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How to explore Māori culture and heritage in New Zealand

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From elaborate facial tattoos to foot-stomping hakas, Māori culture in New Zealand is both striking and intriguing, but it is also part of the everyday. You’ll see the Māori language on street signage, hear the casual greeting of ‘kia ora’ regularly exchanged and learn about the Māori connection to the natural world as you explore the islands’ landscapes. Woven through the fabric of everyday life in New Zealand, Māori customs influence on many levels and are an integral part of getting to know the country.

Traditional Māori history and interesting facts

The Māori people number around a million, accounting for just under a fifth of the population of New Zealand. Organized into tribes, known as iwi, these Māori communities share a common ancestor and are associated with a particular region. They are often able to trace their ancestry back to one of the seven waka hourua (voyaging canoes) that arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia over a thousand years ago.

Although it’s not known for certain, it’s thought that the Polynesian explorer Kupe was the first person to set foot in New Zealand. After him came others from the region, and gradually the Polynesian people of New Zealand were established. These early settlers, now considered indigenous New Zealanders, hunted, fished and foraged on the island, building fortified villages and defending themselves with clubs and spears. The Māori are well-known to have been ferocious warriors, but these days, rather than being a source of antagonism, the differences between Māori tribal groups are celebrated.

Māori wood carvings in Auckland, New Zealand

How to explore Māori culture and heritage in New Zealand

As these first arrivals from Polynesia stepped from their canoes, they would have found a land of pristine alpine lakes, snowy mountains, geothermal fields and temperate rainforest. They named the North Island, where they first arrived, Aotearoa, commonly translated as ‘land of the long white cloud’.

Over the coming centuries, a rich cultural heritage was built on the foundations of tribal identity, Māori family descent and a deep connection to the land. Discovering these traditional New Zealand rituals and belief systems is both fascinating and a great deal of fun. Here’s how to best experience Māori culture and heritage in New Zealand.

Visit a living Māori village in Rotorua

The Māori village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua is set in a fantastical geothermal landscape of steamy hot spring lakes, geysers and bubbling mud pools. As well as natural phenomena, it has a strong Māori heritage stretching back hundreds of years. Many people who live here can trace their ancestry back to the very first settlers of the region in the 1300s.

The village is deeply connected to Māori heritage and traditions, but at the same time, it is very much alive. Local guides have a real passion for the stories of their people and offer insights into Māori rituals and folklore. Sharing their culture with visitors is simply part of life. As well as guided tours and cultural shows of song and dance, visitors can explore the town and its surrounds on foot and take an e-bike trail through the steamy geothermal valley.

Māori geothermal village in New Zealand

Marvel at Tāne Mahuta

The Lord of the Forest, Tāne Mahuta, is an ancient kauri tree in the Waipoua Rainforest of the Northlands. Native to New Zealand, kauri trees are coniferous and grow tall and wide. This particular tree is over 51m high, nearly 19m in diameter and around 2,000 years old.

The mighty Tāne Mahuta is one of the most sacred sites on the Māori islands, especially for the local kiwi. The legend goes that the Lord of the Forest was the child of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the Earth mother. As Tāne Mahuta grew, he created space and light between the two, allowing life to flourish.

Visiting this sacred tree and the surrounding ancient forest can be a powerful experience. If you’re lucky enough to walk the forest paths of Waipoua, take your time to breathe and connect with this timeless and very special place.

Explore the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The Waitangi Treaty was the founding document of modern-day New Zealand, signed by representatives of the Māori people and the British in 1840. The treaty allowed the British to set up a government and for further migration from the UK, under the understanding that the Māori lands, people and way of life would be protected and supported throughout.

The treaty was signed at Waitangi, a small settlement in the Bay of Islands that is now a site of great historical importance for all the people of New Zealand. Today the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are home to several museums, a carved Māori meeting house (Te Whare Rūnanga), and extensive parkland.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds, New Zealand

Watch a haka or poi performance

The Māori performing arts have great cultural importance and form a tangible link to the past. Attending a performance is one of the best ways to experience traditional Māori tribal customs.

The best known of the kapa haka (line dances) has to be the haka, performed by men, traditionally as a war dance to demonstrate the strength and unity of a tribe’s warriors. Performances combine foot stamping, chanting, body slapping, exaggerated facial expressions, and the use of weapons such as spears and clubs. There are other forms of kapa haka to enjoy, such as waiata-ā-ringa, a gentler dance combined with song. Poi, usually practiced by women, is a skillful dance using weighted spinning cords.

Dive into Māori folklore and mythology

Māori mythology weaves many tales around the creation of the world. It tells of gods and demi-gods and their deeds, along with stories connected to the sea, sky, mountains and ancient forests of Aotearoa. You’ll hear snippets of folklore as you explore, but the best way to immerse yourself in this ancient aboriginal New Zealand mythology is by visiting the sacred places that feature in them. All the better alongside a knowledgeable Māori guide.

One such legend tells of a mischievous demi-god called Māui who sneaked onto his brothers’ fishing boat and ended up catching the North Island on his fishing hook. The first part of the ‘fish’ to emerge from the water was Mount Hikurangi, now a sacred place for the local Māori people. At Hikurangi, you’ll see traditional carved wooden pillars telling stories of Māui and his family.

Māori statues on Mount Hikurangi, New Zealand

Immerse yourself in Māori art and tattoos

From intricate wood carvings depicting stories and characters from legend to green stone talismans worn for protection, the Māori art of carving (whakairo) is central to its visual culture. You’ll see common motifs and patterns, often inspired by nature, along with carvings specific to certain places and Māori tribes.

Another striking art form that is still very much alive today is the traditional Māori tribal tattoo. The patterns and motifs of Māori body art are full of symbolism and meaning, and those who know how to read them can learn a great deal about a person. Written on the face and body could be a person’s tribal status, information about their family, ancestry, occupation, and where they come from.

The most impactful are the ta moko tattoos, those etched on the face and neck (for men), and on the chin and lips (for women). On the face, flowing dark lines represent the person’s life journey. They often accentuate the lines of the face, exaggerating their expressions to striking effect.

See the carvings at Lake Taupo

Accessible only by boat, the Lake Taupo rock carvings were created by a master Māori carver in the 1970s. They are rooted in the ancestry of the local tribe and feature the stylized face of Grandmother Ngatoroirangi towering above the waters of the lake etched in a natural alcove. Around it, several smaller carvings represent the tribe and their people.

Boat trips and sunset sails take visitors onto the water to see the carvings and learn how they were made and why. For those who like to power their own adventure, guided canoe trips are a great way to experience the views and get close to the carvings under your own steam.

Carvings at Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Learn about hāngi cooking

Nothing brings people together like sharing a meal. Food and drink are central to Māori customs of hospitality, and the ritual of a hāngi is the ultimate expression. Rather than a dish, hāngi is a method of slow cooking using an underground steam oven and heated rocks.

Traditionally, a hāngi would have been fish and vegetables wrapped in leaves. These days, there’s often meat on the menu, usually wrapped in cloth or foil and set in wire baskets. The slow cooking and gentle smoking enhance the flavors. Tucking into your meal with new friends, often in the open air, makes it even more delicious.

Make it happen

Ready to get under the skin of New Zealand’s Māori heritage and experience it first-hand? Chat with our local experts to make it happen and say ‘kia ora!’ to Aotearoa.

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