When you start writing, whether it be articles, books or humble blogs such as this, you always hope that somehow you will convey some unique experience, some special insight to your readers. Unfortunately, unless you are among the most gifted, imaginative or intrepid of writers, the fulfillment of this desire is actually a rare occurrence. By a stroke of luck and hospitality, however, I feel I can for once actually speak of an experience that is indeed rare and unique.
|My awesome guide Adria in front of the Whangara Marae|
Most of this adventure I owe to my friend Adria and her family, who kindly invited me to join the family reunion festivities of her native tribe, the Ngati Porou of New Zealand's northeastern-most coast, a location made famous by the film Whale Rider, which gained international acclaim. Occasions like these are normally off limits to most non-Maori, and unless you have close friends or become family, even most New Zealanders will never have this experience. It has challenged a lot of my conceptions about not just Maori or tribal culture, but about my native European cultural traditions as well.
First of all, contrary to frequent Western belief, being Maori is not tied to ethnicity. The only requirement to be considered Maori is to be able to trace your lineage back to a Maori ancestor. Spouses and children of Maori partners are automatically Maori as they are now connected to the ever-expanding web of Maori ancestry, and are subject to the same benefits and duties any other family member would. And it's quite a sizeable family you got yourself there!
|The festivities span four generations, here are the Kaumatua|
Maori concepts of family are quite different from Western ones. Including only your close relatives under the 'family' umbrella is positively offensive to Maori sentiments. Every single member of your iwi (tribal nation) is family and treated with the same care and appreciation. To exemplify this, if any number of your tribe rocked up on your doorstep at 4 am you would be expected to give them food and a sleeping place as long as they liked to. These are essentially complete strangers (although a Maori would not see it that way), possibly linked to you only by some great-great-great grandfather you've heard a story about once in your life. While this might seem unsettling to anyone growing up in a northern culture, it creates a massive web of support and mutual assistance that spans the whole globe and has been key to the survival of Maori culture.
|Paikea, the founder of the Ngati Porou arrived to NZ on whale|
Understandably a culture with such intense ties to its members holds ancestry in high regard. While ancestors are obviously important to most cultures to some degree, Maori culture revolves around it to a measure I have not seen anywhere else. The very first thing that two newly meeting Maori will do is to trace their ancestry line back to a common junction to establish familiarity. As you can imagine, this requires solid knowledge not only of your immediate family, but also lots of distant and sometimes ancient relatives who precede your parents by many generations, all the way up to the mythical gods Tane and Tangaroa. As a consequence, remembering your ancestors is a fundamental part of Maori culture and permeates life both as casual accounts in daily life and hour-long storytelling at the big gatherings on the marae (meeting place).
|The inside of the Wharenui communal house|
In these accounts, the mundane and the mythical blend into one, and tales of grandfather's farm work are treated with the same sincerity as those of Tawhirimatea who gave Flounders and Hammerheads their shape by hitting them with a paddle. No difference is made between the living and the dead either, and Maori can be seen on the graveyard happily chatting with their dead relatives over a pint of beer. This familial web that transcends both space and time creates a sense of belonging and partnership among the Maori community that is admirable, and probably the only thing that carried it through decades of mistreatment and broken promises by the colonial government.
|Carved ancestors protect the walls of the Wharenui|
A living culture
|Part of the initial greetings queue. Yes, you have to greet everyone!|
Most New Zealanders and certainly almost all visitors experience Maori culture as entirely ceremonial in nature. Maori cultural performances abound, and Maori culture has entered the public consciousness mostly in the form of tribal tattoos and haka-dancing rugby players. While this surely helped raising awareness to an endangered culture, it belies the fact that Maori culture permeates everyday life of its members in the way they think, act or understand concepts. From the definition of family and the way elders are treated to the role of story, song and dance in the culture, Maoridom is a bona fide different way of thinking about the world, and it is a shame that it is only the most flashy parts ever reach the surface of New Zealand's cultural landscape and identity.
|Stories are told throughout the day|
Being Maori means subscribing to the familial web, and putting yourself second. It's a concept fundamentally different to Western individualism, and requires a commitment to the common good that most people growing up in western culture would not be willing to muster. Because the web stretches beyond your immediate surroundings and time, maintaining the mana, or prestige, of your family line is an important driver in Maori interactions. If you want stories about yourself be told and your family integrity upheld, you will need to leave your mark in Maori history. So strong is this system of honour, that many of the Maori I asked said they would choose their iwi's needs over their own, and Maori cultural identity over that of that of a New Zealander. That might sound intense, but you don't become a carved guardian tipuna in your family's wharenui (communal longhouse) by just sitting around. Outstanding individuals can even become legends within their life-time, and such elders are respected and cared for with unquestioning commitment, whereas they are readily signed off and sent to old people's homes in many Western countries.
Song and Dance
As most of their tradition revolves around ancestors and tribal integrity, Maori art and culture mainly seems to serve the purpose of recounting the life and deeds of its ancestors. As a result, Maori culture fosters showmanship and storytelling which makes family reunions a lot more fun. I was positively impressed by the amount of creative horsepower that was put into the remembrance of those gone before you. Songs are sung, ancient lives acted out in performances, and the many carved tipuna ancestor statues are explained. Haka, by many people perceived purely as war dances, are also a popular expression form chosen for such occasions.
In fact, Maori culture centers heavily around singing, which is used to welcome guests, express support for public speakers (if after you speak the singers are silent, you have a problem) or praise the singer's ancestral home. Each marae has its own song, extolling the beauty of its surroundings and the mana of its tribe. Considering that Maori culture is traditionally associated with cannibalism and ceaseless warfare, that's a lot of happy singing and dancing.
A difficult future
|Maori food for special occasions is cooked in a Hangi, a impromptu earth oven|
It is only due to the unyielding dedication of a few individuals and the support of their tribe that Maori culture still lives on today, and in fact experiences some kind of revival. Maori language is taught in schools, and the extensive history of the people preserved outside the oral tradition. Maori are still a far cry from being accepted as part of New Zealand's culture on an equal basis, but inroads are clearly made. My personal impression is, however, that not New Zealand's pakeha (white New Zealander) government but rather the demands of a globalized society are the biggest threat to the existence of Maori culture. As it is very much tied to the land, Maori tribes and marae cannot be formed outside the traditional locations on the New Zealand land mass. Tribe members, however, are scattered across the globe and rarely have the opportunity to visit their far-flung homeland. Many of them are already so disconnected from their identity that they cannot even trace their ancestry back to New Zealand. The Tikanga (tribal laws) are thankfully very fluid, and maybe they will allow future generations of Maori to connect with their identity outside of Ao Tearoa, so that its beauty will not be lost.
I would like to thank Adria's family, the Ngati Konohi Hapu for their hospitality, their helpful explanations and their patience with my inquisitiveness.
Whale Rider - the story of a young girl who wants to become chief of her tribe
Once were Warriors - a drama about the struggles of impoverished Maori
The Dead Lands - a pre-colonial Maori war movie, fresh from this year (2015)