I’m having a break from the kitchen for the next few weeks to experience a relaxing life down under in New Zealand – and in my mind, there’s really no better way to get to know a country than through it’s people, it’s culture and it’s local food. This is our second trip to the country and top of my list was to find out more about the Māori culture and to visit a traditional Wharenui or meeting house. With family living in New Zealand, I was familiar with some aspects of the culture – probably the most well known is the haka, the ancient Māori war dance performed by the All Blacks at rugby matches. There’s also the intricate carvings and artwork but I’d never experienced the rich and diverse cultural traditions of the people.
The timing of our trip was perfect as February 6th is Waitangi Day – the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi -the founding document of New Zealand. Signed in 1840, this is an agreement entered into by representatives of the British Crown and of Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). It’s named after the place in the Bay of Islands where the Treaty was first signed.
We didn’t have to travel far; close to where we were staying is the Waikawa Marae – a Marae is a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds and it’s central to Māori Culture. Each marae belongs to a particular iwi, hapū or whānau – a Māori family and is used for meetings, celebrations, funerals, educational workshops and other important tribal events.
Being Waitangi Day, the Waikawa Marae along with Māoris throughout New Zealand were taking the opportunity to share their culture during the day of celebrations.
Visitors to New Zealand are encouraged to respect Tikanga Māori, the traditional Māori culture and customs that have been handed down through time. These remain as relevant today as they did in historical times and an example of this is the formal welcoming ceremony at the Marae. It’s traditional for visitors to respect the sacredness of the Marae and remain outside until officially welcomed onto the meeting grounds.
Those who have never set foot on a Marae are known as waewae tapu or sacred feet and must take part in a what’s known as a pōwhiri – a traditional Māori welcoming ceremony to remove the tapu – sacredness and make them one with the local people.
The pōwhiri began with a powerful challenge – this is known as a wero and it was performed by a Māori warrior from the marae. The challenge is to to check whether the guests are friend or foe and of course, we had come in peace. During the challenge the warrior laid a small bunch of greenery on the ground and this was graciously accepted by our Māori guide to show our peaceful intentions.
The Māori women standing outside the meeting house sang a song of welcome and this signalled that it was acceptable for us to start moving onto the marae.
Our female Māori guide responded with her own call and very slowly and solemnly we began our short journey onto the marae. In keeping with the Māori tradition, the women stepped onto marae first; flanked by the men for protection, but, on reaching the wharenui, everyone removed their shoes and the men entered first. It’s a further symbolic act of protection to ensure it’s safe for the women to enter. Our hosts greeted us with the ceremonial hongi, the traditional Māori touching of noses and the welcoming Māori greeting ‘Kia Ora.’
A number of speeches, all in the Māori language were made by the men and each of these was followed by a song in support of the speech. There was no translation but a short explanation of some parts was given by Māori woman – there had been some quiet laughter during the speeches and she was keen to tell us that they were not laughing at the guests but at a joke about the New Zealand cricket teams recent victory over Australia!
She also explained that Māori’s believe that everyone should have a say and talked about ‘wake eke noa,’ – a Māori proverb meaning ‘a canoe which we are all in with no exception. Simply meaning, ‘we are all in this together.’
Like many cultures, food is central to celebrations and in keeping with the Māori tradition of hospitality, simple food was shared at the end of the pōwhiri. It’s traditional for visitors to present a koha, a gift to the marae hosts – on this occasion it was money; and was seen, not as a donation from the pocket, but rather a gift from the heart.
Māori people see their marae as tūrangawaewae – their place to stand and belong and we felt honoured to have visited and shared their Waitangi Day celebrations.