Study Abroad

10 Things to Know about New Zealand Māori Culture Before Studying Abroad

If you're planning to study abroad in New Zealand, learning about Māori culture will help you better understand your host country.

It is often said that the best way to understand a new country is by getting to know its people. In New Zealand, this rings especially true, and the best place for you to start is by learning more about some of the country’s longest inhabitants, the Māori.

When researching any new culture, it’s important to be respectful and open-minded. To help you become a more courteous and informed traveler, we’ve compiled a list of 10 things you should know about Māori culture before studying abroad in New Zealand.

1. Māori have lived in Aotearoa for around 1,000 years

A bird's eye view of mountains and lakes in New Zealand.

It is believed that the ancestors of modern Māori landed in New Zealand, known as Aotearoa, between 1200 and 1300 AD. Once British colonists began arriving in the 1830s, wars broke out with Māori in attempts to seize land for settlements.

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, written in both English and te reo Māori, was signed by the British Crown and 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs). The treaty was supposed to protect Māori interests, sovereignty, and land while controlling unruly British subjects.

However, the New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 was at odds with this. It allowed the seizure of Māori land from any iwi (tribe) deemed rebellious against the Crown. Due to this, massive land seizures occurred on both the North and South Islands. Essentially, the entire South Island was seized by the Crown in exchange for "benefits" to Māori which were never upheld.

In 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal was established to help Māori tribes formally address historical wrongs. Some land deals have been negotiated since then but there is still work to be done. Today, several political parties, including Te Pāti Māori (Māori Party), are pushing for the return of all stolen Māori land.

2. Te reo Māori is one of the three official languages of New Zealand

New Zealand has three official languages: English, New Zealand Sign Language, and te reo Māori which became an official language in 1987. As of 2023, there is a push to make all road signs bilingual.

Every year during the third week in September, the country hosts Māori Language Week. The tradition began in 1975 and has focused on promoting the revival and acceptance of te reo Māori. Currently, New Zealand has several language schools teaching the language as well as national TV and radio stations completely in te reo Māori.

3. Visiting a marae is a great way to experience Māori culture

New Zealand Maori Culture - Marae

A marae is a sacred Māori meeting ground belonging to an iwi (tribe), hapū (sub-tribe), or whānau (family). It’s made up of a meeting house, an open space in the front, a toilet/shower block, and a dining hall.

Māori don’t live in a marae, instead, they come together to stay here for important events like birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Life during these times is very communal with everyone sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the meeting house and eating communal meals.

If you’re interested in going to a marae, you can’t just show up. You must be invited and participate in a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony). Someone who has never stepped inside a marae is considered waewae tapu, which means sacred feet. The welcoming ceremony removes the sacredness and allows the visitor to enter and participate in communal activities.

4. Tikanga are important for everyone

Tikanga are traditional Māori rules of conduct and respect that are observed across NZ. Respect for yourself and others is a foundation of their culture. Some of these rules include:

  • Removing shoes before entering a home or marae
  • Treating the head as sacred (tapu): don’t touch someone’s head unless invited, don’t pass food over other people’s heads, don’t put your hat on the table, and don’t sit on pillows
  • Avoiding stepping over someone who is sitting on the floor
  • Waiting to enter and/or walk across a room until someone in authority is done speaking
  • Don't sit or lean on tables

Observing these customary practices will help you avoid causing offense.

5. Handshakes are not the traditional form of greeting

While it may be impulsive to extend your hand and go for a firm handshake when approaching a new acquaintance, this is not how Māori say hello.

Instead, they use a much warmer and personal form of salutation known as the hongi (not to be confused with the hangi method of cooking). Specifically, the hongi entails two individuals pressing their noses and foreheads up against one another and sharing the breath of life together. It is meant to symbolize the unification of both souls.

6. Haka is more than one dance

If you have ever heard of the haka, you likely associate it with the All Blacks rugby team’s pre-match ritual. However, this dance is only one of many.

Haka is a name for the overall style of dance that can be done in times of war or peace. It is performed by a group that incorporates chanting, stomping, and expressive facial and body gestures. The movement of the haka accentuates the story told through the chants.

The most famous haka is Ka Mate which was composed by the Māori chief Te Rauparaha sometime around 1820. This is the haka most commonly performed by the All Blacks.

Source: All Blacks on YouTube

7. The islands are steeped in traditional folklore and mythology

Māori folklore and mythology are preserved through oral tradition and describe the origins of the Earth and humanity as well as the creation of the North and South islands of Aotearoa New Zealand.

According to legend, the clever and mischievous demigod Māui hid on his brothers’ fishing boat after they tried to leave him behind. Once out at sea, he revealed himself. Casting his line, he soon realized what he was reeling in was huge. What eventually emerged from the water wasn’t a fish but a piece of land. That land mass became the North Island.

Te Waka a Māui is the Māori name for the South Island and translates to Māui’s canoe. It’s said to be the canoe that Māui and his four brothers fished from the day they reeled in the North Island.

8. Māori have a strong arts tradition

A Maori sculpture stands near a green hill.

Art, music, and dance are important aspects of Māori culture. Some of the most prominent arts traditions include:

  • Whakairo (carving)
  • Raranga (weaving)
  • Tā moko (tattooing)

Many of the arts are taught by individuals who have been trained by masters generations before them, ensuring ancient techniques are passed down and preserved.

Māori art can be viewed at institutions such as Te Puia, The New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute, Te Papa, and the Auckland Museum.

9. No two Māori tattoos are the same

Traditional tattoos, known as tā moko, hold a special place in Māori culture. Although universal designs exist, no two tattoos are the same because they reflect a person’s ancestry and identity.

Because the head is considered sacred, facial tattoos are especially significant and reflect nobility and status. Men receive mataora on their faces while women receive moko kauae on their lips and chins. In the past, tā moko were carved into the skin with chisel blades and a mallet. Today, tā moko artists use both the traditional method and modern tattoo needles.

10. Hāngi is about food, friends, and family

Hangi food being prepared underground.

The Māori use a unique culinary technique known as hāngi, where food is cooked underground.

The hole where hāngi is cooked is typically lined with hot rocks, aluminum foil, or wire baskets. Food cooked through the hāngi method often includes fish and chicken, as well as some vegetables. Fried bread may also be served.

While hāngi may sound like an easy method of cooking, it is actually a long and strenuous process. For the Māori, it is not just about the food: the community aspect means people can converge to catch up and enjoy each other’s company for long periods of time.

Embrace Māori culture during your NZ study abroad

You’ve learned about some interesting things about Māori culture, but don’t just take it from us. During your study abroad in New Zealand, seek out opportunities to get to know Māori and to learn first-hand about their beliefs, heritage, and history. With an open mind and heart, you can begin to fully embrace Aotearoa’s first peoples.

Read more: BIPOC Guide to Studying in New Zealand