The Māori – New Zealand’s Indigenous People

The Māori – or Tangata Whenua, which translates as “people of the country” – are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They are proud, nature-loving people, and their history and traditions are an integral part of New Zealand’s identity and culture. According to a legend, the Māori come from the mythical land of “Hawaiki.” Hawaiki is considered the country of origin in many Polynesian peoples’ culture. The exact place of origin is unknown, but the Māori language and culture show apparent similarities with other Polynesian islands, such as the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.

The History Of The Māori People

Besides the legend, there’s a scientifically proven fact that the Māori settled in New Zealand between the eighth and 14th centuries. They probably came in several waves from Southeast Asia, more precisely from Polynesia. The newcomers found a land that offered enough space for settlement and lived together in small family groups (“whanau”), as they were used to in their homeland. Over time, these became larger units, the “hapu,” which formed the basic social structure of the Māori society.

When the Māori settlers found out which regions of their new homeland were the most fertile, they began fighting over these areas. The conflicts between those different groups sometimes dragged on over several centuries in a cycle of violence and revenge. Because for the Māori, there was nothing higher than “mana” – their honor. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document) was signed by both Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. After this treaty was signed, the number of British settlers (later called “Pākehā” – a Māori language term for New Zealanders primarily of European descent) increased rapidly and surpassed the Māori population. A little over a century after the signing of the treaty, the culture of Pākehā was dominant in New Zealand, and the Māori were expected to adapt to their culture. It was not until the 1980s that the Māori culture experienced a renaissance. Since then, bicultural aspects established and flourished – based on the partnership between the Māori and the English Crown. 

The Māori Language and 25 “Te Reo” Terms to Know

“Te Reo Māori” is the exact term for the Māori language and is also one of the three official languages ​​of New Zealand. “Te Reo” simply means “the language.” Because most of the Māori tribes settled on the North Island of New Zealand, most people who speak Māori today are found there. There’s no exact number of how many people speak Te Reo: estimates based on the 2013 census put it at around 125,000 people. That is 21% of the Māori and 3% of the population of New Zealand. Most people who are fluent in Te Reo are probably over 65 years of age. Everyone who speaks Te Reo can also speak English.

It is not surprising that Te Reo Māori is related to other Polynesian languages ​​spoken on the South Pacific islands. There are several Māori dialects in New Zealand. But someone who speaks the language well generally understands people who speak a different dialect.

Many terms from the Māori language have flowed into the New Zealanders’ everyday English and are used by the Kiwis. Immigrants may not be expected to use these words themselves, but they should be understood. Especially when you interact with people at work (e.g., in health care or the service sector), you will not get around a few Te Reo phrases. That’s why we’ve created a list of the 25 most common Te Reo terms and phrases – just for you. 😉

  1. Ka pai! – Fine! Excellent!
  2. Kia Ora! – Hi, thank you!
  3. Ka kite ano – Goodbye!
  4. Haere Mai – Welcome!
  5. Mōrena – Good morning!
  6. Aotearoa – New Zealand
  7. Aroha – love, joy, affection
  8. Whanau – (pronounced “Fanau”) family in the broader sense, family clan
  9. Whakapapa – (pronounced “Fakapapa”) the origin, the ancestors, ancestry
  10. Hangi – Traditional Maori dish cooked in an earth oven with meat and vegetables
  11. Kai – food, food
  12. Hapu – a tribe, clan
  13. Iwi – a Maori tribe
  14. Koha – gift, donation
  15. Mahi – the work
  16. Mana – the reputation, reputation, status
  17. Moana – the sea
  18. Marae – (pronounced “Marai”) a Maori meeting house
  19. Pākehā – Whites / Europeans
  20. Tamariki – children (always in the plural)
  21. Tangi – funeral
  22. Waka – a canoe, boat, vehicle
  23. Whenua – (pronounced “Fenua”) the land
  24. Tangata whenua – The indigenous people who belong to a country/area
  25. Haka – ritual war dance of the Māori to intimidate opponents

Tā Moko – The Art Of Māori Tattoos

In Māori culture, their tattoos reflect “Whakapapa” (ancestry) and the individual’s personal history. In earlier times, it was a powerful expression of the social rank, knowledge, abilities, and the right to marry the wearer. But in general, the unique Māori tattoos can’t be compared to common tattoos as we know them, because “Tā moko” (as the Māori call this form of tattoos) is not applied with many small dots and stitches, but with scratching and scraping tools. The skin adorned with moko has pitted bumps and is no longer smooth and soft.

The designs are universal – especially the spirals that swirl over the nose, cheek, and lower jaw. The lines of a moko emphasize facial features and expressions. The main lines in a Māori tattoo are called Manawa, the Māori word for “heart.” These lines represent the life path of the wearer. The “koru,” which looks like an unfolding silver fern, is featured in many tattoo designs. It symbolizes new life or the unfolding of a person’s life path. But when used in Māori tattoos, the koru usually represents a loved one or family member. Moko is a Māori tradition and a symbol of integrity, identity, and prestige. Therefore, only tattoos made by and on Māori are considered moko. When Māori tattoo designs are used for aesthetic reasons without the traditional meaning, it is known as “kirituhi” or simple skin art.

Haka: The Dance Of The Māori

The Haka is an ancient Māori war dance for the battlefield or when different groups of the Māori met peacefully. A Haka is used to passionately demonstrate the pride, strength, and harmony of a tribe. The dance movements include the stormy stamping with the feet, the challenging sticking out of the tongue, and the rhythmic clapping on the body, accompanied by loud singing. The lyrics of a Haka often poetically describe the Māori ancestors and incidents of tribal history.

Today, the Haka is still used during Māori ceremonies and celebrations to honor guests and emphasize the occasion’s importance, including family celebrations such as birthdays and weddings. But the Haka is also used at sporting events to challenge opponents. And if you have you ever seen New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, do the Haka before a rugby match, you will likely agree that the intimidation tactic is working!