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Māori culture facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Wharenui (meeting house) at Ōhinemutu village, Rotorua (tekoteko on the top)

Māori culture (Māoritanga) is the customs, cultural practices, and beliefs of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand. It originated from, and is still part of, Eastern Polynesian culture. Māori culture also forms a distinctive part of New Zealand culture and, due to a large diaspora and the incorporation of Māori motifs into popular culture, is found throughout the world. Within Māoridom, 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-language suffix -tanga being roughly equivalent to the qualitative noun-ending -ness in English. Māoritanga has also been translated as "[a] Māori way of life."

There have been four distinct but overlapping cultural eras—before Māori culture had differentiated itself from other Polynesian cultures (Archaic period), before widespread European contact (Classical period), the 1800s in which Māori began interacting with European visitors and settlers, and the modern era since the beginning of the twentieth century. Māoritanga 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 Māori arts make up a large section of New Zealand art and include whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving), kapa haka (group performance), whaikōrero (oratory), and tā moko (tattoo). The patterns and characters represented record the beliefs and genealogies (Whakapapa) of Māori. Practitioners often follow the techniques of their ancestors, but today Māoritanga also includes contemporary arts such as film, television, poetry and theatre. The Māori language is known as te reo Māori, shortened to te reo (literally, "the language"). At the beginning of the twentieth century, it looked like te reo Māori as well as other aspects of Māori life might disappear. In the 1980s, however, government-sponsored schools (Kura Kaupapa Māori) taught te reo, educating those of European descent as well as Māori.

Change and adaptation over time

Māori cultural history is inextricably tied into the culture of Polynesia as a whole. New Zealand is the southwestern corner of the Polynesian Triangle, a region of the Pacific Ocean with three island groups at its corners: Hawaiian 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), Hawaii, Marquesas, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Cook Islands. Over the last five millennia, a sequence of complicated and remarkable transoceanic treks were performed in an unprecedented accomplishment of navigation and curiosity. The final segments of these feats were across extreme and unmatched distances: to Hawaii, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa.

Polynesian seafarers were ocean navigators and astronomers. Polynesians would travel 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. 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 Māori 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 Māori in New Zealand. European sailors, including Cook, found Polynesian sailors lost at sea, suggesting that by mid 18th century knowledge of long distance navigation was not ubiquitous.

Archaic period c.1300 AD

Early Maori objects from Wairau Bar, Canterbury Museum, 2016-01-27
Early Māori objects similar to Polynesian forms (Wairau Bar, Marlborough), note the volcanic glass from the North Island (top left)
Maori man wearing kahu kuri, c. 1860–1880 (1)
Traditional formal dress of the Classic/contact period. A dog skin cloak (kahu kuri), and holding a mere or patu (short edged weapon).

Researchers often label the time from about 1280 to about 1450 the Archaic period or "Moa-hunter period" - after the moa, the large flightless bird that formed a large part of the diet of the early settlers. During this period Māori adapted to their new environment, but culturally they changed little from the tropical Pacific peoples they were derived from. Many edible plants were brought from the home islands and of these kūmara (sweet potato) was to become the most important. In the far South, however, it was too cold to grow any of these crops. 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. The dogs were used for hunting but also as food.

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). 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.

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.

These early colonists explored New Zealand to find suitable stones 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 (canoes) and fishing nets, for retaining the heat in a hangi (slow-cooking earth oven), as drills using chert, and for stone clubs. These practices, well preserved at the Wairau Bar archeological site, were typical of East Polynesian culture at the same time.

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. 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). The discovery of Mayor Island obsidian on the Kermadec Islands, halfway between New Zealand and Polynesia, strongly suggests return journeys were made.

The new land also provided 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. It was this adaptation to the opportunities and challenges of the new environment that lead to the development of the Classical Māori culture.

Classic period c.1500 AD

Traditional formal dress of the Classic/contact period. A hei-tiki around her neck, pounamu earring and shark tooth earring, and two huia feathers in her hair.

Māori artifacts began to change around the 15th century from East Polynesian style to one more recognisably "classical" Māori, 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. All aspects of this culture were not universally adopted, particularly in the South Island where kūmara could not be easily grown.

Cultural change by contact with Europeans c.1800 AD

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. The northern Māori population at the time has been estimated at about 30,000 to 40,000, down from about 100,000, fifty years before. This drop in population was mostly due to disease and the Musket Wars.

For decades, European missionaries, mostly living in the north of the North Island, had very little influence over Māori behavior. Missionaries report being appalled at the violent, seemingly arbitrary nature of Māori behavior.

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.

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. 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 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).

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 Māori motifs were used, suspended in trees or on poles as drawn by J. Polack. These were highly tapu.

Slaves (taurekareka or mōkai) were members of rival tribes which were taken prisoner during warfare and made to work on activities which were not tapu. The term taurekareka was also used to denote something abhorrent and signifies the complete loss of mana of slaves. There is little direct information on Māori slaves before the Musket Wars. Oral tradition records that slavery was practiced, but early European explorers speculated that it must be rare or even absent. During the Musket Wars, however, the number of slaves taken as prisoners increased immensely and became an import part of some tribes social structure.

Generally only female slaves were kept as they were less threat and more useful as potato farmers and partners. In 1834 Ngapuhi, partly due to the influence of missionaries such as Henry Williams, freed slaves they had captured in earlier wars, The only place in New Zealand where slavery was common after 1835 was in the Chatham Islands. During the Musket Wars North Taranaki tribes Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutanga invaded, massacred and enslaved the remaining population until about 1863.

Cultural concepts

Haka party, waiting to perform for Duke of York in Rotorua, 1901 - cropped
Haka party, waiting to perform for Duke of York in Rotorua, 1901
Annual Maori protest 1 - Waitangi Day
Māori protesters near Waitangi on Waitangi Day, national day of New Zealand
Waitangi Day
Traditional Māori Waitangi Day celebrations at Waitangi
Tohunga under Tapu
A tohunga under tapu could not eat with their hands for an extended period.
A hongi for Dame Patsy Reddy from Kuia Dr Hiria Hape
A hongi (greeting) for Dame Patsy Reddy from Kuia Dr Hiria Hape

Some of the fundamental cultural concepts of Māoritanga are present throughout Polynesia, but all have been altered by New Zealand's unique history and environment.

Mana (power and prestige)

Mana is a cultural concept of the Māori, meaning a sacred power or authority. Mana is sacred power bestowed by the gods on the ancestral lineage of chiefs, or tohunga. While the mana itself is a supernatural gift, the chief is free to waste or magnify it. Historian Judith Binney says that maintaining and increasing the mana of whanau and hapū 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 to the Māori cultural story, so a person living in the present may narrate a story about their family or hapū 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). 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, hapū 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 hapū 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 hapū 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 hapū or whanau.

Whakapapa (genealogy)

Whakapapa is the origin and path of descent of a person, object or geographic area. A person's whakapapa establishes their mana and tribal connections. It can be recited as an introduction (mihimihi).

Utu (balance and harmony)

Utu is often associated with the word 'revenge'. However, in a broader sense, "utu" is meant as the preservation of balance and harmony within a civilisation. In the concept of "utu", a fault must always be corrected and a kindness repaid. However, the means by which this is accomplished may vary greatly by case. In the context of a gift exchange, "utu" creates and preserves social connections and commitments. "Utu" recovers balance in the event that social relations are interrupted. A version of "utu", "muru", is defined as the confiscation of a person's possessions as reparation for a misdeed against an individual, community, or society.

Gift exchange 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. 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."

Kaitiaki (guardianship)

Kaitiaki (or kaitiakitanga) means guardianship or protection and in modern usage relates mostly to the protection of the natural environment.

Tapu (forbidden and sacred)

Tapu is similar to mana. Together, they keep the harmony of things. Tapu sustains structure and social order. It can be seen as a legal or religious concept, that is centred on the idea of being "forbidden" and "sacred." When a person, place, or thing is considered to be "tapu," it is often distinguished as something in high value and importance, being set aside by the gods.

Kaumātua (tribal elders)

Kaumātua (or sometimes Kuia for women) are respected tribal elders of either gender in a Māori community who have been involved with their whānau for a number of years. They are appointed by their people who believe the chosen elders have the capacity to teach and guide both current and future generations. It is against the rules of mana for anyone to self-proclaim their elder status, instead the people acknowledge an elder's kaumātua status. In the past, kaumātua were believed to be "the reincarnation of a person who had acquired a supernatural or godly status after death, and who had become the protector of the family".

Pleiades large
Matariki (Pleiades), the rising of which marks the Māori New Year.

Koha (gifts)

Koha are gifts to the hosts, often of food or traditional items, though money is most commonly used today. Traditionally, the essence of koha is that it is voluntary and comes from the heart, so to specify the amount is contrary to its spirit. Increasingly, it is common for the koha to be a fixed sum per head that is communicated to the guests in private, so there is no embarrassment. Recipients rely on the donors' aroha (empathy), manaakitanga (cherishing) and wairua (spirit) to ensure that it is enough. Thanks for koha are accordingly warm.

Matariki (New Year)

Matariki, "Māori New Year", celebrates the first rising of the Pleiades in late May or early June. Traditionally the actual time for the celebration of Matariki varies, with some iwi celebrating it immediately, others waiting until the rising of the next full moon. It is a day where they pay respect to the people they have lost but also gain over the last year that has passed. They celebrate the day and night with prayers, feasting, singing and music. After lapsing for many years it is now becoming more widely celebrated in a range of ways and over the period of a week or month anywhere from early June to late July.

Art and entertainment

Whakarewarewa carving school 2011 1
Whakarewarewa carving school (2011)
MAP Expo Maori Cape 30 12 2011 1
Cape (kahu huruhuru) made from linen and feathers
Woman with moko
Woman with moko

Carving (Whakairo)

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.

Weaving (raranga) and traditional clothing

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.

Tattooing (Tā Moko) and painting

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. Prior to the arrival of Europeans tattooing was a sacred activity with many rituals.

Painted rafter pattern
2013 Māori All Blacks tour of North America at PPL Park
Māori All Blacks perform the haka on tour of North America (2013)

Music (te pūoro) and dance (kapa haka)

Kapa haka (haka groups) often come together to practice and perform cultural items such as waiata or songs, especially action songs, and haka for entertainment. Poi dances may also form part of the repertoire. Traditional instruments sometime accompany the group, though the guitar is also commonly used. Many New Zealand schools now have a kapa haka as part of the Māori studies curriculum. Today, national kapa haka competitions are held where groups are judged to find the best performers; these draw large crowds. The common expression "kapa haka group" is strictly speaking, a tautology.

The haka – an action chant, often described as a "war dance", but more a chant with hand gestures and foot stomping, originally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess by way of abusing the opposition. Now, this procedure is regularly performed by New Zealand representatives of rugby and rugby league teams before a game begins. There are many different haka; though, one, "Ka mate" by Te Rauparaha, is much more widely known than any other.


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. 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.

Marae (community meeting place)

00 1563 Rotorua, NZ - Maori Versammlungshaus Rotowhio-Marae
Rotowhio-Marae, Rotorua
Carved Meeting House
Carved wharenui at Waitangi marae
Maori Greeting 3 (31137744084)
Māori greeting (pōwhiri) on a 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.

The hui or meeting, usually on a marae. It begins with a pōwhiri (a welcoming ceremony). If a visitor is noteworthy, he or she may be welcomed with an aggressive challenge by a warrior armed with a taiaha (traditional fighting staff), who then offers a token of peace, such as a fern frond, to the visitor. Acceptance of the token in the face of such aggression is a demonstration of the courage and mana (authority, charisma, prestige, dignity) of the visitor. The pōwhiri is highly structured, with speeches from both hosts and guests following a traditional format, their sequence dictated by the kawa (protocol) of that place, and followed by waiata, songs. Hui are held for business, for festivities or for rites of passage such as baptism, marriage and death. It is appreciated if foreign guests can say a few words in Māori and sing a song they are familiar with as a group.

Marae protocols

The details of the protocols, called "tikanga" or "kawa", 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).

The "tangi" is a Māori funeral. It almost always takes place on the home marae of the deceased. The rituals followed are essentially Christian. The tangi begins with a powhiri to welcome guests. It is normal for Māori to travel very long distances to attend the tangi of a loved one. Often black clothes are worn, following Victorian practices. Guests will speak formally about the deceased on the Marae atea often referring to tribal history and using humour. Pathos is commonly used to create a feeling of comfort and unity. Speeches are supported by Waiata(songs). The whanau of the deceased sit by the coffin on the wharenui porch but do not speak or reply. The family may often hold or display photos of the deceased or important ancestors. A tangi may go on for several days, especially for a person of great mana. Rainfall during a tangi is seen as a divine sign of sorrow.

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. Oral traditions include songs, calls, chants, haka and formalised speech patterns that recall the history of the people.

Other traditional buildings

Pataka with tekoteko
Maori Village
A Māori village, c. late 1800s

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. 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 items such as fishing nets or cloaks. Valuable items were stored in pole-mounted storage shelters called pataka. Other constructions were large racks for drying split fish.

During the construction of important buildings, slaves were sometimes used as a sacrifice. This practice was done in order to express the buildings' significance and to secure the gods' protection. For smaller buildings, small animals were sacrificed to distinguish it from other buildings and to exhibit its uniqueness.

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. 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". 11. In the 19th century settlements were hapu-based, and 5 buildings became standardised-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 became a source of hapū 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.

Mythology and religion

Ureia, guardian taniwha of the Hauraki people. Carving from the meeting house Hotunui, 1878

Traditional Māori religion, has deviated little from its tropical Eastern Polynesian roots on the island of Hawaiki Nui. Accordingly, all things were thought of as possessing a life force or mauri. The god Tangaroa was the personification of the ocean and the ancestor or origin of all fish; Tāne was the personification of the forest and the origin of all birds; and Rongo was the personification of peaceful activities and agriculture and the ancestor of cultivated plants. (According to some, the supreme personification of the Māori was Io; however this idea is controversial.)

Whare Karakia o Onuku
Church near Onuku marae, Banks Peninsula. Opened in 1878 as the first non-denominational church in New Zealand.

Currently Christianity plays an important role in Māori religion today. In the early 19th century, many Māori embraced Christianity and its concepts. Large numbers of converts joined the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, both of which are still highly influential in Māori society.

Health and traditional beliefs

Classic Māori viewed disease as a punishment for breaking tribal tapu but tohunga 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 (kohi), which was present in the colonising Polynesians. Classic Māori did not recognise the symptoms as being from one disease. Kohi 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. 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.


CMS missionaries insisted Māori abandon cannibalism 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 Māori from baptism. CMS missionaries also outlawed the use of customary funeral rites. 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 Māori 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.

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 and ships.


A group of Māori children on a morere swing (1847)

According to oral information Māori were familiar with the concept of schooling in tradition times as taught by tohunga. Bishop Selwyn took adult Māori 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 slavery 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 Māori girls for 3 years. The girls learnt arithmetic and reading. 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 Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori and this continued in the native schools until 1900 when at the insistence of the Young Māori Party Māori MPs, schools started teaching in English. Influential Māori MPs Ngata and Pōmare insisted that Māori be taught modern ways and sponsored the Suppression of Tohungaism Act in parliament. Pōmare in particular worked hard to banish ancient Māori concepts and practices that caused harm in the Māori community.


Mount hobson Auckland kumara pits
Pits where kumara were stored to protect them over the winter.
Maori earth oven
Hāngī or earth ovens are still used today to cook food

Traditional Māori foods

Eating shellfish such as mussels and oysters was very common. During summer sea fish such as kahawai were caught using bone or mangemange 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 1450 up to 1660 AD, well into the Classic 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. 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.

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

Introduced foods

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 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 introduction of foreign weeds which thrived was a significant issue from the 1820s but offset by the widespread growth of the introduced potato, the traditional varieties of which are still grown and known as taewa or Māori potatoes.

European farms and the methods they used became a cultural and economic magnet for Māori 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.

Trade and travel


Abaconda New Zealand maori waka
Waka (canoes) are built in a variety of sizes depending on their purpose, including: deep-sea fishing, river crossings or historically war and migration.

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. Between 1840 and 1850 numbers of explorers, artists, government officials including Governor Grey traveled inland with the aid of Māori 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 Māori settlements. The most popular payment was in tobacco which was in great demand. In more remote areas travelers sometimes found Māori living by themselves and growing a few potatoes.

Canoes (waka) were used extensively. 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 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. 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. Ten metre long whaleboats began to be used by Māori. They could be both rowed and sailed. 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.

During the mid 19th century 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. 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.


With the arrival of Europeans Māori gradually started to trust the value of British money and use it as a medium of exchange 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.

The effect of trading increased the influence of chiefs over their hapu. Northern traders assumed that the chief was the organisational 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. 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 Jules Dumont 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 that of the Northern Māori.

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 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. George 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. Māori had begun to include European concepts into their own cultural behaviour. In 1886 banknotes were printed (but not issued) by Te Peeke o Aotearoa, a bank established by Tāwhiao the Māori King. The text on these notes was Māori and these was also a picture of a flax bush. The bank’s cheques had Māori figures and native birds and plants drawn on them.

Land negotiations

The Māori relationship with the land is complex. Traditionally the resources the land held were controlled based on systems of mana (power) and whakapapa (ancestral right). The land itself was both sacred and abstract. In many cases multiple groups would express connection with the same important river or mountain. Oral tradition would record the migrations of groups from area to another and their connection with an ancestral location.

In the early 19th century 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 claimed that the various deeds signed by Māori were more limited and conditional, stopping short of outright alienation. It has been argued that the use of the word "tuku" in deeds, meaning to let or allow or give freely, was not the same as selling. This and other interpretations of early 19th century New Zealand land deals have been the source of much disagreement both within the Waitangi Tribunal process and outside it.

Māori, especially after 1830, were eager to have Europeans living on their land under their protection so they could benefit from European knowledge and trade. 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 them. Settlers allowed Māori to stay on the land they had "bought" and often continued to give presents to 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.

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 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.

The Native Lands Act was a policy enforced by the government in 1865, which allowed the Māori people to obtain individual titles for their land to sell. This act abolished the traditional shared landholdings and made it easier for European settlers to directly purchase land for themselves.

From the late 1840s some Māori tribes felt that the crown was not fulfilling it obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi or individual land deals. These claims against the government were to become a major feature of iwi politics. Each generation of leaders were judged based on their ability to progress a land claim.

Leadership and politics

Māori kingship

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. 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. The kotahitanga or unity movement was aimed at bringing to Māori the unity that was an obvious strength among the Europeans. 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.

Several North Island candidates who were asked to put themselves forward declined, 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. 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.

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.

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.


E 003261 E Maoris in North Africa July 1941
The Māori Battalion in North Africa (1941), the most well known example of the consistent Māori involvement in New Zealand's military

From the Classical period warfare was an important part of Māori culture. This continued through the contact period and was expressed during the 20th century by large groups of volunteers in the First and Second world wars. Currently Māori men are over represented in the New Zealand Army, Navy and private military organisations. New Zealand's army is identified as its own tribe, Ngāti Tūmatauenga (Tribe of the War God).

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