Maori Customs

Through the Ages – Maori Customs

Most cultures have traditions, customs and beliefs that have been passed down through the ages and although some traditions alter slightly to suit modern day living, many stay the same and are an important link to the past and our ancestors.

The Maori call their customs and traditions Tikanga. This word comes from tika, meaning things that are true.

Tikanga has changed as it has been influenced by the Western perspectives and cultures that have also become a part of New Zealand life. One thing that has remained the same is the thought that the past is in front of us but the future is behind us. This means in broad terms that we can learn from the past and it is in front of us to guide us but the future is behind us as we cannot see the future and what it means to us.

Though Tikanga has changed from that of the ancestors, it is immensely important as connecting with the past customs means that there is something to distinguish the Maori from other peoples.

Kaupapa is the concept on which tikanga is based. The main one is Mana (honour).

There are three kinds of mana.

1) Mana that a person is born with
This mana comes from the ranking of their whakapapa, their parents, grandparents, back to the time when the people came over the water in their waka (canoes). This mana also comes from the tupuna, the ancestors who are remembered for special deeds. And there is mana from the tupuna who had certain abilities and traits.

2) Mana that is given to you
People recognise your deeds and actions and as a result you receive mana. Elders are respected in Maori culture but it is the way in which you conduct yourself through life that gives you mana. Great leaders in Maori society are humble and never sing their own praises – this is part of their mana as humbleness is a highly valued trait for the Maori.

3) Group Mana
The marae hapu (sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe) has mana. This mana is gained by the recognition of visitors (manuhiri) who pass on good words about the way in which they were cared for and looked after during their stay. Group mana is also affected by the individual families (whanau) in the iwi (tribe).

Mana is a vital part of the Maori world and people today still maintain their mana which is not only a reflection of themselves but of their whanau and ancestors.

Another important part of the kaupapa is korero. Korero is the spoken word of the Maori. Like most Polynesians, the Maori do not traditionally write down stories and much relies on the truth of the storyteller to get it right. This is all tied in with mana as the storyteller will receive mana if they are honest with their words.

The word of the chief is their bond and must never be questioned as it would dishonour them and detract from their mana and that of their iwi (tribe). The phrase Ko te kai a te rangatira – he koroero sums it all up – The food of the chief is talk.

Storytellers or historians are trained for years before they are allowed to recite tales of the past as well as traditions and genealogies as they have to be accurate.

The place where customs are best seen is on the Marae. A Marae is the common property of the iwi (tribe) and hapu (sub-tribe) and is made up of a Wharenui (meeting house) and ceremonial courtyard in front of the Wharenui, the marae-atea. There are laws and rules peculiar to each marae and govern the way that the people live.

There are hundreds of Marae in New Zealand, including some that were built in cities to provide for the many Maori that moved into the cities in the 1900’s.

The Meeting House is the dominant feature of the Marae. It is rectangular and has a pitched roof. The design dates back to the twelfth century and the earliest known house in New Zealand is Moikau house in the Wairarapa. Other buildings include the Whare Kai (eating place), the urupa (graveside) and ablution block.

The Meeting House is often named after an ancestor and as such is also known as the whare tupuna (house of the ancestor).

The building represents a person and provides shelter for the iwi (tribe). The koruru (carved head) marks the top of the building while the tahuhu (ridge pole) is the spine as it extends down the centre of the building. The maihi (barge boards) make some outstretched arms and the heke (rafters) inside the house represent the ribs.

There are many ornate carvings that decorate the exterior and interior of the building and these depict historical events, leaders and legends.

There a several customs on the Marae and these are linked to the tikanga (things that are right to do). The head is the most sacred part of the body so most customs protect and honour the head.

In the Meeting House
There should be no fighting as this is a peaceful place.
Shoes must be removed at the door
Do not sit on pillows
Make sure you do not step over a sleeping person
Food and drink is not allowed
Visitors sleep on the right hand side while the locals sleep on the left

In the Dining Room
Help out in the kitchen
Food must not be passed over another’s head
Tables and benches must not be sat on

When visitors come to the Marae there are definite formal ceremonies that must take place.
The Kawa (rules) govern the rituals that see the manuhiri (visitors) meet the tangata-whenua (locals).

The visitors must meet at the gates to the Marae.

The Wero is the challenge. It is a way of determining if visitors come in peace. A single warrior comes out towards the visitors who taunts and provokes them. If the party has come to fight they would start to fight with this warrior.

The Karanga is the call. It is performed by women from both groups and is a high pitched call of welcoming words. The visiting party approaches the locals slowly and must keep together in a tight group to hold in the spirits of their own ancestors who travel with them. The women performing the Karanga acknowledge these ancestors.

The visitors will then stop and bow at the entrance to the Meeting House as a sign of remembrance to those who have passed on. This is called the Tangi (mourning).

The Haka Powhiri is a dance performed for special guests and involves a haka (dance) after which time the locals and the manuhiri are seated for the Whaikorero (speeches). The men speak in an ordered fashion and their speeches are often met nodding heads and the words, “Kia Ora” (general agreement is just one meaning of this well used word).

Each speech is followed by a Waiata (song or chant). This often complements the speaker on what has just been said.

The manuhiri (visitors) offer a gift (koha) to the locals and this is reciprocated. A koha is a token gesture and is of equal value (if not more) to what has been given. In days of old, food was often given to the hosts though now money is given to go towards the costs of the hosting.

Once the speeches are completed it is time for the formal greeting known as the Hongi. This is where the visitors and hosts come together to seal a peace pact which is known as “hohou i te rongo”. The visitors and hosts shake hands, touch foreheads and noses which shares breath.
There is a prayer said which reminds us that we must live in harmony and this prayer, the Karakia, unites the minds of all in attendance.

Finally food, kai, is shared to bring an end to the sacredness, tapu, of the Powhiri.

These ceremonies are spine tingling and highly spiritual, emotional experiences; experiences which allow us to share in the beautiful customs of the Maori.

Join us soon for another Through the Ages