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Meet the Maori

An introduction to New Zealand's indigenous people

View 1. A Land Down Under on Where's Willy's travel map.


When most people think of New Zealand, they don't think of it as having an indigenous people, they certainly wouldn't think of it having a second language. Hell I think large parts of the world don't even know that New Zealand exists! Isn't New Zealand just a small state of Australia? Isn't that just a crayon mark in the corner of the map?

The reality is that New Zealand's native people, the Maori, come from a rich collective of 'iwi' (tribes) and 'hapu' (sub tribes) from all corners of New Zealand. An iwi represented the highest political group with in traditional Moari culture though most lived in the localised hapu. Iwi's often had political or military ties with other iwi's who descended from the same Waka Canoes that brought the Moari to New Zealand.

A map of the different Iwi of New Zealand can be found at databook.co.uk

Today Maori makes up 15% of the population of New Zealand and is an ever important component to the New Zealand identity, culture and heritage. Having experienced a proper haka when I was last in New Zealand, it was something I really wanted to do again.


'Authentic cultural experiences' are something we try and avoid as experience has taught us that they're usually about as realistic as a nativity set and have a large gift shop attached. Once when in Morocco we went to an 'authentic Berber village' on a trip up into the Atlas mountains; the girl employed to pretend she was grounding nuts to make oil (which had many uses, creams available in gift shop) was wearing trendy torn jeans, had her nails painted and was texting on her iphone. With all this said, we were more than a little sceptical at the idea of visiting one of the Moari experiences in New Zealand.

We swallowed our pride and with the promise of a real good 'feed' and with a great deal from grab one dramatically reducing the hefty entrance fee, set out to discover the real New Zealand way of living at Mitai Village, here's how we found it.....

Hungry for some Hāngi

A Hāngi, or earth oven, was the Maori way of cooking. A fire is lit in a deep hole, large enough to lower a casket full of food. In amongst the fire there are igneous rocks which heat up and glow white as the fire burns. After a couple of hours, the fire will have burnt down leaving ashes, and hot stones. The pit is cleaned and the food caskets are lowered onto a bed of hot rocks. Cold water is splashed liberally over the food and hot rocks creating jets of steam. The food is covered in wet cloth and sacks to trap the rising steam. The sacks are the covered in soil to create the 'earth oven'. 2-3 hours later the food is slow cooked to perfection and can be dug out the ground to be served.

Traditionally the Maori would eat rat and wild dog. Luckiy for us this has now been replaced with lamb, chicken, kumara (sweet potatoes to the rest of the world) and rice. The Hāngi is served with a thick gravy, stuffing and a range of salads.

I have to say, the food was really very good. Some of the best cooked lamb I've had and it really fell off the bone. I may have to try making one of these in the UK, though I think the neighbours might have something to say about that! That is some tasty Hāngi!!

They even had some traditional New Zealand Pavlova for desert. Although not authentically Maori, try telling anyone from New Zealand that the Pavlova was invented by the Australians and see what response you get.

Waka Entrance!

Following the unveiling of the Hāngi, Uncle Jimmy (every Maori person has an Uncle Jimmy) took us over to explain about the Waka (canoe). The Waka has a large importance in Maori culture as the canoes are often used as ancestral references of the Iwi (tribes) and they are the vessels that brought them to New Zealand in the first place. No one knows for sure when the first canoes arrived in New Zealand nor where exactly they came from. Moari legends differ between each waka and tribe and the stories have often been melded to create an idea of a mass migration to Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The Maori believe they travelled from Hawaiki. Hawaiki is not a physical place in the modern geographical sense of the word, and its meaning differs from tribe to tribe. Some believe it as the place they come from before they were born and the place they will go when they will die and it has a spiritual meaning. Others take it to mean the birth place of the Maori people though have no geographical location associated and others believe it is somewhere in Polynesia.

Scholars believe the arrival to be around 1250 - 1300 AD with different theories of the Maori having in origins in China, Africa, India and most commonly Ploynesia. The one thing they do agree on is the Maori arrived in Waka.


Mitai Village, had a small waka which Uncle Jimmy explained seated about 30 warriors. Women were never allowed in the boats as the first thing a tribe would do on capturing another tribe would be to take or kill the women. Women were key to the growth of the tribe so if you killed the women, you killed the tribe's future. Waka's would often be decorated with the various Maori gods both to ward off enemies and bless them with safe crossings. The vessels that brought the Maori across were thought to have used two large wakas harnessed together with a house suspended in-between, almost like a primitive catamaran with its twin hulls. These larger wakas could allegedly hold up to 1,500 people, meaning the Maori people invented the first South Pacific Cruise liners.


As Uncle Jimmy explained about the wakas we could hear the blowing of a conch shell, chanting and shouting in the distance. We were led down to the water way to see the arrival of the tribesmen by waka.

Enter the Marae


Following the tribe's arrival, we were led into the Marae of the village. The Marae is the communal area infront of the villages whare runanga (community house) and is the area where a community will meet and hold court and discussions.

Our ariki (chief) was greeted by the Maori ariki with an aggressive chase and display of his fighting skills.


This display was originally used to determine if the guests in the village came in peace or war. It is then followed by a peace offering which our chief took and was invited to say few words. Our chief had been chosen earlier in the evening and we could not have picked better, an Indian Doctor by trade, this man was a talker! He thanked the chief for welcoming us into his village, the Hāngi dinner we were going to receive later, and then he went on to thank every god he could think of, his family, each individual member of the maori experience and their families. If it had been the Oscars they would have played the 'exit stage' music and started a slow clap!

Following this, the chiefs shared a Hongi, where two people touch nose and forehead. The word literally means 'to share a breath'.

Showing the skills

Next on the show was an explanation of their village life, the traditional weapons and a display of different techniques and games they used to train their warriors for war. This included hand eye co-ordination exercises, skill exercises and a good old fashioned stick fight.


There were also a number of songs, including an explanation of the instruments. A demonstration of poi used by the ladies accompanied by songs to woo the men.

We also learnt about the traditional tattoo methods or Ta moko. Legend has it a Maori man beat his wife, she ran off into the underworld. Realising what he had done he followed her into the underworld, when he reached the underworld his face was smeared with sweat from his exertion. He gained his wife back, who had learnt the art of moko from the underworld and on their return tattooed his face with the same patterns as a reminder to treat thier women well. Other men in the tribe followed his example in his honour.

Women wear the owl beneath their chin as a symbol of protection. Men wear three birds on their face; the bird on their forehead represents wisdom, the parrot or beak on their nose is for speech making and the kiwi on their chin represents protection of mother earth

The Silver Fern


The silver fern is the symbol of New Zealand and adorns the shirts of the All Blacks rugby team, their pride and joy. Originally the kiwi bird was suggested to be the national emblem. The Maori argued that although the bird was unique and indigineous to New Zealand, they were rarely seen and therefore not a fitting emblem.

The Silver fern on the other hand can be found all over New Zealand and had important meaning to the Maori's when the first arrived. The Maori's would only move at night under a full moon. They would send a scout ahead who would lay the fern, bottom side up to guide the rest of the tribe. The moon would reflect off the silver surface underneath the fern and guide the way. Very clever.

There is currently a large push for New Zealand to have a new flag (and get rid of that pesky union flag in the corner) that includes the silver fern, or perhaps the kiwi too.


A haka is a traditional Maori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield to intimidate their enemies and welcome them to the battle. A haka will often consist of the stamping of feet, the rolling eyes, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping, along with a chant that is shouted out by the members of the haka group. The words of the chant describe the ancestors and events in the tribes history.

Today the haka is most well known for being performed before a Rugby game by the New Zealand All Blacks. It is also used at events when tribes come together in peace and will be performed at ceremonial events.

Below is video of a mixed kappa haka group. Although it's not the haka we saw, I think it conveys the passion and intensity of a haka well:

When I worked in a school, just outside of Wellington on my gap year I was invited to watch the kapa haka group perform. To be in the group, you had to be of Maori or islander (Samoan, Polynesian or from one of many other pacific islands) descent and be able to speak Maori, which is taught at school.

The group performed traditional haka's which are best known as the 'war dance' performed by the All Blacks before they play rugby. Now each group will have it's own Haka with its own meaning. This meant that each school had it's own haka, and don't go thinking they're all war chants; the school I worked at in the Hutt valley thanked the various Maori gods for the hills, the valleys, and asked for good education etc.

The kapa haka group surrounded me and performed a haka to welcome me to the school. As they did so there eyes roll to the back of their heads and tongues stick out. Although it may sound ridiculous, when you are at the centre of it, one on one, it is absolutely blood curdingly scary, a real experience and I was very honoured to have had it done to me.

What was amazing is when the first team played rugby, the whole school would haka them in the morning assembly, led by the kapa haka group. Then when the game was being played the whole school would haka the other school and vice versa. To see 1,200 school kids haka-ing each other at the top of their lungs in the name of school rivalry with such passion and adrenaline was really quite something.



The haka at Mitai village was just as passionate and electrifying as I remember. This was not a token 'authentic cultural experience' I had dismissed it as. I'd really recommend a visit to Mitai village, despite my scepticism, it was a relly enjoyable and informative night plus you get a great feed!!

Posted by Where's Willy 18:25 Archived in New Zealand Tagged new_zealand haka mitai_village moari_experience Comments (0)

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