visited New Zealand). The tribe’s chief came out of their Marae, chanting and hissing as he moved in jerking motions with his spear and retrieved a leaf from the feet of our group. Once they knew we came in peace, we entered the Marae.

A Marae is a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes. It is customary to remove your shoes before entering. This meeting place is typically adorned with beautiful carvings. Maraes can be found all over New Zealand today, so if you're traveling around, be sure to visit one.

Two Maori women with Ta moko  Source

Two Maori women with Ta moko Source

Inside the marae, the men and women sang and danced in their traditional garb, which showed off their Ta Moko (tattoos). Ta Moko is a symbol of Māori integrity, identity, and prestige. It tells the story of the person and their ancestry (whakapapa - pronounced fakapapa... which very immaturely happens to be one of my favorite Māori words to say), and narrates their tribal affiliations through intricate markings on the face. No two are identical and no moko can ever be duplicated for use by another person. I definitely experienced a moment of culture shock the first time I ran into an elderly woman in the grocery store with her lips and chin tattooed!

After the Kapa Haka (cultural performance), it was time for the fun to begin. The men were invited on stage to learn the haka and the women were trained in the poi dance.

The haka, which many may recognize from All Blacks rugby games, is a traditional chant and dance to prepare warriors physically and mentally for battle. Watching my dad and Joe perform had to be one of the most hilarious experiences of the trip.

My mom and I equally embarrassed ourselves trying to juggle poi (which are essentially woven balls on strings). They require a certain degree of coordination and grace, much like baton twirling.

After the show, Joe and my dad got a personal lesson from the Māori chief on how to do their best pukana (scary warrior face).

All that dancing made us work up an appetite! We were ready for the Hakari, a mouthwatering spread of traditional Māori food, which had been cooked for hours underground in the Hangi pit.

Pork, lamb, chicken, and kumera roasting in the pit. Kumera is one of my new favorite New Zealand! It's similar to a sweet potato.

Pork, lamb, chicken, and kumera roasting in the pit. Kumera is one of my new favorite New Zealand! It's similar to a sweet potato.

Finally, we finished off the night sitting on the naturally warm rocks of the geothermal valley, sipping hot chocolate and watching a geyser erupt. It was such an honor to get just a glimpse into the traditions of the Maori culture, a culture that I didn’t know much about prior to living here. It truly has inspired me to learn more and share more with others. I hope you're traveling in New Zealand, you'll take some time to learn about this magnificent culture!