The Maori are the indigenous people of Aoteara New Zealand; they arrived in the country back when it was poetically known as The Land of the Long White Cloud and there wasn’t a hobbit in sight. There are several immersive Maori village visits, or ‘cultural experiences’ you can do in New Zealand, and I would definitely recommend this to anyone travelling here. Even a single evening gives you an invaluable insight into the history of the country, the background of its native population’s culture and indeed of the kiwi culture as a whole. Apart from anything else, after spending the evening amongst such a positive group of people, you are guaranteed to leave with a big smile on your face.
This was one of the very first things we did at the beginning of our trip and it was a perfect introduction into the mesmeric world of the kiwis. At dusk we boarded an old rickety bus, driven by an elderly Maori man who had a jolly demeanour and a penchant for karaoke, and headed for the Tamaki marae, nestled deep within the towering trees of the Rotorua forest. After a journey consisting of a whole load of singing and a speedy Maori language lesson, we stepped through the trees and into a star-lit clearing where we were greeted by the chief of the tribe in the traditional act of touching noses and the sharing of a single breath. And so began a slightly surreal evening which started with a welcome haka and ended in a glorious all-you-can-eat feast.
The haka is not simply a dance that the Maori like to do; it is the beating heart and soul of their culture and holds huge social significance within their communities. The haka remembers their past, displays their protests and expresses their passions, and is still used as a traditional way of welcoming and entertaining guests today. Throughout the evening we were shown the history of Maori traditions, practices and arts within a village as it would have been many years ago. We tried our hand at their agility training, heard about the origins of their famous facial tattoos and discovered how they utilised the natural resources of the forest for clothes, housing and cooking.
One of their greatest (and very well-recieved) traditions is to ensure that any guest in their village is well fed. The food we ate that evening was cooked for us traditionally in holes dug deep into the ground, using the naturally occurring geothermal heat which bubbles continuously below the soil in Rotorua. After dinner we watched another mesmerising haka performance and sampled the Maori Kawakawa herbal tea (like green tea but more delicious). At the end of the evening we rolled back onto the old bus with an extraordinarily full group of bellies and extremely large smiles.
I think it is safe to say that I fell a little bit in love with the Maori community during that evening, but the touch of this blossoming culture can be seen throughout modern day New Zealand, its historic fingerprints leaving a colourful trail on every mountain and beneath every tree. Much of this is through their beautiful language, intricate art and the historic traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation. It is not uncommon to be greeted by any New Zealander, Maori or otherwise, with the jovial “Kia ora!” (Usually accompanied by a large smile). Famously, the All Blacks rugby team perform their updated version of the haka before each game, invoking the passions of all kiwi sports fans and, slightly less famously, the beautiful Karakia is a widely used prayer within modern day Maori communities.
A fundamental part in keeping the native culture alive is through the passing down of Maori myths and legends through the tradition of oral storytelling. The most important of these legends tells that the North Island of New Zealand was fished out of the sea with a fishhook made of jawbone by Maui,the Polynesian demi-God. The canoe in which he sat is now known as the South Island and his anchor is Stewart Island which floats just off the Southern tip, holding it all in place.
It is the Maori’s deep-rooted and unswaying connection to the land and the sea which I perhaps admire the most about them. They are the Tangara Whenva (the people of the land), and consider the land, soil and water as the most precious taonga (treasures) which they have been entrusted to guard. It is this task which unifies the community within their shared identity as guardians of all things natural.
Given that all of the species on our shared planet are shaped by, and rely upon, the forces of the Earth and the cosmos, it seems counter-intuitive to ignore these natural connections. Indeed, every species is irrevocably intertwined; we are each of us grown from the same soil, we breathe the same air and we utilise the same water to live. There is a lot that can be learnt from the Maori’s deep-felt respect for the Earth, and we would do well to take note of these lessons, especially given the current state of our global climate.
Another irresitable thing about the Maori culture (and to be honest the culture of the whole of New Zealand) is their uninhibited hospitality, or manaakitanga in Maori. The spirit of manaakitanga emphasises the notion of mutual respect and for welcoming everyone regardless of their social standing or otherwise. This means caring for all other members of your own community as well as new guests who may simply be visiting. Again, I feel a lot can be learnt from this, and if each individual in contemporary Western societies invoked a small amount of manaakatangi in their everyday lives then perhaps our societies would not be quite so divided.