A MAORIS PRE-DINNER CEREMONY
After the blowing of the war trumpet, three almost-naked Maoris with long clubs strode out of the ancestral house making a series of warlike challenges. The tattoos on their faces, along with their grimaces and stuck-out tongues, had the intended effect of impressing us with their fierceness.
The chief our New Zealand Elderhostel group elected to represent us in the Maori welcoming ceremony, or powhiri, stood just inside the entrance to the Maori compound. Despite the threats, our leader stood firm. After the warlike display, a warrior laid down a leaf picked up by our chief, indicating we had peaceful intentions.
The Maori women then sang a welcoming song so we could enter the community house. Their chief made a short welcoming speech, followed by one from our chief indicating we only wished to peacefully enjoy their company at the coming feast. The ritual nose-rubbing was skipped because SARS was said to be making the rounds. At this point, our group was given permission to enter their territory.
Before the feast, the Maoris performed in their intricately decorated community house, where each wall panel represented a family history. The show included dances, the demonstration of musical instruments and a bit of Maori lore.
One of the dances was the pukana haka, a ferocious display where the dancers slap their thighs, stomp their feet, shout, grimace, bulge their eyes, stick out their tongues and beat their chests. All of this sham violence demonstrates their power as warriors. It reminded me of the behavior of great apes when strangers encroach upon their territory. Sitting in the front row, I found my stomach churning in fear despite my awareness that they really wouldn’t attack me.
The warrior who can stick out his tongue the furthest, bulge his eyes the biggest and make the most frightening face has special status with the group and is considered its most desirable lover.
In the Tititorea, dance batons were passed between performers, testing their agility and coordination. The Poi dance featured balls suspended on the ends of rope, depicting the movements of birds in flight.
Our group then moved to the dining hall, where we were treated to a Hangi, dinner cooked in the Maori manner in pits of hot coals with the food wrapped in wet leaves.
SOME MAORI HISTORY
The Elderhostel tour group my wife, Carla, and I had joined was in Rotorua, New Zealand, where we were visiting the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute.
The Maoris, who came to New Zealand 1,000 years ago, are working to preserve their native traditions and art forms. One of the ways the institute is doing this by training a new generation of artists in the traditional art forms of carving, weaving and tattooing. An attempt also is being made to revitalize the language and have children learn it. There are just 15 sounds in the Maori language - five vowels and 10 consonants - so it sounds quite different from other languages but a lot like Hawaiian.
When we arrived in Auckland, Professor Hugh Landray of the University of Auckland gave us an introduction to New Zealand with a heavy emphasis on Maori history and their relationships with the British - or Pakeha, as the Maori called them. While there is tension between the two groups, there was less exploitation of the Maoris than was the usual pattern for English settlers taking over a country.
The British saw them, as opposed to the Australian aborigines, as being a Caucasian tribe with dark skin. It also helped that they were fierce fighters and gave the British serious trouble. They had developed a form of trenches as protection against attack. The British used what they learned from the Maoris in World War I in building their trenches in Europe.
In 1840, the British were forced to negotiate a treaty rather than just kill or marginalize them. While there has been much interbreeding, the Maori still keep a separate identity, and you will see men with full facial tattooing and women with their chins tattooed. On the other hand, the performers in the shows use stencils to put temporary tattoos on their faces and legs.
The Maoris have a good record of dealing with women’s issues and early on allowed women to vote. Many if not most of political leaders are female.
MAORIS WERE GREAT BOATMEN
Maoris have become an integral part of the New Zealand tourist industry. For example, the Auckland Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Polynesian artifacts, including a 95-foot Maori war canoe carved 150 years ago from a single tree.
The museum highlights the Polynesians’ great skills as boat builders and navigators, which gave them the ability to put settlements on most of the islands in the South Pacific. They came here carrying not only their families but pigs and dogs. Our guide explained how the basic materials for making things on the islands farther north were not here for the Maori when they arrived, so they had to learn to use new resources for making cloth and sails and other things they needed.
At the Maritime Museum in Auckland, we saw a movie that helped us understand how they got to New Zealand and the contributions they made to the development of the country. The movie shows the storms they weathered to bring whole families, complete with livestock. The large screen presentation is vivid enough that I almost became seasick as the waves washed over the bouncing boat.
Maoris make up 8 percent of the population but are not restricted by any legal limitations and play a full part in contemporary society while remaining proud of their origins.
Our exceptionally good guide at the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute stressed how the Maoris are trying to maintain Maori art forms and language at the same time stay active in New Zealand’s on going culture.
But all is not hugs and kisses between the two races. Mahuta, the son of the Maori King Tawhiso, said in 1903, "When the Pakeha first came to this island, the first thing he taught the Maori was Christianity. They made parsons and priests of several members of the Maori race, and they taught these persons to look up and pray; and while they were looking up, the Pakehas took away our land."
It was apparent from newspaper stories while we were in New Zealand that the Maoris are not happy with the treaty they signed in 1840, and their discontent has led to tension. They have succeeded in regaining land and raising the legislature’s consciousness to where it is officially seen as a bicultural nation, with recognition of Maoris as a separate group.
For the traveler, however, there is plenty of opportunity to get a feel for the culture, admire its many art forms and purchase authentic souvenirs.