Who Are Maoris?
The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand; they are Polynesian and comprise about 14 percent of the country’s population. Maoritanga is the native language which is related to Tahitian and Hawaiian. It is believed that the Maori migrated from Polynesia in canoes around the 9th century to 13th century AD.
Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first European to encounter the Maori. Four members of his crew were killed in a bloody encounter in 1642. In 1769 British explorer James Cook established friendly relations with some Maori. By 1800, visits by European ships were relatively frequent.
At this time, war and disease took their toll on the Maori till eventually their population dropped to about 100,000. In 1840 representatives of Britain and Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This treaty established British rule, granted the Maori British citizenship, and recognized Maori land rights.
Today many of the treaty’s provisions are disputed and there is an effort from the New Zealand Government to recompense Maori for land that was illegally confiscated.
Maori legend says that the Maori came from “Hawaiki”, the legendary homeland about 1000 years ago. When the Maori arrived in Aotearoa (New Zealand) they found a land quite different to tropical Polynesia. New Zealand was not only colder, but it possessed many volcanoes and huge snow capped mountains.
Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand and means Land of the long white cloud. There are many theories about the origins of the Maori. Some speculate that the island of Hawaiki could have been near Hawaii.
The commonly accepted theory today, says that the Maori originated in China, and traveled via Taiwan, the Philippines to Indonesia, onto Melanesia and reached Fiji. From there to Samoa and on to the Marquesas and turned South West to Tahiti, thence to the Cook Islands and to Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Some believe that the Maori found Aotearoa probably by chance or mistake as they could have been blown off course in one of their navigations. But there is also evidence that the Maori had sophisticated ancient knowledge of the stars and ocean currents and this knowledge is carved in their “whare” (houses).
The term “Whakapapa” is used to describe Maori genealogy. The word “Papa” doesn’t mean father but rather anything broad, flat, and hard such as a flat rock. Whakapapa means to place in layers and this is the way that different orders of genealogies are looked at. One generation upon another. The Maori term for descendant is uri, its precise meaning is offspring or issue.
Before the coming of the Pakeha (White Man) to New Zealand, all literature in Maori was orally passed onto succeeding generations. This included many legends and waiata (song). 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.
The most recognized tradition today is the “Haka” which is a war dance. The Haka was performed before the onset of war by the Maori last century, but has been immortalized by New Zealand’s Rugby Team the All Blacks, who perform this dance before every game. The traditional Maori welcome is called a powhiri, this involves a hongi which is a greeting that involves pressing noses as opposed to a kiss.
Another prominent feature of Maori culture is the striking tattoos that were worn. Full faced tattoos or “moko”, amongst the Maori tribes was predominantly a male activity. Female forms of moko were restricted to the chin area, the upper lip, and the nostrils. Today the Moko still lives on as an increasing number of Maori who are opting to receive their Moko, in an effort to preserve their culture and identity.