Twenty-first century New Zealand is a lively blend of cultures, combining a European sensibility with the indomitable spirit of the indigenous Maori people. Over the course of the past week we have had a crash course in Maoritanga by visiting some of the most vibrant and significant Maori locations on the North Island. We started with the birthplace of the political New Zealand, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the far northern town of Paihia. It was here in 1840 that 43 Maori chiefs signed an agreement with the British to preserve their lands and status in exchange for British protection and rule. This is a unique document, because, even though it has been the subject of much disagreement and interpretation (much like our own Constitution), it established a society where both native people and colonizing Europeans were endowed with rights, at least in theory. Compared to Australia and the US, where indigenous populations were almost wiped off the face of the map, this seems a highly enlightened maneuver by the British.
The result has been the survival of Maori culture over the ensuing decades. The majority of place names throughout the country are Maori, including the hill that has the distinction of bearing the longest name in the world, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimanungahoonukapkaiwhenuakitanatahu. The All Blacks proudly perform a haka, or ceremonial battle chant, before every game. New Zealanders infuse their speech with Maori terms and Maori myth and legend seems an intrinsic part of the landscape.
While at Waitangi we saw an example of the waka, or canoe, that early Pacific Islanders led by the legendary explorer Kupe, used to cross the ocean in search of new lands. We also visited the meeting house, Te Whare Runanga, which is symbolic of the sacred meeting houses that mark the tribal countryside.
In Rotorua, we visited the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, which houses a school created in the 1960s to perpetuate Maori expertise in woodcarving. McKane thought he would love to attend the school, but was dismayed to learn that you have to be of Maori descent to enroll. We also took a bus out to the Tamaki Maori Village, a recreation of a pre-European Maori settlement complete with a cultural performance and traditional dinner known as hangi. Our experience here confirmed what we already knew when Wil, our Waitangi guide, quoted a wise Maori leader. When commenting on what was truly important, he said, “….it’s the people, the people, the people.” All of these folks made us think of our own island boy back in Georgia, Slamin’ Candy Taman, who performs a mean fire dance.
This lovely young woman was one of our favorites. Here she is demonstrating the bulging eyes the Maori employ as part of their haka. These eyes in conjunction with the open mouth, protruding tongue, and guttural roar are intended to intimidate opponents. Now whenever I get angry, McKane calls me “Maori mom,” not because the Maori are mean, but because apparently my disciplinary eyes resemble this. He thinks if I display this face for the admissions counselors at the carving school, they might agree to admit him.