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

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.

Q&A

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.

Fairies

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.

Reflection

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.

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Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 1)

Ever wonder about the aboriginal people of New Zealand? I had the opportunity to visit a Maori village in Aotearoa and it inspired me to learn a lot more about them. Not everything I have written about the Maori was something I learned in New Zealand. I did a lot of follow up research after I got home to help me understand what I had seen and to put the experiences into a greater context. For the purpose of this blog, I will be mixing the information I found afterward with the descriptions of the experiences to help make the connections clearer.


Feelings & History

When I found myself suddenly spending an extra night in Rotorua, the girls at the reception desk of my hostel recommended the Maori villages as a good activity. This was something I had some strong yet mixed feelings about while I was researching the trip. A lot of websites put one or another village in the top 10 experiences of New Zealand, to the point where it felt like an integral part of the national experience. The issue for me, however, was a leftover white guilt for the way that First People are treated in the US, now and historically. As I write this, tribes are coming together for one of the biggest united protests in our shared history in order to draw attention to a planned oil pipeline that is questionably off their land but would have serious impact on their water. (#NODAPL) Native American reservations already have some of the worst land and water in the continent and are rarely heard when they try to talk about the pollution, the violence against them that still pervades, the lack of access to healthcare or the justice system (only federal courts can hear their cases). Nevermind all the insane horrific murder, rape and mistreatment they suffered for centuries at the hands of European colonialists.

Then, there’s the fact that as a child, I traveled around the American west. It’s not a frontier anymore, but people like to pretend, like to see a show or visit a replica old west frontier town. I went to these and a lot of them are about cowboys and famous historical figures like Wild Bill or Calamity Jane, or Annie Oakley where you can see replicas of the shootout at the OK corral or a modern version of the Wild Bill show. That’s ok, I guess, not that different from going through replicas of colonial villages in New England, it’s a glorified version of history. But I also went to shows about the “Indians”. I watched an outdoor play one night, I don’t remember the story, but I know there were white characters and Native characters, and I remember being riveted. I got a rabbit skin from the souvenir shop and had the whole cast sign it for me… I don’t think I was more than 10 years old.

indian_gamingYou can’t go anywhere in the US without being on some tribe’s ancestral land, though. I learned about the tribes as we moved around the country. I learned their words in each new place because white settlers used the names the Natives gave to things long after the people were relegated to reservations, forced to wear western clothes, speak English and go to church. And in the few places where they are reclaiming their place, they are still only known for 2 things: casinos and tourist attractions. Casinos because crazy sovereign land rights make gambling legal on reservations. These buildings are decked out in the tackiest stereotypes of Native imagery with wooden carved Indians in giant feather headdresses adorning the entryways and sacred patterns hanging on the walls, using the images of their culture to draw in suckers. Only slightly less crass are the informational tourism spots where descendants of colonialists can come and see an authentic teepee or wigwam or rain dance. Sometimes they even sell sweat lodge experiences. And as much as I want to learn about the people and the culture, because that is maybe my greatest passion in this life, it feels cheap and tawdry whenever I see these displays outside of museums. This is not to say they shouldn’t live their own culture, but there is a difference between living your lifestyle and putting on a show.

Why I decided to go anyway

With all of this heavy history in my head and my heart, it was not an easy decision to visit a Maori village, to cross onto someone’s sacred ancestral land and be… “infotained”. Several factors helped to bring me around.

One, I really like to learn. It’s hard to separate me from an opportunity for knowledge, even if it is uncomfortable.

Two, it turns out the Maori are not “native” to New Zealand. It is believed that the Moriori were actually there when the Maori arrived from Polynesia and were gradually driven South and out (by the Maori) until they finally died off in the 1930s. Unlike the Native Americans who are believed to have travelled to the continent about 10-12000 years ago when there was a land-bridge from Russia to Alaska, the Maori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand only 1000 years ago. I don’t think it gives them less claim to the land, but it does mean that they have more in common with the European colonists than the Native American tribes.

Three, the Maori have not been nearly so hard done by as I had feared. This is not to say they did not suffer at the hands of the British colonists or that new European diseases did not ravage their population, but overall, there was nothing quite like the Trail of Tears or the massive amount of betrayal and backstabbing that went on during the colonization and westward expansion in the US. Captain Cook didn’t even land on Aotearoa until 1769, and for nearly the next hundred years, New Zealand was sparsly colonized, new British arrivals consisting mainly of whalers, seal hunters and missionaries eager to convert the trouserless heathens. Possibly the most damage done to the Maori during this time was the introduction of the gun to their intertribal warfare so that they could kill each other more efficiently.

Fun Facts:

maori-fishing-up-the-landMaori Colonization: The explorer Kupe took a really big boat and ventured across the ocean, leaving his home in search of new land. It’s believed that colonization of NZ from Polynesia was deliberate and slow after this. It took several hundred years of ocean faring boats going back and forth bringing more and more Maori. In fact, the seven main tribes now identify by which boat (waka) their ancestors arrived on. For those who have been wondering about why I keep using other names to refer to NZ, Kupe named the land Aotearoa which roughly translates to “land of the long white cloud”. There are a few legends on why, but no consensus. The seven waka hourua (ocean going boats) and later the seven tribes, are called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

23054085.jpgThe Treaty of Waitangi was basically an agreement the Maori signed with the British crown stating that New Zealand was under British sovereignty, but that the Chiefs and tribes would keep their own land (selling only to British settlers, no filthy French or Dutch here, please), and that the Maori would have the same rights as British citizens. Of course they’ve been arguing over the terms and ignoring the details since it was signed in 1840, land was stolen anyway and wars broke out, but it was a big deal that the warring tribes came together to deal with the colonists (which did not happen in America) and that they never completely lost the power to leverage this document (also unlike every treaty the US government ever made with Native tribes). I actually passed by the treaty grounds when I was in Piahia, although at the time, I didn’t understand the true historical significance, as I had only US/Tribal treaties as a reference point.

12061-2Modern Maori: Are there arguments about land rights, water rights, fishing and hunting rights… and every other aspect of sovereignty? Of course, but it’s much more like an argument between people of (nearly) equal footing than in the US where we’re still ignoring the fact that our reservations don’t have safe drinking water or can’t fish their own streams/ coastlines for a food source. I found lots of news articles about the modern issues between the Maori and the State and the general tone is much more like dealing with a neighboring country or even another political party than anything else. Nowadays Maori language is taught in schools and there are a guaranteed number of Maori seats in parliament based on the numbers of Maori who are enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, Native Americans are struggling to regain their languages from the time the colonists forbade their use, tribes like the Haida in Alaska no longer have any members who can speak the old tongue and the last recordings of their language were made almost 100 years ago. And while there are people of Native descent in congress, they must run as representatives for their state, not for their Tribes.

Of course the Maori need to keep working to preserve their heritage and the colonial injustices are bad. I don’t want to say their issues are somehow less because other people have it worse. But, it did go a long way toward helping me see that these Maori villages that were offering shows and dinner to visitors were not being exploited or financially trapped into feeling like turning their culture into a show was the only way to earn a living. Rather that they were more like our Native Hawaiian population than our mainland Natives and, so far, I don’t feel guilty about luaus.

I met many Maori in New Zealand. I was surprised, actually at how not white the country is. It’s still about 70% European descent, but the census reckons about 15% of the population is Maori and the remaining 15% a mix of various Asian and non-Maori South Pacific. (In the US, only 2% are Native, and more than half of that greatly mixed.) I gave a ride to a Maori farmer who’s car had broken down and he talked about wanting to do something with his farm to bring in tourists like offering horseback riding tours and lessons. He told me how they used to use Maori language as a secret code when they were kids. Once I learned to recognize the features and not just the tattoos, I saw Maori integrated into every part of New Zealand, often displaying traditional jewelry or smaller tribal tattoos in more discreet places, keeping their culture close, but not ostentatious.

Visiting the Mitai

p-e6223960-c944-2800-c81f093ea594b12b-3747524Armed with a better understanding of the history and a strong desire to learn more, I booked myself a table at the Mitai Maori Village for that evening. The Rotoua area tribes (iwi) are said to all be part of the Te Arawa iwi from the original seven. There are at least 4 villages offering tours, shows, and dinners around Rotorua. I didn’t really do a lot of research into each one because initially I had not planned to go at all. When I did decide to go, I went with the Mitai Village because the hostel I was at was able to get a substantial discount from their regular price. Sometimes we make decisions for very practical reasons.

During my visit to the Mitai ancestral land, two main things happened to me: I learned a lot about Maori which was awesome, and I watched a whole bunch of obviously materialistic tourists treat the whole thing with the respect and solemnity you might expect from a Medieval Times Restaurant, that is to say, none, which was sad.

You’re Saying It Wrong

Now that I’m about 2000 words in, let me start from the beginning. The first thing I learned was that I’ve been pronouncing the word “Maori” wrong my whole life. I don’t know if it was from some well meaning documentary or just some assumptions about the transliteration, but I always said may-oh-ri, with three distinct sylables. I was wrong. It’s a two syllable word that sounds more like maw-ri  or mow-ri, the vowel sound is actually about half way between ma and mo and not common in English sounds. It was more like the Korean vowel ㅓ, and the r is more of a flap than a glide with the tip of the tounge tapping the roof of the mouth gently. I had already learned about the strange wh=f issue and now I encountered my first major dipthong (“ao”). I have no idea who Anglisized their language. The Maori had no written language and all of their words are now written using the English/Roman alphabet that is clearly unsuited for the sounds they make, so much so that I didn’t always realize words I heard that night were words I’d seen written on signs around New Zealand as I traveled.

sam_2253_01We were greeted at the entrance by a woman in traditional dress and (makeup) tattoo with the Maori greeting “Kia Ora” (key-or-ah) and escorted through to the dining hall for our introductions. Here, our host greeted us again and taught us to say kia ora then proceeded to offer introductions in the native language of every visitor there (although he did have to ask about a few). I thought this was a good idea because it felt like an exchange and not a lecture, and seemed like a good way of engaging the audience and personalizing the experience as much as you can in a group of 50. He told us a little about what to expect for the evening and taught us a few more Maori words, nearly all of which I have subsequently forgotten, but it was fun and as an amateur linguist I really liked having the opportunity to hear and practice the Maori phonology.

The Quick Tour

20160820_171604Next we broke into smaller groups and bundled outside to see some of the village. Our group first visited the boat displayed by the front gate. Our guide explained to us about the word “waka” (boat) and the three most common types of waka for daily use (fishing and transporting goods), for war, and for long ocean journeys. She pointed out to us the way in which this particular waka was made using planks and that was how we could tell it was a replica and not a traditionally made waka. In fact it was the prop from the movie The Piano. I appreciated the fact that they were so upfront about the fact it was a replica, using the movie prop to point out the similarities and differences between the prop and a traditional waka. It felt honest. Film and museum replicas are great for showing off history, but should never be passed off as originals.

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After admiring the waka, we headed over to the cooking pit. Here, our hosts had dug a deep pit in the earth which was filled with hot coals. The food was carefully wrapped and lowered on a tray into the pit, then covered with blankets to keep in the heat, cooking what would soon be our dinner. This is one of two historically traditional methods the Maori used for cooking, the other being to use the geothermal heat of the region to steam the food instead of a manmade fire. I understand at least one village in the area still has access to a nearby hot pool they use to prepare dinner for guests with, but the Mitai lived with a vibrant freshwater spring rather than a geothermal one. Our guide told us that although the Maori cooked this way in the past, that mostly what they ate were the native ground birds which are now all extinct or protected and so the only traditional food in the meal would be the sweet potatoes (kumara) and that the rest of the chicken, lamb, potatoes and stuffing were all brought in from the British settlers. I suppose to some, this revelation may have been a disappointment, finding that our Hangi feast was really made of familiar food, but again, I appreciated the honest discussion of history and the unique way that a living culture had adapted to the changing times far more than any fake recreation of an imaginary past. Our guide said a prayer in Maori over our meal, before covering it back up and leading us once more into the dining hall.

Here he went more into details about Maori culture, language and history. He asked us to choose a “chief” from among ourselves to represent us as a visiting tribe. He told us the Maori called foreigners “the tribe of the four winds” or Ngā Hau e Whā, to represent that we come from everywhere. There were more than 21 different countries represented in the audience that night. Women are not allowed to be chiefs or you can be sure I would have raised my hand, but two men both volunteered and the guide decided to have a contest between them. New Zealand_Maori Culture_APT_740_LLR.jpgHe taught them how to make the traditional war face which involves opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, sticking out the tongue toward the chin and doing an aggressive war cry. One of the men took this task quite seriously, doing his best to make an intimidating face and sound as he was shown, buy the other (and younger) was too cool for school and sadly sought audience attention by laughing at the process and doing a poor imitation of the war face, perhaps unwilling to look foolish, but in the end failing. We were asked to vote by applause and the man who went all out won by a landslide, which was nice, because I felt like he would at least take his duties as our chief for the night seriously and not treat it like some kind of opportunity for laughs.

Maori Greetings

The guide then explained that when we went into the meeting hall (performance hall too), their chief would meet our chief. When two families or tribes meet, one puts a small offering on the ground (often a silver fern leaf). If the visiting chief picks it up, it is a sign that they are peaceful and pleasantries, trading, or feasting can commence. If the visiting chief refuses to pick it up, it is a declaration of the intent for war, and fighting promptly ensues. The next thing he showed us was the Maori greeting. We had already learned how to say kia ora (key-oh-ra), which means not only hello, but also goodbye and is a general well wishing like “be well” or “good health to you”. If someone says kia ora to you, it is polite to say it back. Next he taught us the body language that goes with it.

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In the west, we shake hands, and in Asia, people bow, but when the Maori meet they touch foreheads and noses at the same time. Called the hongi (not to be confused with hangi, our dinner), it is an intimate greeting that breaks down the barriers of personal space immediately. The touch is done twice. On first touch, you do not breathe. This stillness is for the dead, for those who have come before and gone beyond. On the second touch you breathe, mingling the breath of life (ha) which can also be seen as a co-mingling of spirits. It is a representation of the creation of the first human. Tane (the giant tree who separated his parents to make room for life) created a woman (yeah, first human is a woman here) from the earth and breathed life into her. Once this is done, visitors are considered part of the village for the duration of the visit and share in all rights and duties that the villagers themselves do.

River Raid

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With our chief prepared to meet the Mitai chief, we headed out into the bush to watch the warriors paddle their waka down the stream in a recreation of a traditional war party. This waka was made in the traditional manner, unlike the movie set replica at the front gate. Perhaps in the summer, this part of the performance is more visible. I’ve seen some pictures online that look like they are happening in daylight, but during August, the sun was setting around 6pm every night and it was quite dark by the time we were led down to the stream. Nonetheless, the warriors in the waka had torches (fire, not electric) and it was impressive to see them coming down the stream, chanting and going back and forth between paddling and using the oars in a type of dancing display.

Sadly, my cameras are really lousy at low light. Maybe one day I’ll run a go-fund-me for a new one, but somehow every time I come face to face with the choice of spending my money on a new camera or on a new country experience… there is no actual competition. As a result, I have pretty old cameras. I usually am able to share my own photos of the places I’ve seen, but in low light the best I can do is share the photos of people with expensive cameras who went to the same places to give you a better idea of what we saw.

Show Time

20160820_183118After the outdoor display, we headed into the performance hall. It was somewhere during this time that I started getting flashbacks to my childhood wild west/cowboys and Indians shows. The stage was set up to look like a Maori village, and once again, the guide was quite clear that it was a set and not real. The performance started with singing and dancing, then the cheif came out and gave a speech in Maori that of course none of us understood. While all the Maori performers were wearing traditional costumes, it struck me at once how different the cheif’s clothing was, especially the white fur cloak he wore. New Zealand has only one native land mammal, which is the bat, so where did this fur come from? It turns out that the Maori brought dogs, kuri, with them from Polynesia. The dogs were rare and their fur was prized as one of the elite materials for chieftain cloaks (along with fur seal skin), and because white was a common kuri coloring, I expect this was meant to represent a white kuri skin cloak and was quite prestigious indeed.

He presented the peace offering as we were told to expect, and our “cheif’ picked it up accepting the peace. He introduced us (his tribe) and thanked the Mitai chief for hosting us on their land. Then they performed the hongi (touching nose and forhead) and our chief was able to return to his seat. Following the formal introductions, the Mitai chief switched to English and gave a brief introduction of himself and the tribe, reminding us all that the Maori now live in modern houses, wear regular clothes and enjoy using facebook, and that all of that night’s show was a way of demonstrating their history and traditions that are no longer practiced except for purposes of historical preservation or special significance. He was easygoing and had a good sense of humor that kept the audience engaged, but it was still sad to me to see the fact that their history was being almost Disneyfied for our consumption.

The Action Song

The performance is known as waiata a ringa, or action song. In the early 1900s, there was a movement to revive traditional Maori music that added dancing and the guitar to the traditional singing, and eventually developed into a standard performance used all over Rotorua today that includes a sung entrance, poi, haka (“war dance”), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. Our performers (kapa haka) did not do it in exactly that order, but really close, and nowadays the action song is used in competitions between iwi (tribes) around New Zealand; it’s not just a tourist attraction.

337207941_48fcda1c62_zAfter the sung entrance and the chief’s introductions, they introduced traditional Maori instruments of which there are two main kinds: melodic and percussive. Melodic instruments (rangi) include flutes made from wood or bone, gourd instruments that are blown into or filled with seeds and shaken, and trumpet instruments made from shells. These are considered the domain of the Sky Father but each group and specific instrument has it’s own god/goddess or spirit associated with it. Percussive instruments (drums, sticks, poi -the white flaxen balls on strings, and a type of disc on a cord) are considered the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.

They showed us how some of the percussive instruments like the poi and the sticks had started out as training activities to strengthen the warriors, but had quickly been adapted as games and dances by the women. The poi were used in dances, but also to imitate sounds the Maori people heard around them, including the more modern sounds of the imported English horses and the railway. The short sticks were used in group dances combining rhythm and agility as the men and women tossed the sticks around the circle while singing and beating out the time (the stick game).

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They also performed some beautiful songs that included the hymn and the ancient song as well as some lighter-hearted love songs. One of the cuter love songs included the lyrics, “hey pretty lady, your boyfriend he’s no good, so come with me instead”. The hymns were not translated for us, so I’m not sure exactly which gods they were honoring, but at least one of the ancient songs was a sort of Maori “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star crossed lovers named Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. They lived in villages in Rotorua, across the lake from one another, and their families forbade their marriage. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous couple, however, Hinemoa and Tutanekai had a happily ever after, because after his family had taken Tutanekai’s waka to stop him, Hinemoa swam across the lake to reach him instead.


The performance is far from over, but this post is reaching my self imposed limit for avoiding TLDR syndrome. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned so far. I’m not posting an album on Facebook for this experience because my photos are too dark, but you can find my YouTube Channel if you want to see more videos of this and other travels. Part 2 is coming soon!