Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 2)

Part 1 ended in the middle of the performance, just after some lovely songs and dances. The second half of the story continues with insight into Maori tattoos, weapons, gender roles, and economic preservation in the form of a glowworm hike.

Tattoos / Moko

In between the musical performances, the chief spent some time explaining the traditional tattoos. In older times, Māori-Tattoo-Art-770x957.jpgthe tattoos were done by cutting deep grooves in the skin and filling the wound with ink over and over so that it created a combination of ink and scar tissue for the design. Although the cheif joked that now they have a tattoo gun, he still pointed out that rarely do Maori get facial tattoos these days, and that the performers were all wearing make-up. Bear in mind the Maori tattoos may be the closest thing to a written language they developed and are just about as complex as any other ideographic language, so I’m only going to get the tip of the iceberg here.

The Moko (Maori style tattoo) was a way of denoting a person’s rank, lineage, and achievements in life. No two people would ever have the exact same moko. The face alone is divided many times to show parents, rank, marriage, and other important representation of identity. The legs carried symbols of strength and speed for running through the bush, arms or shoulders may tell stories of loved ones or life experiences, and it seems the buttock tattoo was mainly sensual. The Mitai chief spoke to us mostly of their facial tattoos and of the four birds that the tattoos represented. This has been driving me a little bonkers, because I can’t find any reference anywhere to these birds in Maori moko except in other blogs about the Mitai Maori Village. I don’t think they made it up, but it does demonstrate how unique and regional the moko and their myths are not only to each of the seven main tribes, but to each family. So, what they told us, as far as I can tell, is true for their family, but not necessarily anyone else’s. Each moko is entirely unique, combining common symbols and ideas to weave a story of a person’s past and current life.

t1The basic legend: Mataora was a great chief who fell in love with and married a spirit from the underworld (Rarohenga) named Niwareka. One day Mataora struck her in a rage and she fled back to her father’s home in the underworld. Mataora felt remorse for his actions and decended to Rarohenga to find her. There he met her father instead who laughed at his painted face, wiping away the designs drawn there to show how useless they were. Mataora saw the permanent ta moka on his father-in-law’s face and asked him to mark his own face the same way. The pain was such that Mataora fell ill and his suffering softened Niwareka’s heart, so that when he recovered she agreed to return with him, and he promised never to hit her again as long as the markings on his face did not fade (so never). His father in law then granted him the knowledge of te moko and the Maori people have used it ever since.

The Mitai Version: This version is very similar, but when Mataora asks to have the ta moko, his father-in-law scoops up the four birds and uses them and their gifts to adorn / punish his son-in-law. 1614493167001_2285182574001_video-still-for-video-2210296148001.jpgThese four birds are the bat (go with it), the parrot, the owl and the kiwi. The bat represents knowledge. The head of the bat rests in the center of the foread and the wings spread out to either side. The parrot is situated along the nose, particularly the beak on either sideof the nose. The parrot is a talkative bird and this represents oratory skills and is very important in an oral culture. The owl sits on the chin (the only facial tattoo typically available to women) and represents protection. Finally the kiwi, envision it’s long beak open, rests on the lower cheeks, meeting the chin moko in a fluid design. The kiwi represents stewardship of the earth.

Like I said, I cannot find any corroborating reports of the Mitai story that are not self-referential, so take it for what it’s worth and know that these four birds are probably not the symbols found on other tribes’ and families’ facial moko. I can tell you that everyone agrees the face is divided into 8 main regions and the ones the Mitai described are 4 of those 8. However, the facial regions all represent things like lineage, rank, job, responsibilities, marital status and prestige, so it’s hard to say why the Mitai describe these four birds as being so central to their moko.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

The next main topic of the presentation were traditional Maori weapons. These are mostly long weapons, a fighting staff, a pointed fighting staff and an axe-like fighting staff, along with the spear. The main difference is that spears are thrown but staffs are held and used for beating, stabbing, or blocking. The men came down and gave us short demonstrations of the techniques for each weapon. 339_mere-pounamu_medThe only real hand to hand weapon is the club, or patu. The patu can be made from wood, bone or stone and resembles a paddle being narrow at the edges although not sharp enough to be a true bladed weapon. In addition to being carried to war like the long weapons, the patu were also used by women who remained at the village when the men were away hunting or fighting so that they could defend themselves against any hostile raiders. Women were expected to be skilled enough with the patu to kill their attackers. The chief pointed out that due to the shape of the patu, if one hit the skull of an enemy with the edge and twisted, it would pop the top of the head right off, handily combining village defense and dinner. Yes, the Maori used to be cannibals, too, but don’t worry, he told us “now we have McDonald’s”.

Following the introduction of the weapons, there was a short demonstration of fighter training activities that included an obstacle course of sticks that was meant to imitate the protruding roots of trees in the bush so warriors could practice running without tripping, then a sparring match between two young men using the fighting staffs. I do believe it was actually sparring and not a choreographed fight.

May I Have This Dance?

After the sparring, came one final dance of the men and women together, a cute little song expressing the women’s appreciation of the men. In the video I managed to take, the cheif actually translates their words, including “look at this handsome man, he’s so handsome he is almost ugly, but he has stolen my heart, so let’s dance”.

Finally, the warriors came together to perform the haka or war dance. This was a ritual designed to build courage and confidence and get the fighters riled up before a battle. The haka involves the same kind of intimidating face our potential chiefs had to make earlier that night, opeing the eyes as wide as possible and sticking out the tounge. There is lots of foot stomping and thigh and chest slapping, as well as a variety of lyrics that are fairly similar to modern day sports chants in other languages on a general theme of “we are awesome and you will die”. Nowadays, there are no battles, but the Maori use the haka before sports matches to psych themselves up and intimidate the other team.

We applauded our hosts, but I couldn’t keep myself from more mixed feelings as we went back into the dining hall to eat. The songs and dances were stylized and modernized and the chief had used any number of references to modern Western culture to crack jokes. I’m still torn between my fascination, my happiness that they have some way of sharing their culture and history and my total devastation that most of the visitors in that room were treating that culture and history like a theme park or a dinner theater. I’m not trying to sound like an elitist, I just want visitors to have enough interest and respect that sharing sacred land and legends doesn’t have to seem like vaudeville.


Dinner was simple, chicken, lamb, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing, some kind of seafood chowder, garlic bread and lasagna. The meat, potatoes and kumara were all cooked in the traditional method in the ground as we had seen earlier, but the other food made no pretense at all at being anything other than imported tastes. Dessert gave me a chance to try, if not Maori dishes, at least some traditional Kiwi dishes including steamed pudding and pavlova. Pudding in this sense is like the British word that equates to the American term “dessert” and in this case was a gingerbread style cake that had been steamed rather than baked and was served with a warm custard. pavlova_2949_16x9Pavlova was a dessert that by it’s name made me assume it was from some Slavic country, but the natives at my table told me firmly it was invented in New Zealand, no matter what lies the Australians are spreading. The pavlova is named after a Russian ballerina, which explains why I thought it seemed linguistically Slavic. It’s like a merenge but more complicated, having a crispy exterior and fluffy interior. It’s also supposed to be very tricky to make and prone to collapse if it’s cooled too quickly. It’s traditionally served with whipped cream and fresh fruit. I found it unique and delightful.

Groups were put together at long tables during dinner. I found myself seated next to several different folks, some native Kiwis, one student from Norway and one lady from the UK. We exchanged some stories about where we’d been and what we’d done and I settled into seriously picking the brains of the two locals which is how I came to learn about the water laws in New Zealand, some of the history of the Maori treaties, the origin of the pavlova and other interesting local tidbits.

As the meal wound down, our guide came back to give us a chance to ask questions, anything we wanted. The first time I read Harry Potter and Hermione raised her hand, I knew right away she was like me. I am an incessant class participant. In my later years I did learn to share the classroom stage with others, but it was an uphill battle. So when it became clear no one was asking, I raised my hand to break the ice. One other person did ask a question after mine, but as the silence drew out, I couldn’t help but ask again and again, until it started becoming obvious no one else was really into it.


450px-IwiMap.pngHow are the tribes delineated and what are the differences between them?

I already described the first part, the seven waka that came from Polynesia became the seven main tribes, but our guide went on to elaborate about some of the linguistic differences between the tribes. The “wh” that I had so recently learned was pronounced  “f”? It turns out some tribes pronounce it “w” or “h” instead of “f”. Additionally, the “ng” sound can be pronounce as a “k” or “n” in certain tribes. I later found this handy map that shows the tribes by geography.

What are the gender roles in Maori culture, historically?

1474328365_large.jpgI had noticed during some of the talks that there were some unfamiliar gender roles being described. For example, the chief had to be male, and it was possible for a man to take more than one wife, but women were the landholders. Pre-colonial Maori gender roles appear to have been definitive, but not derisive. That is to say, women had very clear roles and responsibilities, but they were not thought of as lesser than men’s roles, nor were women seen as belonging to men. A woman did not take her husband’s name nor relinquish her membership to her own family or tribe at marriage. Women were seen as the progenitors of life, responsible for childrearing and the home. The main difference is that these roles were not seen as lesser to men’s roles.

The Maori believed in balance and had a very holistic view, meaning that all parts were essential to the health of the whole. War was the purview of men. Women did not go to war, not because they were incapable but because their role in the balance was peace. Women did learn weapons (mainly the patu), but only to defend the village. Women also carried out song, dance and storytelling except for the war dance, making them the main guardians of history. The house itself is seen as a woman, the peak of the roof being the spine, and the four corners the arms and legs, while the doorway represented the womb.

The women also all work together to raise all children and the Maori relied heavily on the village or family collective model until they were forced into a nuclear family model by the British. The guide tried to describe Maori culture as matriarchal, but I think he may have used the word incorrectly out of a desire to contrast Maori to the western patriarchal cultures. What I have read since indicates that the culture may have been a little weighted towards men, but it was one of the more egalitarian societies I’ve read about. Of course, that was before the Christian missionaries showed up and started treating the Maori women as inferior. If you want to read more about that history, check out this site.

If the moko (tattoos) on the faces are no longer done, what about the tattoos on other places such as arms?

traditional-tattoo-ta-moko.jpgThe two main reasons modern Maori no longer wear traditional facial tattoos are the painful physical process and the social stigma. As I described earlier, the moko isn’t done with a needle, but by carving grooves into the skin and coloring the wound. This process is both painful and dangerous, and although could be replaced with a tattoo gun, there remains the second issue. Even as the moko mark them like each other, they also mark the Maori as separate and other from the British colonials. Due to years of colonial mistreatment and outdated ideas of “savages” that boil down to little more than racism, the presence of Maori tribal tattoos can still be cause for discrimination in modern day New Zealand.

Many societies consider facial tattoos especially to be unprofessional at best or representative of criminal behavior at worst. Because of this the Maori stopped the practice of facial tattooing in younger generations, but continued to use traditional symbols and art to make personal moko they could wear elsewhere on the body, trying to adapt their history to the demands of a western society. Unfortunately, there are still people in NZ who will discriminate on the basis of these moko, and not because they don’t want to hire people with tattoos. They will hire whites with tattoos of knives or skulls or whatever on their arms, but will not hire Maori with their traditional tribal art in the same place.

How do you (directed to my guide and his family) feel about cultural appropriation?

Because someone in the audience had just gotten a new tattoo in Maori style, I waited until after the groups broke up to ask this one. There is some difficult talk in the US about people using Native art and dress for sports, fashion or advertising. There’s no doubt that the stereotypes are less prevalent than they were, but since “Sexy Indian” is still a Halloween costume, it’s clearly not over yet. One of the things that happens is non-native people getting tattoos of Native symbols without really understanding what they’re doing simply because it’s cool or trendy or pretty. But since arriving in NZ, I’d seen several adverts for tattoo shops that specialize in Maori styles and I wasn’t sure if this was for everyone, or just to serve the Maori themselves.

Kirituhi Tribal Tattoo 04.jpgMy guide said that he generally felt fine with other people getting Maori tattoos or wearing their art or jewelry as long as it was respected. These Maori tattoo artists won’t just put any old design you want on your skin, they will listen to your story and make something unique to you using the traditional Maori symbols and styles. So, while I suppose it is possible to print something off the internet and go to a non-Maori tattoo artist to replicate it, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in NZ and so it’s far less an issue of misappropriation and more a way of sharing and honoring. Later research revealed that the name for Maori style tattoos for non-Maori (Pakeha) is kirituhi and so most Maori don’t even see the kirituhi as being the same as the moko (even if it appears similar in design) because it lacks the spiritual and familial connections of a true ta moko.

Although the Maori have survived colonialism far more intact and with greater rights than nearly anyone else the British invaded, it is obvious that colonialism has done some damage in terms of women’s roles, the family collective, and the lingering prejudice for non-conformity. Many Maori around NZ struggle to fit in or get by, often suffering from the issues that plague many colonized peoples such as alcoholism, abuse, and crime that stem from living a purgatorial existence, neither able to fully embrace their own culture nor fully integrate into the dominant culture around them. At least these families in Rotorua are doing their best to revitalize the old ways and spread awareness and acceptance of the Maori to Kiwis and foreign visitors alike.

A Walk in the Bush

After dinner and the q&a were all finished, we were invited back into the bush for another walk to go and see the glow worms that lived in the area. To limit the light, they only gave a small flashlight to every other person, asking us to stay in pairs. At this point, I noticed several people actually complaining about having to go back into the woods, it was too cold or too dark. I couldn’t help wondering why they’d come if they felt that way.

47-mitai-maori-villageBefore beginning the glowworm hunt, we passed by an outdoor village replica so that we could get a better look at the housing construction and village arrangement. This picture is in daylight, but when I was there it was night. It was a little hard to see in the dark, but the guide gave a good description of the house (as a body) and of the general village construction on a hillside that allowed for greater protection. Before we moved on, he reminded everyone not to shine the lights on the glowworms and also, to cup the lights in our hands and point them only at the ground, so we could see where we were walking without obstructing the night view. I think about 5% of the group listened to this, because most people were busily shining their lights all over the woods.

I abandoned my “partner” with the light and dropped back to the rear of the group where I was able to find some glowworms. I pointed them out to a Japanese tourist and her daughter, but it took me a few minutes to get across to her that she had to turn her light off to see them. She did seem appreciative once she figured it out and got a good view of the little fairy lights under the bush, but quickly moved up to rejoin the main group. A couple of early 20s Americans were also interested so I got to help them find a few more clusters of glowworms and answer some questions about the little bugs. I have decent night vision, so I wasn’t worried about treading a well beaten path without my light (plus I had a phone if I really needed it) and I managed to find several more patches of twinkling insects while I caught up to the group who had arrived at Fairy Springs.


Patupaiarehe is the Maori name that is translated into English as “fairy”. patupaiarehe_by_typthis-d7qb21wThey were a tribe of supernatural beings that lived deep in the forest, ate their food raw and shunned the light. They were described as having pale skin and red hair, and it is thought that the red-haired Maori are descendants of a union between Patupaiarehe and Maori women. The gloworms are sometimes said to be they eyes of the Patupaiarehe, since they can be seen only in the dark places. They were not spread evenly around New Zealand, but seem to be concentrated in certain areas including Rotorua where they are rumored to have come down from the mountains to drink from the pure waters of this spring. The spring puts out more than 24 million litres of water each day. The dark spots in the photos at the bottom of the pool are not rocks, it is the constant billowing of the seditment as it is churned by ever arising spring water from the bottom.

While the floodlight was on, showing off the clarity of the spring, 20160820_203045we saw one of the native fish swimming around, but after the light was turned off and people started moving on, the freshwater eel resident of the spring came out. The second guide who was bringing up the rear tried to turn the light back on so I could see it better, but the light sadly drove it back into the rocks. However, having realized that I was more interested in the land than the majority of the tourists who were rushing ahead to get back to the halls, he stayed a little behind with me and started pointing out various interesting things around the bush.

He tried to find some of the river fish for me, but they were all hiding, and we talked a bit about the uniqueness of NZ flora and fauna. 620454-292773-14.jpgHe told me about a kind of mud-skipper fish they have, and about some of the extinct land birds. He left his flashlight off and we found many more glowworms. I tried to show some of the other tourists on the walk, but they were too busy chatting to stop and look. The Mitai tribe has been watering their forest areas in order to boost the glow worm population. They aren’t seen above ground in great numbers because the atmosphere is often too dry, but a hydration program was having a profound effect on the local population and I saw probably hundreds throughout the walk all along the rock-sides sheltered by roots and leaves.


I’m glad I went to the village. I learned a lot and it opened the door for me to learn even more about who and what the Maori people are and what the land of Aotearoa is all about. Nonetheless, when I returned to my room that night, my feelings were all over the map. Too many times I saw someone be impatient, ignore what was being offered, or flat up say out loud that they weren’t interested. There was too much focus on diner and boozing (because there was a bar in the dining hall) and too much modern western humor added to the performance to placate the guests.

Our hosts told us that the spirit of a person mingles with the spirit of the land through their feet, and by setting foot on the Mitai ancestral land, we mingled our spirits with it. They performed the hongi with our elected chief, making us more than visitors. They shared food, history and hospitality that was deeply meaningful, and yet so many treated it like nothing more than entertainment. It left me feeling profoundly saddened.

The Maori culture is no longer practiced day to day the way it once was and these villages are a way not only for us to see into the past, but for the modern Maori to reconnect with their ancestors and the spiritual values that shaped them before the influx of Christian missionaries. It is beautiful and interesting and fun, but it is not a theme park. If you visit them, remember their space is sacred, like a temple or church, and treat it accordingly. Enjoy their intimacy and openness, their delicious food and beautiful singing. Take delight in their wilderness, their spring and it’s wildlife. But most importantly, take a moment away from your regular life to reflect on what makes this place tapu, special and scared, and let the spirit of the land touch you through your feet before you wander on.


One thought on “Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Ten Days in NZ: Glowworms at Waitomo | Gallivantrix

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