Māori culture

Wharenui, Ohinemutu village, Rotorua (tekoteko on the top)

Māori culture forms a distinctive part of New Zealand culture. The word Māori refers to the indigenous people of New Zealand. Both the term and the people are a hybrid of various Polynesian cultures.

Within the Māori community, and to a lesser extent throughout New Zealand as a whole, the word Māoritanga is often used as an approximate synonym for Māori culture, the Māori suffix -tanga being roughly equivalent to the qualitative noun ending "-ness" in English.[1][2] There have been three distinct but overlapping cultural eras—before widespread European contact, the 1800s in which Māori began interacting with European visitors and settlers, and the modern era since the beginning of the 20th century. Culture in the modern era has been shaped by increasing urbanisation, closer contact with New Zealanders of European descent (or Pākehā) and revival of traditional practices.

Traditional arts such as carving, raranga (weaving), kapa haka (group performance), whaikorero (oratory), and tā moko (tattoo) are common throughout the country. Practitioners often follow the techniques of their ancestors, but today Māori also includes contemporary arts such as film, television, poetry and theatre.

Pre-European Māori stories and legends were handed down orally and through weavings and carvings. Some surviving Te Toi Whakairo, or carving, is over 500-years-old. Tohunga Whakairo are the great carvers—the master craftsmen. The Māori believed that the gods created and communicated through the master craftsmen. Carving has been a tapu art, subject to the rules and laws of tapu. Pieces of wood that fell aside as the carver worked were never thrown away, neither were they used for the cooking of food. Women were not permitted near Te Toi Whakairo.

The Māori language is known natively as te reo Māori, or shortened to te reo (literally, the language). At the beginning of the twentieth century, it looked like te reo as well as other aspects of Māori life would disappear. In the 1980s however, government-sponsored schools taught te reo, educating those of European descent as well as Māori.

Polynesian settlement of New Zealand

Māori cultural history is inextricably tied into a larger Polynesian phenomenon. Aotearoa (New Zealand) is the southwestern apex of the Polynesian Triangle, a region of the Pacific Ocean with three island groups at its corners: the Hawaiʻi islands, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and New Zealand (Aotearoa in Māori). The many island cultures within the Polynesian Triangle share similar languages derived from a proto-Malayo-Polynesian language used in southeastern Asia 5,000 years ago. Polynesians also share cultural traditions such as religion, social organisation, myths, and material culture. Anthropologists believe that all Polynesians have descended from a south Pacific proto-culture created by an Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) people that had migrated from southeastern Asia.

The other main Polynesian cultures are Rapa Nui (now known as Easter Island), Marquesas, Sāmoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Cook Islands.

Voyage to Aotearoa

Main article: Polynesian navigation

Polynesian seafarers were ocean navigators and astronomers. Polynesians were capable of travelling long distances by sea. The strong female presence among early settlers in New Zealand suggests Polynesian migration voyages were not accidental but deliberate. The most current reliable evidence strongly indicates that initial settlement of New Zealand occurred around 1280 CE from the Society Islands.[3][4] In 1769 the experienced Society Island navigator Tupaia joined Captain Cook in the Endeavour on his voyage south. Despite a gap of many hundreds of years Tupaia was able to understand the Maori language which was very similar to the language he spoke. His presence and ability to translate avoided much of the friction between other European explorers and Maori in New Zealand.

European sailors, including Cook, found Polynesian sailors lost at sea, suggesting that by mid 18th century Polynesians had lost the art of very long distance navigation.[5]

Moa-hunter period

Researchers often label the time from about 1280 to about 1450 the "Moa-hunter period" - after the moa, the large flightless bird that formed a large part of the diet of the early settlers. Nine different moa species occurred commonly in the south-east and east of the South Island. In the far South it was too cold to grow the kūmara sweet potato . Large quantities of tubers were eaten that were slow-cooked in large umu or hāngi (earth ovens) to get rid of poison and to produce a slightly sweet pulp. Shellfish, fish, sharks and seals were also common foods. Native dogs (kurī) and rats were brought from the Pacific Islands. The introduction of rats undoubtedly had more impact on New Zealand wildlife than any other organism apart from humans.[6] The dogs were used for hunting but also as food.[7] The Society Island colonists explored New Zealand to find suitable stone for tool-making. The main stone source areas included Mayor Island, Taupo and Kerikeri for obsidian (volcanic glass); prospectors soon found pounamu (greenstone or jade) and argillite (pakohe) resources in the South Island in the Reefton and Nelson areas. Stone served in all aspects of Polynesian life: from chopping wood to cutting and slicing food, as anchors for waka and fishing nets, as hangi stones for retaining the heat in a slow-cooking earth oven, as drills using chert, and for stone clubs.

Archaeological evidence in early proto-Māori settlements, especially at the Wairau Bar that was intensively studied by Roger Duff,[8] shows some typical East Polynesian cultural practices, including burial methods and the use of hangi (earth ovens).

Two Polynesian artifacts link early settlers to Polynesia. One, a turret shell only found in the South Pacific islands, most notably in the Society Islands, has been reworked into a small chisel found at Wairau Bar and dated to about 1300.[9] The other is a 6 cm long Polynesian pearl fishing lure found at Tairua in 1962. This lure has been reliably dated to the early- to mid-14th century. It was found at a typical small coastal moa-hunters' site which has been interpreted as an itinerant hunting camp (whakaruruhau).[10] The discovery of Mayor Island obsidian on the Kermadec Islands, halfway between New Zealand and Polynesia, strongly suggests return journeys were made.[11]

The new environment offered challenges to the settlers. Its cold climate meant that tropical staple crops needed careful cultivation to survive, and some failed to grow locally. Kūmara was an important crop that arrived with the Polynesian settlers. Much of the activity to produce kūmara became ritualised – it was even associated with Rongomātāne (Rongo), a high-ranking atua (god).[12] Kūmara featured in some whakataukī (proverbs): "Kaore te kūmara e kōrero mo tōna māngaro" (the kūmara does not speak of its own sweetness) encouraged people to be modest.

However, there were also new opportunities. Māori learned to use local resources like pounamu, native timber, harakeke and the abundant birdlife, producing practical tools or food, as well as beautiful ornaments and items of clothing.

Woman with kiwi feather cloak and heitiki

Seasonal activities included gardening, fishing and the hunting of birds. Main tasks were segregated for men and women, but there were also a lot of group activities involving food gathering and food cultivation.

Culture in the Classic period

Māori artifacts began to change around the 15th century from East Polynesian style to one more recognisably "classical" Māori,[13] a style which persisted well into the contact period in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time, Māori groups became less nomadic, more settled in defined territories, and more dependent on gardening as a food source. Reliance on stored food such as kūmara tubers meant that stores needed to be protected from marauding neighbours. The widespread construction of large fortifications called on prominent hills and spurs dates from this time, as evidence of the development of a more martial, tribal culture.[14]

Cultural concepts

A key concept regulating social and economic exchange was utu, which is sometimes translated as revenge but better translated as "reciprocity" or "balanced exchange".[17] Economically, this took the form of gift exchange. This was governed by three basic principles. Firstly giving had to have the appearance of being free and spontaneous, without stipulation of a return present. Secondly a strict system of obligation was in force whereby the receiver was bound to not only reciprocate but to increase the value of the reciprocated gift. Thirdly the system demanded that further social obligation had now been established to continue the exchanges. Failure to respond meant loss of mana or influence. Where parties had traveled a long way to give a present it was expected that the return gift be immediate but often due to seasonal food supplies it was accepted that a return gift would be given at some later date when supplies allowed.[18]

While a gift conveyed an obligation to return the favour, so did an insult. The response might be a martial one. Historian Angela Ballara describes warfare as a "learned, culturally determined [response] to offences against the rules of Māori society."[19]

Historian Judith Binney says that maintaining and increasing the mana of whanau and hapu and loyalty within the group are unquestionably at the heart of Māori cultural concepts. She says that Māori cultural history is confusing to the uninformed as it consists of narrative-myths that stretch far back in time. Also confusing is that chronological time is irrelevant or distorted[20] to the Māori cultural story, so a person living in the present may narrate a story about their family or hapu that happened centuries ago; nonetheless, the narrator appears as a contemporary figure in the myth. A key element of cultural leadership is to link the narrator to a well known historical figure with mana (prestige/authority power).[21] This is why being able to recite the family history is so important. In Māori culture names of people and places are fluid. Individuals may change their name several times or have several different names that they use depending on the cultural situation. In the past, hapu changed names if they moved to another area where an alternative name was more positive. One of the main reasons for name fluidity was access to resources. As a hapu moved seasonally to utilise different resources its name changed to reflect an ancestor who had historical cultural rights to that resource. Binney says that being connected to a powerful hapu with many well known ancestors was important for protection and survival. As Māori communication was almost totally oral until well into the contact period, oral myth-narratives became more varied to match the needs of each hapu or whanau.


Classic Māori viewed disease as a punishment for breaking tribal tapu but tohunga (shaman/witch doctor) recognised that some families were prone to certain disease. The standard practice of tohunga was to isolate the victim in a small shelter. The most common serious disease was tuberculosis, which was present in the colonizing Polynesians. Classic Māori did not recognise the symptoms as being from one disease. Kohi was the name given to phthisis. It was considered the work of demons and caused by Makutu (witchcraft). Toke toke was the name of the devil that caused tubercular bone disease. Tuberculosis of the neck glands was called hura or hone. This was very common. Tubercular ulcers were called poka poka. The early European explorer and painter, Earle, noted in 1827 that these diseases were common even in isolated inland districts such as Taupo. His Māori advisers said the diseases were very old. Leprosy was another common disease. Māori legends had the disease arriving with the canoe that bought the Ngati Whatua to New Zealand. The Māori name was Ngerengare or Tuwhenua or Tukawaiki. Lepers were carefully isolated and avoided as it was recognised the disease was contagious. Two places-a location on Maungatautari mountain, near Cambridge and a cave at Oremu in Taupo have been recognised as places where lepers were isolated. Treatment of leprosy was by mixing two plants -Kawakawa and Ngaio with either dog or human excreta. The treatment did not work if a dog was touched according to Māori lore.[22] Earle recognised that tohunga used a range of plants to treat minor skin ailments. Much later European doctors advocated investigation of the medicinal properties of plants commonly used in Māori medicine.


Eating shellfish such as mussels and oysters was very common. During summer sea fish such as kahawai were caught using bone hooks, 2 piece lures or large flax nets. In creeks and lakes, eels were caught in large numbers when migrating along known waterways using hinaki, a long cone shaped net. Birds such as ducks were targeted during the moulting season and young birds such as Petrels and Gannets were taken from nests and cooked in their own fat to preserve them. Such preserved birds were favourite gifts to fulfill social gift obligations. Māori closely observed the natural world to take advantage of seasonal opportunities. Native pigeons ate Miro berries which made them thirsty. Māori carved wooden bowls equipped with multiple neck snares and placed these in Miro trees to catch these large birds.

Evidence from many recent Eastern Golden Bay excavations, especially at Tata Beach, shows that in middens local shellfish and fish bones were most prominent, followed by dog (kuri) bones and rat bones. Less common were bones from small birds and sea mammals. The Tata beach site and other nearby sites such as Takapou were in use during the late "Moa hunter" period-1450 up to 1660, well into the "Classic Māori" period. The coastal sites showed that Māori had created man made soils in the sand dunes ranging from small to very large(over 100M2). The natural soil A horizons had been modified by placing dark, humus rich soil near the surface.[23] This practice was widespread in Māori communities where kūmara was grown, although in many cases free-draining sand, gravels and pumice were mixed with humus rich loam. Kūmara are slow growing in the temperate NZ climate and need free-draining sub soils. In the Eastern Golden Bay north facing slopes were favoured.[24]


Pataka with tekoteko

The standard building in a classic Māori settlement was a simple sleeping whare puni (house/hut) about 2 metres x 3 metres with a low roof, an earth floor, no window and a single low doorway. Heating was provided by a small open fire in winter. There was no chimney.

Material used in construction varied between areas, but raupo reeds, flax and totara bark shingles for the roof were common.[25] Similar small whare, but with interior drains, were used to store kūmara on sloping racks.

In the classic period a higher proportion of whare were located inside pa than was the case after contact with Europeans. A chief's whare was similar but larger—often with full headroom in the centre, a small window and a partly enclosed front porch. In times of conflict the chief lived in a whare on the tihi or summit of a hill pa. In colder areas, such as in the North Island central plateau, it was common for whare to be partly sunk into the ground for better insulation.

Food was not cooked in the sleeping whare but in the open or under a kauta (lean-to). Saplings with branches and foliage removed were used to store and dry item such as fishing nets or cloaks. Valuable items were stored in pole-mounted storage shelters called pataka.[26] Other constructions were large racks for drying split fish.

Culture change by contact with Europeans in the 1800s

Because of the very small number of Europeans who visited New Zealand in the 18th and early 19th century, the core values of Māori culture were little altered. Henry Williams estimated there were only 1100 Europeans in the North Island in 1839, with 200 being missionaries, and a total of about 500–600 Europeans in the Bay of Islands.[27] The northern Māori population at the time has been estimated by Ian Poole at about 30,000 to 40,000.

For decades, missionaries had very little influence over Māori in the north. Missionaries were appalled at the violent, seemingly arbitrary nature of Māori behaviour. They had no influence on warfare, slavery, sexual abuse of women, killing of female children or revenge killings. Cannibalism continued as before, except that increasingly Māori learnt to be less boastful about this act. However, by 1840, the custom was all but abolished.[28]

In the coastal South Island the Māori population was very small. Whalers set up shore stations along the southern and eastern coasts and formed Māori–European working communities. In the early 1800s it was common for chiefs to provide whalers with Māori wives, often their daughters. By the 1820s, European men had married about 200 Māori women in the coastal area between modern Christchurch and Invercargill, about half of all the marriageable aged women in the South Island - in fact Māori men were finding it hard to compete for wives.[29]

Contact with Europeans enabled Māori to access the material culture of England, then the most advanced industrial nation in the world. By 1800, the desire for iron objects such as large ships' nails overcame apprehension about boarding an anchored ship and this drove Māori trading behaviour, lasting until 1840.[30] Desirable steel objects and blankets were at first traded for fish. Māori were generally very curious about European culture after initial misunderstandings and apprehension, with Māori showing great ability to accept changes and integrating these into their normal way of life[31][32] Marion Du Fresne gave northern Māori potatoes, wheat, onions, goats, pigs, chickens and other food to raise. Potatoes and pigs rapidly became a key part of Māori agriculture in the north, but the new food was almost exclusively reserved for trading purposes, with Māori still eating fish and fern roots, supplemented by kūmara. Later, as Māori grew large areas of potatoes (Hongi Hika had a 40-acre potato field), whalers would call into the Bay of Islands in particular to trade for fresh supplies.

One significant change was the immediacy of reciprocation in trade. In tradition Māori tikanga, when an item was given there was no expectation of immediate response as gifted items were mainly food, which was governed by seasonal supply. When dealing with Europeans Māori learnt that immediate payment was expected. Gift giving was a different matter in Māori culture. Gifts were given to recognise mana (power or authority).[33]

Burial practices also changed to incorporate aspects of Christianity. Bodies were usually buried in the ground by the mid 1840s although sometimes coffins, decorated with Maori motifs were used, suspended in trees or on poles as drawn by J. Polack. These were highly tapu.[34][35]

Secular influences

Gradually Māori learnt to trade for money instead of goods. This was rare before 1834 but became increasingly common as more Māori worked as sailors on European ships where they gained a good reputation as being strong capable workers.

By 1839 a large proportion of the Māori trade in goods was paid for in cash, with Māori showing a strong preference for coins rather than paper banknotes. Northern Māori learnt that they could more easily hide cash from their relatives avoiding the traditional obligatory sharing of goods with their hapu. The period 1835 to 1840 completed the revolution in the north Māori economy with Māori abandoning many of their former trading habits and adopting those of the Europeans to the point where Māori became dependent on the flow of European goods to maintain their new way of life.[36]

The effect of trading increased the influence of chiefs over their hapu. Northern traders assumed that the chief was the organizational head of the hapu and all trade went through him including payments for goods purchased. O'Malley says this gave chiefs much more influence, especially after 1835, because trade was so regular. He says that in pre-contact times the power of chiefs was never very great, largely being restricted to directing warfare.[37] Early European observers noted that at hapu and whanuau hui(meetings) every person, including women, had their say and the chief had no more influence than any other person on the final decision. Where a chief had great mana, especially powers of persuasion, chiefs had more influence because of their personality rather than any recognised authority.

Not all iwi had regular contact with Europeans. The French explorer D'Urville visited Tasman Bay in 1827 and using knowledge he had picked up at the Bay of Islands was able to communicate with local Māori. He found that although they had some passing awareness of Europeans—they seemed to know about firearms—the extent of their understanding was far less than Northern Māori.[38]

In the Waikato regular contact did not start until five decades after contact in the north of New Zealand. It was not until Ngāti Toa was forced out of Kawhia in 1821 that the bulk of the Tainui people had contact with Europeans. In 1823 a man called Te Puaha visited the Bay of Islands bringing back with him a Captain Kent who arrived by ship at Kawhia.

By 1859 trade was the main area in which Māori interacted with Europeans. Trade was an area that Māori expected to control. From first contact they had sold or exchanged fresh foodstuffs initially for high value goods such as axes and later for money. Grey was keen to encourage Māori trade and commerce and established new laws to empower them in 1846. Māori brought numerous cases under this legislation and won. This was their first and most successful legal experience.[39] Māori had begun to include European concepts into their own cultural behaviour.


The introduction of European foods changed many aspects of Māori agriculture. Under tradition, Māori agriculture land was abandoned after a few crops because of reduced production. This was the common pattern apart from a few very fertile alluvial river valleys. Fertiliser was not used[40] although Māori had devised various techniques to enhance production such as the addition of pumice or similar materials to improve drainage on heavy soils. Māori allowed gardens to revert to shrubs and plantations were shifted to another area.

The warmer climate of the north and northern and central coastal regions allowed better growth of subtropical plants such as kūmara, yam and gourds. In Auckland, and on Mayor Island, volcanic land was cleared of rocks which were used for low shelter walls. In some areas piles of volcanic rock which kept warm at night, were used to train the vines of gourds.

Many special techniques had been devised to grow and especially to store kūmara so it did not rot. Careful storage and use of tapu was essential to prevent unauthorised use. Seed kūmara in particular were highly tapu. The main problem for kūmara growers were native caterpillars. Early European explorers reported that Māori often ringed a garden with burning vegetation in an attempt to control caterpillars. The introduction of foreign weeds which thrived was a significant issue from the 1820s but offset by the widespread growth of the introduced potato.

European farms and the methods they used became a cultural and economic magnet for Māori[41] in the North, in Auckland and later in the Te Awamutu area of the Waikato. Under the tuition of missionaries, Māori learnt to mass-produce food, especially potatoes, far in excess of their own needs for trading into the late 1850s. In 1858 European numbers equalled Māori numbers and increasingly European farmers were able to supply towns such as Auckland. At the same time the strong market demand for supplying food to the gold rush markets in Australia and California ended.

Māori continued to use traditional fern roots—aruhe—as a normal part of their diet into the mid-19th century.

Land dealings

Many Europeans entered into dealings with Māori to obtain land for their use. In some cases settlers thought they were buying land to obtain equivalent to freehold title under British law; Māori now claim that the various deeds signed by Māori were more limited and conditional, stopping short of outright alienation. They claim that the use of the word "tuku" in deeds, meaning to let or allow or give freely, was not the same as selling. In 1997 the Waitangi Tribunal found that before the Treaty, Māori customs with respect to the land applied, and no valid sales could have been concluded.[42] Critics, such as Dr Vincent O'Malley and history professor Michael Ballard, argue that the Tribunal ignored a large volume of documentary evidence that ran counter to its findings while upholding oral traditions that were incapable of being corroborated.[43]

Māori, especially after 1830, were keen to have Europeans living on their land under their protection so they could benefit from European knowledge. Missionaries on the other hand were keen to buy land so they could grow their own food to make them less dependent on tribal "protectors", who sometimes used food supplies to coerce missionaries. They were also keen to have land for their often large families and to give themselves future financial security. Settlers allowed Maori to stay on the land they had "bought" and often continued to give presents far in excess of the original purchase price to heavily armed tribal chiefs, often prompted by the chiefs themselves, in order to maintain friendly relationships. These compromises stopped with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.[44]

Another reason for Māori to "sell" land to missionaries was to protect the title of the land from other tribal competitors. Māori who had converted to Christianity wanted to protect their land without resorting to warfare. Some degree of control passed to the missionaries who Māori trusted to allow them continued access and use.

From 1840 generally older chiefs were reluctant to sell while younger chiefs were in favour. The situation was complicated as Māori often had overlapping rights on poorly defined land. The settlers and the government also had very limited access to trained surveyors and even freehold land boundaries were ill-defined. Surveying was a relatively new skill, invented in USA in the late 18th century, and involved much hard physical work especially in hill country. New farmers were able to purchase a small freehold farm from Māori on which they established their homestead and farm buildings. They then entered into leases with Māori owners for much larger areas of land. Short term leases gave Māori a powerful position as there was a large demand for grazing land.


There is little direct information on Māori slaves before the Musket Wars but it seems as though slavery was most likely present as the use of the term mokai indicates. Also Ngati Mutanga argued before the Native Land Court in 1870 that their enslavement of Morori was traditional Māori tikanga.

The British had outlawed slavery by 1807 but missionaries in New Zealand were in no position to force Māori to follow suit. Missionaries such as Henry Williams wrote of the fate of slaves being brought to the Bay of Islands by returning war canoes. Whanau who had lost a close relative in battle were seen to carry out immediate and bloody utu. Generally only female slaves were kept as they were less threat and more useful as potato farmers and partners. Potatoes could be grown by slaves, as they were not subject to the tapu restrictions around kūmara growing.[45]

In 1834 Ngapuhi, partly due to the influence of missionaries such as Henry Williams, freed slaves they had captured in earlier wars,[46][47] and in the later 1830s some northern chiefs complained to missionaries they found it difficult to adjust to former slaves behaving in a confident, and at times cocky manner, to their former owners.

The only place in New Zealand where slavery was common after 1835 was in the Chatham Islands where North Taranaki tribes Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga invaded and launched a massacre of about 10% of the local Moriori, and enslaved the remainder who were forbidden to marry or continue any aspects of their own unique culture. Slavery continued on the island until about 1863.[48]


CMS missionaries insisted Maori abandon cannibalism and child infanticide before they could be baptised. They tried to discourage polygamy. Some early missionaries had sympathy for abandoned wives but Henry Williams was adamant that polygamy disqualified Maori from baptism. CMS missionaries also outlawed the use of further moko, taking part in lewd dances and practising customary funeral rites.[49] Catholic missionaries who arrived 20 years after the Church of England CMS missionaries were less concerned with stopping these customary practices before Christian conversion. They reasoned that they could influence Maori more effectively after baptism and were subsequently successful in attracting many converts in the western Hokianga district, away from the dominant CMS influence.

Missionaries did not arrive in the Waikato until about 1834-5. CMS Mission Stations were established at Manakau, Maraetai, Waikato Heads, Kaitotehe opposite Tuapiri, Te Awamutu, Kopua and Kawhia. Missionaries helped explain the Treaty of Waitangi to Tainui in 1840.


According to oral information Maori were familiar with the concept of schooling in tradition times as taught by tohunga (witch doctor/shaman). Bishop Selwyn took adult Maori to Sydney where they experienced limited schooling to learn English. When missionaries back in arrived in the Bay of Islands they realised that if they were going to introduce Christianity and change what they considered to be barbaric practices like cannibalism, slavery, lewd dancing and having multiple wives, they would need to establish schools. Both the missionaries and their wives constructed schools and provided slates and bibles as reading material. The first school was established by T. Kendal in 1816. Recently original slates and written material from that period in the Bay of Islands has been located, photographed and published. Some adults attended school but most pupils were the sons or daughter of chiefs or other persons of status. By 1853 Mr and Mrs Ashwell had been running a mission school at Taupiri in the Waikato for 50 Maori girls for 3 years. The girls learnt arithmetic and reading.[50] In the early 1860s Governor Grey had provided money to support a trade school near Te Awamutu in the Waikato. The aim was to produce Maori workers who were literate but could also work with, and repair, agricultural machinery as used on farms and in the new flour mills. In 1863 the renegade Rewi Maniapoto attacked and burnt down the school, stealing the printing press. He aimed to kill leading Europeans in the area but they had been warned by friendly Maori and left before the attack. Because of the negative influence of Maniapoto and other anti government factions, the school had previously had poor attendance, with as few as 10 boys attending regularly. All teaching by missionaries was in Maori and this continued in the native schools until 1900 when at the insistence of the Young Maori Party Maori MPs, schools started teaching in English. Influential Maori MPs Ngata and Pomare insisted that Maori be taught modern ways and sponsored the Suppression of Tohungaism Act in parliament. Pomare in particular worked hard to banish ancient Maori concepts and practices that caused harm in the Maori community.[51]

Maori Newspapers (Niupepa)

Maori were quick to learn the power of the printed word. The first Maori newspaper appeared in 1842. A number of different newspapers such as Te Pipiwharauroa and Te Korimako were written in Maori by Maori to convey information to a widespread Maori audience, often of a political or ideological nature. Although print runs were often small it was common for a newspaper to be passed around a whole hapu. Although the government printed newspapers in Maori such as Te Karere Maori, the Kingitanga movement was anxious to convey their own message to Maori. Whereas the government and missionaries often used their newspapers as an educational tool -to inform Maori of British and later New Zealand laws and customs, the Kingitanga countered this with arguments for self-determination. Maori newspapers eagerly reported on events from overseas that showed groups such as the Irish challenging British sovereignty to obtain home rule.[52]

The First Māori interpretation of Christianity

In the 1830s Te Atua Wera started the Papahurihia Faith in opposition to the missionaries. It mixed Christian, Judaic and Māori customary influences. They held services on Saturday and called themselves Hurai or Jews. Te Atua Wera reverted to the more customary role of a tohunga figure by the late 1830s. Te Atua Wera taught that heaven was a place where there was happiness, no cold or hunger with an abundance of flour, sugar, muskets, ships, murder and voluptuousness.[53]

Māori kingship

Main article: Māori King Movement

From the time of their arrival in New Zealand, Māori lived in tribes that functioned independently under the leadership of their own chiefs. However, by the 1850s Māori were faced with increasing numbers of British settlers, political marginalisation and growing demand from the Crown to purchase their lands. From about 1853 Māori began reviving the ancient tribal runanga or chiefly war councils where land issues were raised and in May 1854 a large meeting—attracting as many as 2000 Māori leaders—was held at Manawapou in south Taranaki where speakers urged concerted opposition to selling land.[54] Inspired by a trip to England during which he had met Queen Victoria, Te Rauparaha's son, Tamihana Te Rauparaha, used the runanga to promote the idea of forming a Māori kingdom, with one king ruling over all tribes.[55] The kotahitanga or unity movement was aimed at bringing to Māori the unity that was an obvious strength among the Europeans.[54][55] It was believed that by having a monarch who could claim status similar to that of Queen Victoria, Māori would be able to deal with Pākehā (Europeans) on equal footing. It was also intended to establish a system of law and order in Māori communities to which the Auckland government had so far shown little interest.[56][57]

Several North Island candidates who were asked to put themselves forward declined,[58] but in February 1857 Wiremu Tamihana, a chief of the Ngāti Hauā iwi in eastern Waikato, proposed the elderly and high-ranking Waikato chief Te Wherowhero as an ideal monarch and despite his initial reluctance he was crowned at Ngaruawahia in June 1858, later adopting the name Pōtatau Te Wherowhero or simply Pōtatau.[59][60] Though there was widespread respect for the movement's efforts in establishing a "land league" to slow land sales, Pōtatau's role was strongly embraced only by Waikato Māori, with iwi of North Auckland and south of Waikato showing him scant recognition. Over time the King Movement came to have a flag, a council of state, a code of laws, a "King's Resident Magistrate", police, a bank, a surveyor and a newspaper, Te Hokioi, all of which gave the movement the appearance of an alternative government.[61]

Pōtatau was succeeded at his death in 1860 by Matutaera Tāwhiao, whose 34-year reign coincided with the military invasion of the Waikato, which was partly aimed at crushing the Kingitanga movement, with the government viewing it as a challenge to the supremacy of the British monarchy. Five Māori monarchs have subsequently held the throne, including Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who reigned for 40 years until her death in 2006. Her son Tūheitia is the current king. The historic traditions such as the poukai (annual visits by the monarch to marae) and the koroneihana (coronation celebrations) continue.[62]

Today, the Māori monarch is a non-constitutional role with no legal power from the perspective of the New Zealand government. Reigning monarchs retain the position of paramount chief of several important tribes and wield some power over these, especially within Tainui.[63][64]

Treatment of children

The records of early European visitors suggest that Māori children were indulged and led a rather carefree life, full of play. An early French explorer, Julien Crozet, commented that ‘[the women] seemed to be good mothers and showed affection for their offspring. I have often seen them play with the children, caress them, chew the fern root, pick at the stringy parts, and then take it out of their mouth to put it into that of their nurslings. The men were also very fond of and kind to their children.’ French missionary Jean-Simon Bernard wrote, disapprovingly, in 1844: ‘The children here are completely free; the parents never do anything to them. They never beat them and do not allow anyone else to beat them.’ [65]

Historian Paul Moon writes of reports by missionaries of young girls being forced into the sex trade by their families with the object of obtaining valuable and scarce English goods in the 1820s. He describes how, when a new ship arrived, the fathers came to take girls as young as 10 out of school.[66] Moon says that infanticide was widespread in Maori settlements—particularly the killing of baby girls, slaves captured in battle or half-caste children.[67] Census figures in the 19th century showed a marked male/female imbalance throughout the North Island amongst Māori children.[68] The 1857-8 Maori census recorded 32,329 males and only 23,928 females.[69]

The killing of children could be the take (cause) of war. In 1815 two Ngāti Maniapoto boys were killed by the north Taranaki Ngati Tama iwi while they were visiting friends at Motuawa near the Mokau heads. This led to a Ngāti Maniapoto reprisal raid when warriors pretended to be peaceful visitors and launched a surprise attack on Ngati Tama.[70]

The concept of whāngai (adopting or fostering children) has been, and still is, important within Māori whānau. It is the practice of raising nieces, nephews, cousins and other wider-family members as if they were members of the immediate family. Whāngai are adopted children who are raised with a whānau, most often as another member of that whānau, like a brother or sister.[71]

From 1978 to 1987 the Māori child-homicide rate was 1.15 times the non-Māori rate. However, between 1991 and 2000, the Māori rate rose to more than 3.5 times the non-Māori rate and from 2001 to 2005 the Māori child-homicide rate was around 2.4 times that of non-Māori.[71][72] As part of a response to these statistics, national Māori child-advocacy organisation Te Kāhui Mana Ririki was formed in 2008. Te Kahui Mana Ririki has commissioned research into traditional Māori parenting in order to tackle child abuse in the Māori community.[73][74]

Tā Moko

Face carving/tattooing was a traditional practice especially by men of rank but also by women. The facial tattoo gives details of the wearers lineage status, origin and possibly exploits.[75] Prior to the arrival of Europeans tattooing was a sacred activity with many rituals.


Later in their desire to obtain European muskets and powder in the 1820s, Northern Māori produced a profusion of tattooed heads for sale to traders. At least 2 different methods of preserving heads were used. The head was severed from the body and emptied of its contents with the nostils and inside of the skull stuffed with flax. At the neck the skin was sewn together to allow a passage for the hand. Then it was rolled up in leaves and steamed at a low to moderate heat until all the moisture has gone. The head was either smoked over a fire or left in the air to dry. This caused the flesh to become hard and tough. The facial features, hair, teeth were as perfect as in life, nor did they decay.[76] Various reasons have been put forward for the rationale behind traditional use of dried dead heads. One possibility is that it was a reminder of the deceased, another as a trophy made from the heads of slain enemies. Enemies heads were displayed on poles as a macabre totem of victory. A third possibility was that it was a ritualistic way of capturing the enemies' mana, as head's of chiefs in particular were very tapu. Heads may be returned in an effort to settle a tribal disagreement but they were never traded.[77] Northern Māori quickly learnt that missionaries were repulsed by dried heads and hid them from view. In the 1820s one European -Craik, was left with the impression that northern Māori had gone to war with the specific purpose of obtaining heads to trade for gunpowder. Another Māori offered to go and shoot some people who had killed his son if the European would give him some gunpowder to obtain heads. Māori quickly changed a centuries-old sacred practice to meet the demands for dried heads. The demand for military hardware by Māori seemed to override any older traditional practices or beliefs.[78] In 1824 a French captain obtained an imperfect smoked head (it had been partly chewed by a dog) in exchange for one pound of gunpowder.[79]


The normal Māori method of travel was on foot. The North Island had an extensive network of single lane one metre wide tracks that traversed beaches, plains, valleys and mountain passes. Some of these tracks were used by many iwi and were considered neutral territory. Missionaries who travelled with Māori guides found that at river crossings canoes were left for the use of any traveller.[80] Between 1840 and 1850 numbers of explorers, artists, government officials including Governor Grey traveled inland with the aid of Maori guides. The guides carried heavy loads and would carry Europeans across creeks. Crossing swamps was common. Although they carried some food they relied on purchasing basic foodstuffs such as potatoes or native pigeons from Maori settlements. The most popular payment was in tobacco which was in great demand. In more remote areas travelers sometimes found Maori living by themselves and growing a few potatoes.[81]

Canoes (waka) were used extensively.[82] These ranged from small river-going boats, to the large waka taua sea-going war vessels carrying up to 80 paddlers, and up to 40 metres (130 ft) long[83] Waka were used extensively for long range travel down the east coast and to cross Cook Strait. In 1822-23 Te Rauparaha who had established a base by capturing Kapiti Island, reconnoitered the upper South Island in waka before launching a seaborne invasion the following year against Ngai Tahu and Rangitane iwi. Te Rauparahaa later hired a European ship to attack Akoroa Harbour.[84] Henry Williams who followed several war parties reported as many as 50 waka taua travelling together at one time, although he reported they only went out to sea in relatively calm weather. From 1835 large numbers of European ships entered the Bay of Islands every year with Henry Williams reporting an average of 70-80 ships per year. Many Māori men worked on the ships, with a reported average of eight Māori seamen per whaling ship. 10m long whaleboats began to be used by Māori. They could be both rowed and sailed.[85] In the 1850s as Māori with the active encouragement of Grey embraced trade were gradually able to develop a large fleet of small trading schooners and similar craft. All the initial European centres had been supported by Maori. In Auckland and Northland Māori dominated shipping trade. In 1851 51 vessels were registered and 30 smaller vessels licensed. By 1857 there were 37 schooners. The fleet increased steadily during the Tasman trade boom of 1853–56. Māori paid customs duties to the government and invested heavily in vessels, so suffered considerably when a dramatic market slump hit New Zealand especially effecting the Auckland -Waikato- Hauraki area.[86] During the musket war period and for a time afterwards, Maori, isolated from their tribal support by these devastating conflicts, hid in isolated places, living off patches of vegetables they grew in tiny gardens. This practice was very common in Taranaki which had been devastated by Waikato attacks in particular. European explorers, such as Dieffenbach, often stumbled upon these survivors while exploring. He described these whare as hotbeds for rats and vermin.[87]


The traditional Māori whare continued to be used in rural areas in particular well into the post contact period. They were usually very small with a dirt floor and full of vermin, especially fleas. In winter a central fire was lit that filled the whare with smoke which slowly filtered through the roof.[88] Even as late as 1849 George Cooper the assistant private secretary to George Grey described a village in the relatively affluent lower Eastern Waihou River area as "a wretched place, containing about a dozen miserable raupo huts all tumbling to pieces".[89] 11. In the 19th century settlements were hapu-based, and 5 buildings became standardized-the sleeping whare, Kauta or communal cookhouse/shelter, whata or wood store, pataka or storehouse and increasingly from the 1870s wharepuni or community meeting house. Significant finance and mana was invested in increasingly elaborate meeting houses which be came a source of hapu or iwi pride and prestige. A meeting house was likely to have outside carvings and increasingly as European tools were used, intricate interior carving and woven panels depicting tribal history. Rotorua became a centre of carving excellence under the encouragement of the Māori MPs in the Young Māori party. Intinerant specialist carvers travelled widely, employing their skills in many locations. Meeting houses became places for tribal celebrations or political meetings, especially after the 1860s Land Wars. They were a place to display largesse and enhance mana with elaborate feasts and entertainment. By the 20th century Wharepuni were common and averaged 18–24m long by 8m wide. There were no Māori buildings of this size in pre European days. As Māori became familiar with European building construction and design they incorporated features such as chimneys and fireplaces and made use of bigger doorways and windows as well as sawn timber but even by the turn of the 19th century toilet facilities were often primitive, despite the urgings of the Māori MPs Pomare and Ngata who worked hard to improve the standard of Māori dwellings over their many years in office.[90][91]


From the early sealing days Māori working in sealing camps in the South Island had adopted European style clothing. Traditional clothing made from flax and dog skins had gone out of common use by 1850 everywhere. This type of clothing took a long time to make and did not offer much protection or warmth. European clothing had become widely available from itinerant peddlers who also sold pipes, tobacco, axes, billies, buckets and other household items Māori could not make. The blanket was the most common item in use. It was worn as a kilt, cloak or shawl. Blankets were used at night to partly replace the fires lit inside a sleeping whare which, without chimneys, "had a detrimental effect on eyesight and lungs". From the end of the 19th century and continuing into the present, traditional clothing is only used on ceremonial occasions.[92]

Cultural changes in the 20th century

Modern Māori culture

Māori continued to experience significant cultural change during this century. In 1900 few Māori lived in urban settlements. It was rare for any Māori to live in a European settlement. This changed very slowly. There were only 1,766 Māori in Auckland in 1935. By 1936 only 11.2% of Māori lived in urban areas. By 1945 this had risen to 19% and by 1971 to 68%. These changes reflect a significant alteration in the basis for income and employment-from working on hapu-based rural land to working mainly in construction, freezing works or labouring. The dominant factors influencing this shift were the burgeoning Māori population and the inability of the land to support the increasing population. During the 1930s and 1940s MP Ngata had passed land legislation to help Māori make better use of their remaining tribal land. Māori were handicapped in using and developing the land for modern agriculture as much Māori land was steep, remote, erosion prone with high rainfall.[93] European farmers who owned their land freehold mechanized to gain higher productivity, using bank loans for the new equipment. Māori were unable to gain loans as their land was generally tribal land and could not be used for securing individual loans. Leasing land to European farmers gave Māori a steady income but this was spread among many people. Māori farming was often based on a different system of values and not driven by European goals of efficiency and high productivity.[94]

Apart from jobs, another attraction to urban migration were the monetary, recreational and lifestyle attractions of the city. Many Māori felt that success lay in the city rather than the country. King describes this as a "fantasy contagion-the realty did not live up to the myth but this did not stop the fantasy or the migration".[95] Other changes were a rising birth rate. In 1955, the Māori birth rate was nearly double the European rate at 43.6 compared to 26 per 1000. At the same time Māori had less qualifications. In 1956 6.5% of Māori held professional, managerial or clerical jobs compared to 26.7% non Māori. As a result, only 3.36% of Māori earned 700 pounds or more per annum compared to 18.6% for non Māori.[96] Māori were significantly impacted by changing economic circumstances such as the drop in wool prices. This made Māori more vulnerable to economic and social deprivation. King says that the lower Māori educational attainment lead to lower income jobs, which led to lower income, poor housing, and poor health, which in turn led to higher rates of crime.[97]

These ingredients were potential causes of racial tension. They were seen by the wider community as "Māori problems". By the 1970s and 1980s enough urbanized Māori had reached positions of influence to bring about a gradual but radical change to the thinking of governments. Their advocacy was underscored by an increasing willingness to use vigorous protest to push Mana Māori. Young urban radicals beat up a group of University students taking a comical view of Māori dance. Protestors occupied Bastion Point which was claimed as Māori land and resisted police arrest. In Raglan local Māori protesters reclaimed ownership of land used as an airstrip and golf course.

Educated urban Māori advocated the teaching of Māori language and the inclusion of a Māori point of view in all aspects of education. Māori began to express their ideas in new political movements with Māori voters switching from supporting the Labour party to alternatives such as the Māori lead New Zealand First party in 1992. The introduction of MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) elections in 1996 had the effect of giving minority groups of any shades, more influence. The 1996 election produced 14 Māori MPs with 3 in cabinet. Māori MP Winston Peters, was the deputy Prime minister. This gave Māori an unprecedented voice in the nation's political executive.

This position set high expectations for positive results from the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal which was set up to investigate Māori grievances against historical New Zealand governments in relation to the treaty. From the early 1990s a series of favourable outcomes from the treaty tribunal resulted in a large flow of capital in the form of land, primary resources and cash from the government to various Māori iwi and hapu.[98] The largest tribal deals approached $1 billion although many were far smaller. This gave iwi and hapu organizations a source of financial security they had not had previously. To 2013 the total paid by government exceeds $4 billion. These resulted in more cohesive tribal organization as all assets went to tribal or hapu organizations. In 2012 it was estimated that the total value of Māori controlled assets was about $400 billion.

From the a new generation of radicals arose demanding more Māori influence. Amongst the demands were for increased "tino rangatiratanga". The expression, an abstraction of the word for aristocracy, had been coined by Henry Williams in the Treaty of Waitangi to convey the idea of "chieftainship". However, the term was often used by Māori to express the idea of political rights for all Māori not just the rangatira class, or the idea of Māori sovereignty or Māori independence.


A carved representation in contemporary style of Te Au-o-te-whenua, an ancestor of the Kawerau-ā-Maki people.
Main article: Marae

The most appropriate venue for any Māori cultural event is a marae, which is an enclosed area of land where a meeting house or wharenui (literally "big house") stands. A marae is the centre for much of Māori community life. Generally the Māori language is used in ceremonies and speeches, although translations and explanations are provided when the primary participants are not Māori speakers. Increasingly, New Zealand schools and universities have their own marae to facilitate the teaching of Māori language and culture.

The marae is a communal ceremonial centre where meetings and ceremonies take place in accordance with traditional protocols. The marae symbolises group unity and generally consists of an open cleared area in front of a large carved meeting house, along with a dining hall and other facilities necessary to provide a comfortable stay for visiting groups. On the marae official functions take place including formal welcomes, celebrations, weddings, christenings, reunions, and tangihanga (funerals). The older people have the authority on the marae, and they impart, primarily through oral tradition, traditions and cultural practices to the young people. These include genealogy, spirituality, oratory, and politics, and arts such as music composition, performance, weaving, or carving.

Marae protocols

The details of the protocols, called "tikanga"[99] or "kawa",[99] vary by iwi but in all cases locals and visitors have to respect certain rules especially during the rituals of encounter. When a group of people come to stay on a marae, they are considered manuhiri (guests) while the hosts of the marae are known as tangata whenua. Should other groups of manuhiri arrive, the manuhiri who arrived previously are considered tangata whenua for the purposes of formally welcoming the new group.

Marae food

Although marae have modern cooking facilities, the traditional hāngi is still used to provide meals for large groups because the food it produces is considered flavourful. The hāngi consists of a shallow hole dug in the ground, in which a fire is prepared and stones are placed on the top. When the stones are hot, prepared food is placed on top of them, meat first and then vegetables such as the kūmara, potatoes and pumpkin. The hāngi is then covered with leaves or mats woven out of harakeke flax, or wet sacks, and soil is then heaped over the hāngi to seal in the heat to cook the food.

Marae events

Like in pre-European times, marae continue to be the location of many ceremonial events, including birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. The most important event located at marae are tangihanga. Tangihanga are the means by which the dead are farewelled and the surviving family members supported in Māori society. As indicated by Ka'ai and Higgins, "the importance of the tangihanga and its central place in marae custom is reflected in the fact that it takes precedence over any other gathering on the marae" (p. 90).[100]

Marae oral tradition

The history of individual tribal groups is kept by means of narratives, songs and chants, hence the importance of music, story and poetry. Oratory, the making of speeches, is especially important in the rituals of encounter, and it is regarded as important for a speaker to include allusions to traditional narrative and to a complex system of proverbial sayings, called whakataukī.[101] Oral traditions include songs, calls, chants, haka and formalised speech patterns that recall the history of the people.

Events and activities

Significant Māori cultural events or activities include:

Films and books

Films that feature Māori themes and culture include:[109]

The novels of Witi Ihimaera and the short stories of Patricia Grace provide an insider's view of the culture. The Bone People a novel by Keri Hulme, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1985.


Māori take part fully in New Zealand's sporting culture with both the national Rugby league and Rugby Union teams have featured many Māori players, and other sports also feature many Māori players.[110] There are also national Māori rugby union, rugby league and cricket teams, which play in international competitions, separate from the main national ones.

Ki-o-rahi and tapawai are two sports of Māori origin. Ki-o-rahi got an unexpected boost when McDonald's chose it to represent New Zealand.[111]


Māori Television is a New Zealand TV station broadcasting programmes that tries to make a significant contribution to the revitalisation of te reo and tikanga Māori. Funded by the New Zealand Government, the station started broadcasting on 28 March 2004 from a base in Newmarket.

Te Reo is the station's second channel, launched 28 March 2008. Te Reo is presented in 100% Māori language with no advertising or subtitles. It features special tribal programming with a particular focus on new programming for the fluent audience.[112]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Māori culture.

See also


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