New Zealand Maori Cultural Traits and Historical Background

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Maori carved meeting house, Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Russell, New Zealand.

Background Information[edit | edit source]

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There are two large islands (North and South) and a number of smaller islands in New Zealand. The Cook Strait separates them. The North Island is the most populous. It stretches from 46 to 34 degrees of latitude. It is mountainous and geologically active. The South Island has a range of high Alps. There is much fertile farm land and grazing lands. The climate is generally mild.[1]

The population is over 4 million. The First People of New Zealand are the Maori, whose name for it is Ao-tea-roa. Approximately 250,000 Maoris live in New Zealand, and most live on the North Island. Around 80 percent live in urban areas in Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, and Dunedin.[1]

Maori Customs[edit | edit source]

The Maori are Sea people. They were a tribe or federation of tribes with a common origin. They refer to ourselves as belonging to a waka (canoe) meaning which of the seven or so original canoes that our ancestors came on from the sacred land of Havaiki. The tribal origin canoe is also the source of mana (power, prestige, and land ownership) and the focal point of our genealogies, because they regard all members of the tribe as descendants from our ancestral canoe crew.[2]

The commanders of the canoes were said to be direct descendants of the gods and from them are descended the chiefs of the tribes. Some tribes have no origin canoe, yet are still thought of as waka by other tribes, even though they only refer to themselves as iwi (bones).[2]

When tribes visit, the visitors are symbolically pulled onto the marae (meeting place) with the shout, Toia mai Te waka! (Haul up the canoe!)[2]

The universe, land, gods, men, and all living creatures are kinfolk, bound in a tangle of shared ancestry, and this is expressed in the term tangata whenua (land men). The principle that ordered the apparent chaos of plants, animals, objects, and men in the tribal world was genealogy, described as the twining tendrils of the gourd plant with its stem tahuhu (main line of descent) and branches kawae (subsidiary lines) in one ancient metaphor (Taylor 1855:155) and this is represented in the curving red, white, and black paintings on the underside of the ridgepole tahuhu and rafters heke (descent line) of the modern meeting house.[2]

Genealogy, the main object of Maori scholarship, was an aristocratic reckoning, but it was not a simple aristocracy of birth. Descent lines were claimed according to their vitality and power, and the greater the success of one’s ancestors in war, magic, oratory, and feasting, the greater the mana (prestige) that the ancestors passed down the descent line to their descendants. Mana is the power that makes plants grow and flourish, and elders speak of one’s descent lines as te iho makawerau (iho of a hundred hairs). Iho can mean the heart, kernel, pith, essence, such as that which contains the strength of a thing, the principal person or guest, the umbilical cord, a lock of hair, or being upward in a superior position.[2]

This expresses the thought that lines of descent come down to a person like the hundred hairs on his head, bringing him power from his ancestors and effective force in the world. Just like the gourd plant or a tree, a descent line might flourish and thrive, or if its vital force is attacked, it might fail altogether and die. Like the plant, it is rooted in the land. The red and black vine-like designs in the wood carvings on the meeting houses are symbolic of these vines.[2]

Many canoes came to the shores of New Zealand and Chatham Island. Some of the better-known waka, or canoes are: AOTEA, TAKITIMU, MATAATUA, TAINUI, KURAHAUPO, TE ARAWA, HOROUTA, NUKETERE.[1]

From the many waka came ngati (tribes) and hapu (or sub-tribes). Some of the better-known tribes are: NGATI-TUWHARETOA, NGATI-KANGUNGU, NGATI-AWA, NGAPUHI, NGATI-POROU, NGATI-TOI, NGATI-MANIAPOTO, TAINUI, WHANAU-APANUI, and many others.[1]

Some of the sub-tribes, or Hapu are: NGATI-KURI, NGATI-KAHU, NGATI HIKIHIKI, NGATI-HINE, NGATI-POU, NGATI-WHATUA, NGATI-MARU, and many others.[1]

In ancient times, the names of the ancestors were taught to the eldest son or the son with the most intelligence. The young man would be taught to recite in a special house of learning called a Whare Waananga. The young man would remain there until the older man, or Kaumatua had taught him his Whakapapa, or genealogy.[1] An example of a tatai, or recited genealogy is as follows:


The Maori would use the art of wood carving to preserve our genealogical history. Each wharenui (meeting house) would have a carved wooden statue on the outside roof at the entrance. This statue would be a tribal ancestor of the area where the Whare was erected. This can be a great source of research for families who belong to the Marae (family gathering place) because we can find out more about our main ancestor from the older people who teach at the marae. It was not uncommon to find the Whakapapa (genealogy) of a family carved on a pole inside their Wharenui. The people who attended the Hui (meeting) would sleep by the pole where their Whakapapa was carved. This pole can give us more information about our ancestral family, if we are able to get help to interpret it.[1]

The Kaumatua (older person) of the family usually had in his possession a wooden Tokotoko stick (walking stick) which he used as a memory aid while giving the genealogies of the family at meetings. Because the tatai (lineage) is carved into the wood, the older person in the family who has the tokotoko can be very helpful for genealogical research .[1]

Another source of information about our ancestors could be Waiatas (songs) and chants. Ancient Maori folk sang these songs, and clues to who our forefathers are could have been preserved in them. For example, one ancient song tells that the ancestors came from great and huge lands joined by an isthmus and that on the east side and on the west the shores were lashed by great oceans of sea. This land is Havaiki Nui. The message tells of the land of Havaiki. The well-known saying is: “Tawhiti nui, Tawhiti roa, Tawhiti pamamao, I te hono I wai rua.[1]

Identifying Male and Female Names[edit | edit source]

Genealogies of the New Zealand Maori do not always indicate the gender of the person named. Legends however, can be helpful, if one knows and understands the legend. Ask Kaumatua and Kuia for help.[1]

A male or a female ancestor, in certain circumstances could have the same name. For example, the name TOMA or HIKIHIKI and others similar can be either male or female.[1]

Often Waiatas (songs) can help determine the gender of the ancestor by the strength of the words in the song which tells that the person is a male and by the sweetness and flow of the words can indicate that person is a female. Some authorities and scholars in Whakapapa disagree about the gender of certain ancestors.[1]

Historical Background[edit | edit source]

Early dates are estimated.
925 The Polynesian navigator, Kupe, discovers New Zealand in the Matahorua canoe. Moriori Takiroa, of the Wheteina tribe in Hawa`iki, has his canoe smash against the rocks at Rekohu (Chatham Islands). Moriori Mihiti of the Rangi Mata canoe and Moe of the Oropuke canoe, of the Wheteina tribe in Hawa`iki, settle on Rekohu.
1150 Toitehautahi (Toikairakau), leaves Pikoipikoiwhiti, Hawa`iki, and settles in Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland) searching for his missing grandsons.
1350 The following canoes had arrived on the North Island: Kahutara, Taikoria, Okoki, Kurahaupo (Te Hawai), Tahatuna, Horouta, Te Aratawhao, Te Mamaru, Araiteuru, Totumotuahi, Pangatoru, Wakaringaringa, Ringauamutu, Tairea, Arikimaitai, Rangimatoru, Nukutere (whale), Horouta, Kurahaupo (II), Te Ririno, Aotea, Mataatuqa (Toroa), Tainui, Pukateawanui, Te Arawa, Tokomaru, Takitimu, Karaerae, Mahuhu, Mamri, Te Ruakaramea, Waipapa, Te Riukakara, Moekakara, Te Wakatuwhenua, and Kahu.
1642 Abel Tasman of the Netherlands, discovers New Zealand, calls it Staten Landt, and annexes it for the Netherlands.
1769 Captain Cook lands at Gisborne and takes possession of New Zealand for King George II of Great Britain. A Frenchman, De Surville, lands at Doubtless Bay.
1770 Captain Cook takes possession of New Zealand again at Queen Charlotte Sound.
1814 British missionary, Samuel Marsden, brings Christianity to the Maoris with little success.
1830 Wesleyan missionaries establish a mission.
1839 A Catholic mission is founded.
1840 Edward Gibbon Wakefield of the New Zealand Company, begins colonization of New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangiis signed by Maori chieftains giving the government exclusive power to purchase Maori lands.
1852 British Parliament grants New Zealand a constitution.
1860 Maoris rebel because of abuses of the government. Maori wars fail.
1870 A second Maori war is attempted, with no result.
1890 It is feared the Maoris will become extinct. Leaders such as Sir Apirana Ngata inspire a resurgence of spirit, and they begin to increase once again.
1907 New Zealand gains the status of a Dominion and is virtually independent.
1947 New Zealand becomes a self-governing democracy. Most government functions are carried out at a national level.[1]

For a list of sources and places where you can get more information, see New Zealand Research Tips and Strategies.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Irene Ashton Davies Beazely, Whakapapa Research Guide (Author’s manuscript).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Material provided by Rose Palmer Heimberg.