‘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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bonds of kinship continue to be of profound importance in Māori society and underlie many long-lasting customs and traditions. A speech in Māori will often begin with a recital of the speaker’s whakapapa (genealogy), which may establish links with the group addressed or the issue under debate. Even on less formal occasions whanaungatanga (kin relationships) may decide a particular course of action. Those kinship bonds extend well beyond the nuclear family to include grandparents, informally adopted children and even deceased relatives whose actions and example may be taken into account for generations after their death.
Although Māori in the 2000s are a highly urbanised people, most retain some links with their original tribal territories and return there for ceremonial and social events. Tribal identity therefore continues to hold great importance for many Māori, and the distinctive customs and traditions of their own iwi (tribe) may be upheld and retained even when living in a predominantly non-Māori society. Each tribe is made up of a number of hapū (sub-tribes), whose members can generally claim descent from a common ancestor. In turn, each hapū is made up of a number of whānau (extended families), who are even more closely related.
Traditionally, every hapū can claim rights to specific marae within its tribal territory. Those marae, and the sites and tribal lands associated with them, are known as the tūrangawaewae (standing place) of the members of the hapū. Those members hold the highly valued status of tangata whenua (people of the land), meaning they can host gatherings on the marae, hold weddings and funerals, and generally regard those specific marae as their shared property.
With those usage rights, however, come responsibilities to uphold the reputation and maintain the facilities of the marae. In modern times this means that hapū members living and working at a distance from their marae feel an obligation to return there periodically to take part in collective activities. This obligation is known as ‘ahi kā’ (a lighted fire). The term means that, symbolically, the fires lit on the marae to provide warmth and cooking must not be allowed to die out completely through neglect by the tangata whenua.
Kaumātua and kuia (elderly men and women) are generally given an honoured and active place in Māori community life and have special roles in marae ceremonies and in collective debate. Because elders play a respected role, old age is a proud and happy time in Māori communities.
Within a Māori family the mātāmua (firstborn) holds extra mana (status), and tuakana (elder siblings) have more mana than tēina (younger ones). However, those traditional relationships are no longer upheld as firmly as in the past; ability, educational qualifications and other achievements may now also determine mana and responsibilities within a family.
The Māori customs associated with death and burial are among the most distinctive and firmly upheld of all, and have survived through centuries of profound social upheaval.
The death of any relative immediately places a series of obligations on many people. The bereaved family must gather and be supported by their wider whānau and community. As a result, a tangi will attract people from throughout the country and even overseas to pay their respects, help with arrangements and participate in rituals. According to ancient Māori tradition, when a person dies their wairua (spirit) leaves their body and travels to the far northern tip of New Zealand, to a sacred place called Te Rerenga Wairua (the departing place of spirits). Many of the customs associated with a tangi aim to acknowledge the departing wairua, and support the whānau pani (bereaved relatives).
Most Māori prefer to hold a tangi at a marae with which the departed and their family are most closely associated. The marae must be made ready to host the expected number of mourners for several days. The placement of the body within the marae and other specific funeral customs vary from district to district. However, mourners generally accompany the tūpāpaku (corpse) and the grieving family at all times in the days and nights between the start of the tangi and the burial.
Many marae have an urupā (cemetery) nearby, and this is one of the most tapu places in all of Māori society. No eating, drinking or smoking is permitted within its boundaries since those activities are noa (the antithesis of tapu). People leaving the urupā are expected to wash their hands with water, to reduce the tapu to the safe state of noa.
Some customs associated with the tangi are also being adopted by non-Māori in New Zealand, because they are seen as effective and appropriate to the grieving process. Similarly, some Māori customs associated with childbirth are also practised by non-Māori. One of those concerns the whenua (placenta). This was traditionally buried on land closely associated with one or both of the child’s parents, to symbolise fertility and the continuity of life.
The application of old customs to new times and a changing society is a complex and contentious process. However, Māori custom has proved to be both resilient and adaptable. Public debate and the resolution of disagreement are central features of Māori society, and customs concerning the marae and whaikōrero (speechmaking) are designed to assist decision-making. On the marae decisions are customarily reached by consensus, and this is another custom which is proving applicable and valuable in wider New Zealand society.
Professor Hirini Mead describes a number of Māori customs which are both traditional and applicable to very different present-day circumstances. One is the development of urban marae, which are often non-tribal or multi-tribal and may require imaginative revisions of traditional protocols. Another is the use of formal Māori ceremonies in non-Māori settings, such as the opening of the Te Māori art exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984.
Most cultures have borrowed customs from other cultures and adapted their own customs to suit changing circumstances. The persistence and adaptation of Māori custom within Māori society, and its selective adoption by non-Māori, is an indication of a thriving, confident and tolerant national culture.
Mead, Hirini Moko. Tikanga Māori: living by Māori values. Wellington: Huia, 2003.
Salmond, Anne. Hui: a study of Māori ceremonial gatherings. Wellington: Reed, 1975.
Tauroa, Hiwi, and Pat Tauroa. Te marae: a guide to customs & protocol. North Shore: Raupo, 2009.