Story: Māori manners and social behaviour – Ngā mahi tika

Page 1. Welcome and hospitality

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Greeting visitors

‘Haere mai, ngā manuhiri tūārangi (welcome, strangers from afar)!’ The colourful and distinctive manner in which Māori greet visitors is the custom which usually makes the first and strongest impression on non-Māori. This practice dates back to before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, and even to the Polynesian ancestors of Māori. It has survived for so long because it was once highly practical, and is now traditional and generally appreciated.

Rituals of encounter

In 1807 an English doctor described New Zealand as ‘divided into small principalities, whose chieftains are almost constantly at war with each other’.1 The women of a settlement, whose voices could carry furthest, would call out to strangers, requiring them to identify themselves and their intentions before allowing them to approach too closely. Selected warriors would then challenge the visitors in a ceremony called the wero, to ensure their goodwill. Only then could the visitors enter the host settlement and be formally welcomed and given hospitality. These rituals of encounter were a mechanism to manage peacetime interactions.

The hongi

As with other Māori customs, the rituals of encounter have changed over time and vary from region to region, but they follow the same basic pattern – the karanga (call) by the women, the wero, the whaikōrero (formal speeches) by representatives of both hosts and visitors, and finally the hongi (ceremonial pressing of noses), to confirm that the two groups are meeting in peace. The Māori custom of pressing noses in greeting is very ancient and refers to the mythological figure of Tāne Mahuta, who shaped a figure from earth and breathed life into it through the nose to create Hineahuone, the ‘woman formed of earth’.

Low-key occasions

Large and important welcomes (known as pōwhiri) may include extra elements such as laments to the dead, traditional songs and chants, and wero ceremonies that are deliberately confrontational and even alarming to outsiders. However, not all such ceremonies are so dramatic. Many are low-key and informal. Whether large or small, the pōwhiri ends with an invitation to the manuhiri (visitors) to mingle with their hosts, the tangata whenua, and to eat and drink with them. They are no longer potentially threatening strangers, but guests to be cared for as long as they remain in the hosts’ territory. Providing plentiful food to guests is central to Māori custom.

Food and drink

If the pōwhiri takes place on a marae, an area set aside for Māori ceremony and hospitality, food and drink is usually served in an area separate from that used for sleeping. Eating, like many other areas of Māori life, is affected by customs relating to the complementary states of tapu (sacred, set apart) and noa (non-sacred, common or neutral). These customs vary between tribes and are not always observed, and the best practice is to follow the guidance of the host people.

The koha

Although hospitality to visitors is freely and generously provided, both on the marae and in less formal settings, Māori custom enables guests to show their appreciation and respond with equal generosity. This custom is the koha, a gift made by visitors to their hosts and often presented formally during the pōwhiri. In the past the koha took the form of food and precious objects such as greenstone ornaments. Today it is generally a sum of money, and the amount is determined by the donor’s ability and willingness to show their appreciation of the hospitality received.

Marae customs

In the most formal Māori settings, such as a whare whakairo (carved meeting house), a great many traditional customs govern behaviour, individual roles, and sitting and sleeping arrangements. Most marae have their own particular protocols that have been developed over time.

  1. J. Savage, Some account of New Zealand: particularly the Bay of Islands and surrounding country: with a description of the religion and government, language, arts, manufactures, manners, and customs of the natives, &c. &c. London: J. Murray, 1807, p. 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori manners and social behaviour – Ngā mahi tika - Welcome and hospitality', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013