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The Maoris are descendants of Polynesian tribes that arrived in New Zealand about 800 years ago. They make up about a 15 percent of New Zealand's population (500,000 people). Maori means "ordinary people" which distinguishes them from “pakeha”, a term that means "non-Maori" and is used to describe whites. [Source: Yva Momatiuk, National Geographic, January 1984]

Most Maori live on the northern half of the North Island, particularly around Rotorua, Taupo, Waikato, Northland, East Cape, Taranaki and Wanganui. Many New Zealand cities, especially Auckland, have large Maori populations.

The Maori are not one a single people but a number of groups (many Maori don't like the word tribe.) Among the 40 or so major groups, are the Taunui, from the central North Island, one of the largest Maori tribes, and the Te Atiaw on the northern part of South Island.

Like other Polynesians, such as Samoans and Tongans, Maori are big stocky people. Many look overweight. They have their own language, which is spoken with a staccato clip and is similar to native languages spoken in Tahiti and the Cook Islands. Their way of speaking English is distinct and has many unique words and expressions.


Maori Religion

According to a census taken in 1966, 30 percent of all Maoris interviewed were members of the Church of England, 18 percent were Catholic, 8 percent were Mormons, 7 percent were Methodist and 15 percent belonged to two Maori sects: Ratana (established in the 1920s) and Ringatur (established in the 1860s by Te Kooti).

The ancient Maori religion was concerned with marshalling supernatural forces to help to induce fertility and bring plentiful food supplies. This religion declined when Europeans introduced Christianity. [Source: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Even though many Maori are Christians they still retain elements of their traditional religion. New Zealand writer Margaret Orbell wrote, "Modern western thinking speaks of nature and the natural world in contrast with culture, by which we mean human activities and thought. Maori, alternatively, do not see their existence as something separate or opposed to the world around them. All forms of life, in this context are related."

Maori Gods

The Maoris believe in a supreme god named Io, whose name is so scared worshippers are not even supposed to say it. Maui is a demigod who is credited with creating the North Island of New Zealand when he pulled it out of the ocean as a large fish.

Maori gods are similar to gods found in other Polynesian cultures. Other important Maori gods include “Tane Mahuta” (God of the Forest), “Tangaroa” (God of the Sea), “Tuma Taunga” (God of War), “Rua Moko” (God of Volcanos and Earthquakes), “Tawhiti Matea” (God of Wind and Storms), “Papatuanuku” (Earth Mother) and “Rangi” (Sky Father).

The ancient Maoris made god sticks, featuring the sea god, river god and war god, that were comprised of linen string wrapped around a stick in a distinct crisscross pattern. Unraveling the string was thought to get the gods attention. The patterns found on the sticks were also painted or tattooed onto Maoris faces. "World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Most Maori gods are males. The first females were fashioned out of earth and because women have menstrual cycle that coincided with the lunar phases women often appealed to the moon god before childbirth.

Volcanos and mountains are considered sacred to the Maori. According to one legend all the mountains on New Zealand were once members of tribe that were located together at the center of the North Island. After getting into a ferocious battle over a female mountain they were forced to disperse all across the islands.

Maori Creation Myth

In the Maori creation story, the sky was a male god named Rangi and the earth was a goddess called Papa. Depending on where the story is told they beget between six and seventy children who lived between their parents and became gods of natural forces that eventually pushed the sky upward with poles. Rain is considered to be the tears of the sky who misses his loved ones on earth.

Maori and Tapu

The concept of “tapu” (sacredness) is of great significance to the Maori. Tapu can be both good and bad because there is no opposition between good and evil in the Maori religion, and any object can become tapu if it comes in contact with supernatural forces.

All men are thought to have tapu in them unless they are captives or slaves, and dead people are regarded as having more tapu than living people. The tapu of a woman varies with her status. “Marae” (sacred meeting houses) are also believed to possess tapu.

Maori believe there is a finite amount of “tapu” and touching a person with “tapu” takes their tapu away. Anyone who offends tapu or touches a person with a lot of tapu risks punishment from the gods. In some cases, offenses against tapu have resulted in death.

The tapu of some priests is considered to be so strong that anything they touch becomes tapu and even their shadows are to be avoided. During special rituals in which priests light fires to attract deities, the high priests keep their hands behind their backs and are fed with sticks by specially appointed servants so the priests will remain untouched. For similar reason, water is sometimes also poured in the mouth of high status males.

Maori and Mana

A person with “tapu” also has “mana” (spiritual authority), which is a power that can control fate as well as a spiritual link between ancestors and living people. Maori believe that successful people have “mana” and when they have setbacks it is because their “tapu” had been disturbed.

Each traditional Maori village has a chief and a priest. The latter possesses “mana” and controls the “mana” of the tribe. He is often considered to be more important than the chief and is called in to perform magic, dispel witchcraft, heal the sick and communicate with the gods by whistling. [Source: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Maori Funerals

During “tangihanga” (traditional Maori funerals) the body of the deceased is placed before a “marae” (meeting house) and a long meeting called a “tangi” is held to hasten the journey of the soul to the land of spirits. When the flesh decomposes the bones are taken to a permanent burial place. [Source: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Funerals are major social events. They are a time when family dispersed across New Zealand gather together after not seeing each other for a long time. Maori individuals often wail in front of the open coffin and laugh between ceremonies to relieve their sadness.

Maori Christian funerals often retain Maori beliefs and sometimes Christian ministers are called in to remove “tapu”.

Maori Society

Maori society is organized into a hierarchy of theocratic chiefdoms that closely approximate a state. Under the divine authority of the gods, chiefs have traditionally directed large feasts, arranged sacrifices, and organized the construction of temples with taxes and labor conscripted from the people. [Source: “History of Warfare” by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In traditional Maori villages, individuals live primarily within “whanau” (extended families) which are combined into groupings called “hapu” (clans). The largest groups are called “iwi” (tribes), which are headed by “rangatira” (chiefs). An important chief is said to have great “mana” and is seen as “tapu”. Many tribes have similar but different myths and gods.

Maori believe in inherent abilities. Some Maori are queens, kings, princes and princesses. Others are looked down upon because they are descendants of "long lines of slaves."

Maori Character Customs

Although the Maori have a reputation for being somewhat menacing, they are generally very relaxed, smiling and friendly.

The traditional Maori greeting is called a “hongi”. It involves a hand shake and a nose press in which two people press their nose together, close their eyes and go "mm-m." Men and women, women and women and men and men greet each other using the “hongi”.

Many Maori carvings and dances feature men sticking out their tongues, which is regarded as a taunt and a challenge.

Some Maori don't like to have their picture taken. If you want to take some pictures or Maori ask for permission first.

Maori Taboos

Here are a several Maori taboos: Don't shout near the ocean, always put a rock back where you found it and don't eat below the tide line. There is a practical side to these taboos. For example you don't eat below the tide line because food left behind may attract sharks.

Maoris have traditionally ostracized people who handled corpses and in some circles commercialism is regarded as profane.

Maori Ancestors and Family

Ancestors and “whakapape” (family trees) are very important to the Maori. Maori have traditionally believed they descended from a passenger on one of the original seven Maori canoes that arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia. Some families have higher status than others because the have stronger links to the people on these first canoes.

Maori families sleep under images of their ancestors and keep very detailed accounts of their family history. A book called "the anchor of time" records the family lines beginning with a famous ancestor. Sometimes these books go back 40 generations. Entire family histories are sometime memorized by skilled orators who retell parts of the family histories at family gathering as if they were episodes in a 40-part mini-series.

The Maori believe that when they die they join their ancestors. Ancestors contribute to the living by giving spiritual strength and guidance.

Maori Food

“Kumara” (a kind of sweet potato) has traditionally been the staple of the Maori diet. It and taro, gourds and yams were brought to New Zealand from their home islands in Polynesia. Today, bread made with potato yeast and cooked on heated stones is very popular.

One of the Maori's favorite foods is “kina” (sea urchin), which is best eaten raw and fresh from the sea. To eat it you crack the shell open with a knife, scoop out the animal with you thumb and drop it into your mouth.

Another Maori delicacy is “kiore”, a kind of rat brought by the ancient Maori from Polynesia. Kiore, native birds and fish were the main sources of protein before British settlers introduced pigs, sheep and cattle.

Kiore were considered vermin by European settlers and nearly eradicated. Now they are found mostly on New Zealand's offshore islands. Some Maori tribes have discussed exporting the rat to some Asian countries as a delicacy.

Maori Feasts

The “hangi” (traditional Maori feast) is a pig roast in which the pig is buried in a shallow pit and cooked with stones heated with firewood. On top of the wood, beef, chicken, corn, potatoes, “kumaras”, shellfish and eels are covered with sacks and earth and cooked for about an hour and a half.

Modern “Hangi” (traditional feast) usually features lamb, trussed chickens, pork, local fish, tomatoes and potatoes. Sometimes hangis are cooked over geothermal vents.

Maori Homes

“Marae” (traditional Maori meeting halls) are the focal point of traditional Maori life. Maori gather in them to celebrate important events such as weddings, christening, birthdays, meeting and funerals. It also a place where "challenges" are made, debates and discussions are held, old traditions and legends are kept alive, and youth are taught traditional songs, chants and dances.

Marae are often made from elaborately-carved totora wood painted with a red ocher "protective skin" to ward off evil spirits. Many of the carvings depict Maori gods and ancient legends. It is estimated that there are a thousand marae in New Zealand. Sometimes there serve as dining halls, churches, and places to put up visiting tourists.

The architecture of a marae represents the body of the clan's male ancestor god, and the feasting room represent the body of a their female ancestor goddess. Master carver Clive Fugill told the New York Times, "the ancestor's spirits live inside the meeting houses... The rafters are the ribs and spine, the slanting facade outstretched arms, and the figure on the pinnacle the ancestor's face."

There are other kinds of traditional houses. In weaving houses women have traditionally made flax skirts, mats, baskets and fishing nets.

In their own homes, Maori families usually sleep communally on mattresses on the floor.

Maori Culture

Maori myths, histories, genealogies, knowledge about the ancestors and their canoe journeys, and information about things like birds, fish and animals have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation in chants that were learned by rote by Maoris when they were young. Sometimes these chants were accompanied by music from flutes played with the nose.

Traditional Maori art forms include wood carvings, stone carving, tatoo-making and weaving. Even today, Maori carvers make elaborate designs and images of gods and mythical figures on canoe prows, greenstone (jade) pendants, and bone tikis. “Whakapape” are carved on every marae.

Tikis are sophisticated, hand-carved, palm-size fertility symbols, usually carved from greenstone and often worn as pendants. Other traditional carved crafts include “rakau” (carved walking sticks), “hei taonga pounamu” (greenstone necklaces), and bone carvings.

In the mid-1990s, several Maori tribes held a tribunal to discuss gaining copyrights to traditional Maori songs, myths, dances and carvings.

The famous opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is part Maori and has a Maori name.

Maori Clothes

The traditional garment for Maori men is a woven-flax skirt called a “piupa”.

The “kakahu” is a feathered cape used by Maoris for ceremonial purposes. It is made without needles, without looms, and without tools of any kind except the fingers of the women who make them. Kakahu worn by esteemed Maori chiefs sometimes are adorned with kiwi feathers.

Maori Tatoos

Maori men have traditionally worn tatoos on their faces and buttocks. Women also sometimes wear them.

The word tatoo is of Polynesian in origin and the custom of tattooing was introduced to Europe by Captain Cook's 1769-71 expedition. Sailors on Cook's ship copied Maori tatoo patterns and observed how the practice was done. After tattooing was introduced to Europe it became popular with sailors.

Making Maori facial tatoos is a very painful process. It is done with long metal and bamboo tools. The whirling tatoos designs follow very strict rules often based on ancient designs and legends that can be seen today on ancient preserved heads. Different tribes have different tattoos patterns.

Today, facial tatoos are often painted on.

Maori Dances

The “haka” is a traditional Maori dance that asserts strength and has traditionally been associated with challenges, wars, battles, and intimidating rivals. It features karate-chop arm movements, stomping, posturing, yelling, grimacing, taunting and threatening gestures such as rolling of the eyes and sticking out the tongue.

Today the haka is used by New Zealand national rugby team to intimidate their opponents before game sand celebrate victories. During a tour of New Zealand, the Spice Girls got into big trouble for doing a haka, which is supposed to be performed only by men. Upon hearing that the feamle pop group performed the haka, one Maori politician fumed, "It is totally inappropriate. It is not acceptable in our culture, and especially from girlie pop stars from another culture."

On another occasion, a group of Auckland businessmen were assaulted by Maori men for allegedly mocking the haka.

Maori Warfare

In the old days Maori men devoted much of their energy to warfare. Their traditional weapons included the “patu” (jade club) and “taiaha” (fighting staff). From an early age Maori males were taught it is better to "die like a shark, fighting to the end than to give up limply like an octopus."

Explaining Maori aggression, the Maori actor Temuera Morrison once said, "A guy puts a piupiu on, he gets a tatoo, he grabs a taiaha. All of a sudden something comes over him. He's got to run out and do his challenge...he starts running like this, 'Tu! Tu! [invocation of the god of war Tumatauengal]. So, what is it? Something in our blood. It's that “ihi” [power] and that “wehi” [terribleness] and that wonder. That “mana” from our ancestors who came here and named the mountains."

Traditional Maori war posturing and battle recitations are used today in ceremonial welcomes.


Maori Canoes

Maori canoes are doubled hulled vessels with elaborate carvings and feathers hanging along the waterline. A 120-foot Maori war canoe can hold 150 people and is steered with two rudder-like devices guided by two people at the stern.

Both men and women paddle the canoes (but usually men do it). During traditional ceremonies, when a canoe is brought ashore it is welcomed by tattooed men in flax skirts who blow conch shells and do a haka dance.

Greenstone (Jade)

Jade (known as greenstone in New Zealand) was prized and sacred to the Maori as it was for the ancient Chinese and the Olmec and Mayan civilizations in America.

Jade comes in two forms, nephrite and jadeite, both of which are treasured for their hardness and firmness and a luster that creates an appearance of transparency. Jadeite is a green silicate of sodium and aluminum that is found mostly in Burma. Jadeite is slightly heavier and harder than nephrite (rating 7 on Mohr scale compared to 6½ for nephrite and 10 for a diamond) but not as tough as nephrite, which is more plentiful and is a silicate of calcium and magnesium. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, September 1987]

Greenstone is a nephritic jade. Nephrite appears in a variety of colors and is found mostly in dolomitic marbles and serpentised ulramfics. Without impurities it is snowy white. The presence of magnesium and iron produce a bluish white color. Yellow is produced by ferric ion, brown by hematite, and grey and black by graphite. Green is produced by chromium or a mixture of magnesium and ferric ion.

Maori Jade Crafts

Nephrite is stronger than most steels. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand the Maoris had not yet learned how to forge metal and many of their tools were made from jade. The best stones were often used to make weapons such as war club that could easily kill a man with one blow. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, September 1987]

In the old days, Maori on the North Island searched for greenstone in the forest and mountains of the South Island, using trails popular with hikers today such as the Routeburn and Hollyford Track.

In addition to weapons, green stone was used to make tikis and jewelry. According to gemologist Fred Ward, after jade was brought back to the villages "slices were cut using abrasive saws moistened with a slurry of quartz or garnet or sand. Holes were drilled by spinning bamboo, wooden or metal points coated with a wet abrasive. Carvings were polished with jade powder or sand. Months of years were often required to fashion a single piece." [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, September 1987]

Maori Social Problems

The Maori population changed from 75 percent rural to 75 percent urban in the past 40 years. Maoris lead non-Maoris in crime statistics, especially rape, and lag behind non-Maoris in education, health and income. Maori often have low status jobs such as cash register clerks. In the cities, Maori street gangs are common place.

Up until recently, few schools taught the Maori language and those that did taught it as a foreign language. Today it has a more prominent role.

Maoris are twice as likely to get SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) than white New Zealanders.

Maori Pride Movement

In recent years, a big effort has been made to revive traditional Maori culture, keep the Maori language alive and foster Maori pride.

The origins of the Maori pride movement can be traced back to Apiranan Ngata, a gifted orator who established land corporations in the 1930s, revitalized traditional Maori culture, and helped establish the Maori 28th Battalion in World War II. About 17,000 Maori volunteers fought in World War II, mostly in the Mediterranean.

Maori claims and grievances were not taken seriously until the 1970s, when there were protests, calls for apologies and restitution, and a rise in Maori assertiveness and consciousness. In 1975, the New Zealand government established the Waitangi Tribunal to address Maori claims, many of which were based on how they had been screwed by the Waitangi Treaty of 1840.

In the 1980s the Maoris started organizing themselves politically. One activist at the time told National Geographic: "We had these islands, we lost them to the Europeans, and now we want them back." One of their first moves was to get to a hold of 40,000 acres of land in Mount Aspiring National Park to, among other things, protect a 25 ton boulder of jade.

Apologies and Compensation to the Maori

In May 1995, after the Waitangi Tribunal announced that the Maori had been seriously mistreated, the New Zealand Prime Minister signed a document in which the government apologized for wrongs committed by British settlers in wars in the 1860s. Over 45,000 acres of land and cash worth US$120 million was given to the Taunui, one of the largest Maori tribes, as compensation for treaty violations.

In addition, the government set up a bicultural system which recognizes the general rights of the Maori while dealing with individual issues raised some of them. Maori is now the second official language of New Zealand along with English and it is being taught more and more in schools and featured on television and radio programs. Even Air New Zealand jets now have Maori names.

One of the most prominent Maori activist Professor Pita Shraples has played a big part in getting Maori culture, history and language incorporated into the New Zealand school curriculum.

In 1996, 15 Maori Members of Parliament were elected to the New Zealand Parliament and three Maoris were appointed to the 20-member cabinet by Prime Minister Jim Bolger. In the year 2000, the assets of the Maori businesses was worth US$2 billion.

Today, the Maori, like many indigenous people around the world, are dealing with attacks on their traditional culture by modern Western culture. In Auckland and other cities, it is not uncommon to see tattooed Maori men with cell phones and briefcases. Some marae have computer labs.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New Zealand Tourism Board, New Zealand Herald, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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