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Maori Culture
This section of the site currently covers a few topics key to understanding the Maori culture.


Maoris can all trace their descent back to the arrival of the first waka from Hawaiki. The word "waka" can mean "canoe" or "descendants from a canoe" depending on context. The settlers from each waka separated into "iwi" (tribes), being descended from each individual crew member. As the numbers grew and they spread out over the land a complex social structure developed with iwi (tribes) hapu (sub-tribes) and whanau (extended family units) still able to trace their ancestry right back to the crew members of the original seven canoes.

It is clear that genealogy has always been of paramount importance to the Maori as it delineated their origins right back to the original waka. Ultimately status and prestige to the Maori depended on their origins and furthermore they can call on their ancestors to provide spiritual strength and guidance. Maori genealogy is described using the term "Whakapapa". "Papa" is a reference to something broad and flat so "Whakapapa" means taking place in layers, which is the way the various orders of genealogies are seen according to the Maori. Whakapapa is strictly the actual recital of genealogy, and a genealogical stave is used when the whakapapa recital is taking place. These are wooden sticks, called "whakapapa rakau", with knobs running down the shaft. The knobs on the genealogical stave serve to help the memory when a person is reciting the whakapapa - the knobs representing the different ancestry. A genealogical stave may count up to 18 successive generations in its carvings, and most original whakapapa rakau averaged over a meter in length. The whakapapa (family tree) is also often retold in intricate carvings on the Whare (the meeting house on the Marae) paying tribute to the ancestors.

Tapu and Noa

It is necessary to have some understanding of Maori culture, ritual and protocols to avoid personal embarrassment or even severe insult to one's Maori hosts especially if one visits a Marae. This includes an understanding of tapu and noa, perhaps some of the most complex of Maori concepts for a Pakeha to understand.

Tapu was one of the strongest forces in Maori life and had numerous meanings and references. Tapu can be interpreted as "sacred", and contains a strong imposition of rules and prohibitions. A person, object or place, which is tapu, may not be touched or even in some cases approached. For example, in earlier times, tribal members of a higher rank would not touch objects which belonged to members of a lower rank. Similarly, persons of a lower rank could not touch the belongings of a highborn person. Certain objects were particularly tapu, so much so that it was a dangerous act to even touch them, apart from suitably qualified priests. A breach of "tapu" could incur the wrath of the Gods and death was the penalty for serious infringements of Tapu. Noa, on the other hand, is the opposite to tapu and includes the concept of common. Noa also has the concept of a blessing in that it can lift the rules and prohibitions of tapu.

Many of the problems during the first visits of Europeans come down to a lack of understanding of matters of tapu, ceremony and protocol leading to many deaths on both sides. Tapu and noa remain part of Maori culture today, although people are not subject to the same tapu constraints as in previous times. Tapu observances are still very much in evidence, especially on the Marae and in the Whare.


It is worth making the point that it is difficult to do justice to Maori Culture without being fluent in the language and having been immersed in the culture. There are words and concepts which have no direct translation and are difficult or, arguably, impossible to grasp. For example, in the early days, sovereignty was a concept without any counterpart in the Maori language or culture and the Maori concepts of Tapu and Noa are difficult for many Pakeha to understand even today. If I have inadvertently, or through ignorance, made errors or omissions in any of my sections covering Maori culture, legends and protocol please let me know - any corrections, comments and input will be very welcome.

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