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Māori Culture

This section endeavours to describe some aspects of contemporary Māori culture.

Humble apologies that this is not yet more detailed or comprehensive. 
Māori culture is rich and diverse, has a unique and special place in New Zealand society, and has complexities I have yet to experience or feel able to properly describe here.

There are approximately just over half a million Māori living in New Zealand today. That's about one in seven New Zealanders. Māori society is structured into tribes (Iwi), comprising sub-tribes (Hapū), made up of family units (Whānau).



Whānau is very important to Māori. Families are typically very close, and large families are commonplace.

For Māoris, people that are living are considered to be the result of a combination of both the dead (te hunga mate), and the living (te hunga ora). Thus another very important thing shared within Whānau is their Whakapapa (pron. 'fa-ka-pa-pa') - their ancestry, their genealogy.

A Māori's Whakapapa constitutes a fundamental aspect of whaikorero (formal speech making) at huritau (birthdays) and tangihanga (funerals), reflecting the belief in the merging of life and death that is significant and meaningful for the Māori. 

There are very strong social bonds between Māori, especially within Whānau. A typical Māori's calendar is likely littered with engagements for birthdays, anniversaries, marriages and other Whānau events.



Māori value highly both their Whānau and consequent Iwi affiliation.

There are a number of iwis, ranging in size. About half of all Kiwi Māoris belong to one of the nine largest iwi, each having membership in excess of 20,000. Ngapuhi, based in Northland, is the largest iwi with 95,451 members.

There's more about some of the Māori iwi on the page about my visit to Otorohanga.


Most Māori today are Christians. However, their Christianity is as much defined by Māoritanga (Māori culture) as western theology. Many Māori place greater emphasis upon their Māori beliefs than they may do their Christian. Any understanding of their Christianity must begin with their traditional beliefs.

 The Māori speak of three baskets of knowledge, the knowledge that comes through the senses, the knowledge which is the understanding of what we perceive through the senses, and finally and most importantly, the knowledge which is the experience of our oneness with people, with creation and with Io, God.

The understanding of what we experience through our senses is expressed in the Māori model of the world, a model which includes Rangi and Papa, Heaven and Earth, and the different created spiritual powers, each responsible for a particular section of creation.

Two key concepts included in this model are the concepts of tapu and mana which I identify with potentiality (tapu in itself) and with power (mana). Related to the concept of tapu is the concept of noa, freedom from restriction.

The knowledge spoken of as contained in the third basket of knowledge is our experience of oneness with people, with creation and with Io, God, an experience which takes us beyond the limits of space and time. This experience is especially found in our participation in ritual and in our use of the karakia. The karakia are the ritual chants of the Māori and cover every aspect of life. It is in the use of the karakia that we find what it is to be a human person. Their immediate purpose is to link up with the ancestors and the spiritual powers. Their wider purpose is to share in the work of creation Their effectiveness comes from our faith in the ancestors and the spiritual powers..

At the core of this world, and of the whole of the universe, is Io, Io matua kore, Io the parentless, and Io taketake, Io the root cause of all. The richness of the Māori understanding of Io is seen in the different names applied to Io, while the Io creation genealogy shows a cosmic, rather than this world only, awareness. There has been much dispute as to where the Io tradition comes from. 

Christian Māori 

The majority of Māori are Christian and have been brought up with the European Christian traditions. Today a growing number of Māori in accepting their being Māori want to be Māori first and then Christian. So Catholic Māori are saying, with Pope John Paul II, that to be Catholic they must be Māori.


Many special provisions exist in New Zealand law to protect Māori interests. Sadly, however, it may be argued that Māori occupy a marginalised place in their own homeland. Māori are plagued with poverty, low rates of home ownership, high mortality rates, and a lower than national average life expectancy. High unemployment, and high school drop-out rates. Many students loose interest and drop out precisely because a higher education fails to lead to better jobs or improved lifestyles. As a race, the Māori are still disproportionately represented within unskilled, manual labour positions, often despite possessing skills or higher education. Moreover, a disproportionately high number depend on government aid.

Although on a much smaller scale than previously, Māori land was nonetheless, still being appropriated as late as the 1980s through the Civil Works Act and illegal surveying methods. All agree that the Māori must adapt and move forward to survive in this modern, technological world. Yet opinions on how best to survive as a people are as varied and fragmented as the warring tribes discovered by Captain Cook. Some see an acceptance of nationalism, free market capitalism ideals and adoption of modernity as the only means of survival. Others see that in itself as a destruction of their culture and seek a complete overthrow or rejection of the capitalistic and modern social systems.

Some see racism in government, social structure, and individuals as the primary reason for oppression. Others see the tolerant, relaxed relations between races, including an easy acceptance of interracial marriage, as the primary reason for their social gains. Still others see the very existence of the Pakeha on New Zealand as the problem, and believe that the Māori will never be truly free until they are off the island. Some seek Māori sovereignty, others simply varying degrees of self rule.

Nobody seeks or believes a retrograde movement to the past is possible or even desirable. The question is not if Māori need to adapt to the modern world to survive, but how to do that and still maintain the integrity of Māori spirit, culture, and meaning.


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Need help with a Māori word?
Click here to have open a list of common Māori terms; or
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This page last updated 06/07/2003 02:11:44 AM


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