An introduction to Maori culture in New Zealand

Welcome to the first post on the Maori sub-category of GCDEX’s Indigenous chapter

Toi tu te kupu, toi tu te mana, toi tu te whenua

Hold fast to the language, hold fast to the spirit, hold fast to the land

This Maori proverb reveals a lot about the indigenous people of New Zealand. Theirs is a rich and deep culture; their identity rooted in the land and their ancestry, and these vital links shape the people’s identity and their art.

Maori are the tangata whenua – the people of the land. In over 1000 years of settlement, they have shown an extraordinary ability to adapt first to a new environment and then to the arrival of European immigrants and culture. Like most indigenous communities around the world, Maori community development evolved out of hundreds of years of practice, based on whanau, hapu and iwi.

Estimates differ but it is generally thought that the first Polynesian canoes with Maori settlers landed on the New Zealand shores around 1000 AD. Genealogy has always been of paramount importance to the Maori as it delineated their origins right back to their original waka. The word waka can mean canoe or descendants from a canoe, depending on context. Once reaching New Zealands shores and as the numbers grew, they spread out over the land, and a complex social structure developed with iwi hapu (or sub-tribes) and whanau (extended family).

Traditional Maori customs still play a big part in the lives of many modern Maori in New Zealand, and are an intrinsic part of Kiwi culture for New Zealanders. Heritage and ancestral lineage are a vital part of the people’s identity and is very strongly represented in their art. Traditional arts such as carving, weaving, group performance, oratory, and tattoo are common throughout the country.  Practitioners often follow the techniques of their ancestors, but today Maori also include contemporary arts such as film, television, poetry and theatre.

For example, a ta moko is the Maori form of body art, but more commonly referred to as Maori tattooing, for which the main purpose and applications are sacred. The art form was brought to the Maori from Polynesia and is considered highly sacred.

Pictured below is an example of a ta moko that represents family. The four koru’s (loops) represents four siblings, the long koru in the middle symbolises an older sibling, and the two koru’s by the elbow symbolises his parents.


Pictured below is the outside of a marae and nowhere is the representation of art clearer than in the carvings inside and outside a marae. From the swirling koru to the evocative tekoteko, Maori art richly captures the heart of this proud people.


Today, although many Maori live in urban areas, away from their tribal regions, their marae remains an integral part of their lives. Maori have a very strong culture of their own with many traditions which still flourish today.

Any visit to New Zealand is bound to provide an encounter with the country’s unique Maori culture that will allow you to experience a culture rich in traditions passed on from generation to generation.

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