A postcard from New Zealand: where Maori culture is making waves

Despite centuries of colonialism that have had a devastating effect on the traditional indigenous way of life, Maori culture in New Zealand is experiencing a resurgence. Rachel Mills travels to New Zealand’s north island to find out more.

I’m in Waipoua Forest on New Zealand’s north island. Dusk has settled and the cicadas rattle and wheeze as the birds sing out for the early evening. As our group walks the shady pathway beneath the mottled canopy of the rainforest, our tour leader from Footprints Waipoua begins a spine-tingling waitata (sacred chant) to greet the towering 51m-high Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest).

As we stand dwarfed beneath the branches of this mighty 2000-year-old kauri tree, Brian from the Ngapuhi (local tribe) explains the Maori story of creation: “Rangi (the Sky Father) and Papa (the Earth Mother) clung together and their offspring lived in darkness. It was Tane Mahuta who thrust them apart and distinguished night from day.”

Maori are tangata whenua (people of the land) and when many Maori moved to urban areas they felt alienated.

For generations, school children were taught that New Zealand was “discovered” in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, but in fact, around 800 years earlier, a famous Polynesian explorer named Kupe first reached the shores of Aotearoa (“long white cloud”). In one Maori legend, Kupe followed an octopus from his homeland of Hawaiki, while in others it was a whale.

Maori history was passed down through storytelling and each tribe has its own narrative – there was no written language until Pakeha (foreign) settlers arrived.

By the 20th century, Maori culture and language was in danger of being lost.

Maori are tangata whenua (people of the land), it was explained to me, and when many Maori moved to urban areas they felt alienated: the heart-breaking film Once Were Warriors opened the eyes of cinema-goers around the world to the generational trauma of cultural bereavement.

Today, Maori is an official language of New Zealand and I am greeted everywhere with “kia ora”. We’ve all seen New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, perform their awesome haka, and ta moko (traditional Maori tattoo art), whakairo (wood carving), raranga (weaving) and kapa haka (group performance) are being rediscovered.

Spend a little time in New Zealand and you come to realise that although Maori make up just fifteen percent of the population – the majority living on the north island – their culture is integral to Kiwi identity.

I’m convinced that the focus of New Zealanders on environmental issues is influenced by the traditional Maori symbiosis with land: Maori are kaitiaki (guardians) who protect the earth and its taonga (treasures) for future generations.

Back in Auckland, I visit Auckland Museum to explore the Maori galleries and their outstanding collection of taonga for myself. Equally impressive is the Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tāmaki where commissions by Maori artists form part of the fabric of the building.

We learn a formidable waka salute to greet strangers and friends and it feels like we’re part of a bold and unabashed celebration of Maori culture.

I hike to the summit of 183m-high Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill, the second-largest of the city’s many volcanoes and the site of a notable (fortified village) where you can still see the outlines of dwellings and kumara storage pits. The single totara tree that stood here for generations was cut down by Pakeha in the mid-19th century and non-native pine trees were planted, with only one surviving until the Millennium, when it was felled by a Maori activist.

As part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement, in 2016 Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill was returned to the mana whenua iwi and hapū of Auckland and native totara trees were replanted at the summit.

The Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and many Maori chiefs is a founding document that shapes modern-day New Zealand. The treaty was signed in 1840 and secured British Sovereignty, but debate continues about its translation into Maori language, and breaches of the treaty are finally being redressed.

To learn more, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands is an unmissable stop. Our guide tells us his part in the Waitangi Day celebrations each February when he is one of the 80-odd paddlers who take the grand carved 35m ceremonial war canoe out on the water: “We take it in turns – we aren’t the same fit fellas that could paddle a waka for days”.

Waka paddling is one of the fastest-growing sports in New Zealand and I travel to Kaiteriteri in the Tasman region to meet Todd and Lee-Anne Jago at Waka Abel Tasman. We meet the rest of the crew – greetings are important in Maori culture and are never just hello – and Lee-Anne says a blessing for our trip along the coast to Split Apple Rock.

As we paddle the clear waters to a shouted count, the double-hulled canoe gets up speed and I appreciate the sense of teamwork. We learn a formidable waka salute to greet strangers and friends and it feels like we’re part of a bold and unabashed celebration of Maori culture.

As Lee-Ann tells me: “our aim is to normalise our beautiful culture”.

Image credits top to bottom (left–right): Tamaki Village, Rotorua © Graeme Murray/newzealand.com; Kapa Haka Festival © Martin Hunter/newzealand.com; Tane Mahuta, Waipoua Forest © kyrien/Shutterstock; traditional Maori carving © Dmitry Pichugin/Shutterstock; traditional Maori waka boat in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands © ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

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