Maori tribes today commemorate in song and dance how their ancestors came to the North Island of New Zealand in seven canoes (waka). Believed to have arrived from the Society Islands in central Polynesia during the middle of the 14th century, they escaped warfare and excessive demands for tribute. The migrants assimilated indigenous inhabitants— hunters, fishers, and gatherers of the same Polynesian stock who had arrived earlier in 950 and 1150 and named the land Aotearoa (“The Land of the Long White Cloud”) for mists visible on the mountains.
In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl drifted across the Pacific from the coast of South America on the Kon Tiki in an attempt to show that the first people to arrive might have come that way. In spite of Heyerdahl’s successful voyage, scholars believe that the original Polynesians came from the mainland of Southeast Asia. With navigation skills equaling those of the Vikings, they ventured north to Hawaii, west to Easter Island, and south to New Zealand, where they were called Moa Hunters due to the large flightless birds they found there and hunted to extinction. The Moa Hunter harpoon is similar to a prototype found in the Marquesas, whereas the minnow shank lure is a stone copy of the Polynesian pearl shell bonito lure found in other parts of Polynesia.
The Polynesian migrants of 1350 introduced an agricultural economy and competition for open fertile land suitable for cultivation to supplement the hunting with spears and snares; fishing with lines, nets, and traps; and gathering of shellfish, berries, roots, shoots, plant stem piths, and fern roots already practiced. Available protein included fish, shellfish, seals, rats, and birds. The migrants brought plants to grow for food, and several of these plants did not survive the transition from a tropical climate to a temperate one. Taro, yam, gourd, and sweet potato (kumara) did. The paper mulberry plants the migrants brought thrived only in the warmest part of North Island.
Cultivation of plants led to a more settled way of life, cooperative work, and a denser population. Men felled trees; cleared ground; planted; trapped rats; dug roots; fished; hollowed trees for canoes; performed rites; carved bones for fishhooks, ornaments, and spearheads; tattooed faces and bodies of men as well as ankles, arms, lips, and chins of women. They also made adzes of greenstone jade and flake knives of obsidian along with wedges, skids, lifting tackles, fire ploughs, and cord drills for tools. Women gathered; weeded; wove; collected firewood; carried water; cooked; and plaited flax for clothes, cords, baskets, and rain capes. Slaves taken captive did undesirable jobs. Sea and agricultural products were exchanged for forest products, and greenstone from the South Island was traded for finished goods from the North Island.
As life became more comfortable, carving and other decorative arts began to include elaborately decorated cloaks for persons of rank, prows of canoes, gateposts of villages (pas), and fertility symbols (tikis). A beautifully carved war canoe could add greatly to a tribe’s spiritual force and status (mana), an attribute that could be inherited or acquired.
The greatest change in Maori culture after the arrival of the canoes in 1350 was the progression from a peaceful society toward a warlike one as population and land pressures increased. The earlier Polynesian culture had had no weapons of war or fortifications of any kind. Once the migrants of 1350 arrived, Maori developed an extensive array of palisade forts and wood, bone, and stone clubs. People migrated from open unfortified settlements (kainga), consisting of several scattered houses with a cooking shelter, earth oven, and roofed storage pit, to fortified enclosures (pa) in which houses were crowded together. Pa were built on terraced hilltops with concentric walls and elaborate ditches, fighting platforms, and earthworks to withstand spears.
The first contact with Europeans occurred in 1769 when Captain James Cook visited the 200,000 to 250,000 Maori of New Zealand. The pig and the potato, his gifts, became currency for barter when Maori wanted steel tools, blankets, and muskets from European traders and unfriendly whalers and sealers during the 1790s. Maori protected missionaries, who arrived in 1814, as well as ex-convicts and ship deserters because they were intermediaries when chiefs wanted to trade with visitors.
Cultural change became rapid after 1820 when young men who had worked on ships returned after having acquired new possessions and diseases. The status they had achieved challenged the hereditary privilege of chiefs. In addition, large numbers of Europeans and Australians who began to arrive by the 1830s had no regard for the laws of sacredness (tapu). Furthermore, the priestly tohunga could not compete with the status of teachers trained by missionaries. Maori questioned whether traditional beliefs were valid. The power of chiefs, those descended from the oldest males of each generate n with status, was further undermined when missionaries insisted that they put aside wives and free slaves as prerequisites for baptism.
With the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 by 500 indigenous chiefs, the Maori gave sovereignty to the British in exchange for recognition and protection. Rapid enculturation followed. From 1860 to 1865, Maori battled with the government of New Zealand over questions of land rights and sovereignty. Britain ultimately confiscated 3 million acres of Maori land. Intertribal warfare was more deadly than before due to muskets that Maori had acquired, and their population fell to 42,000 by 1896.
By 1900, the population began to increase as Maori took a more active role in society, receiving permanent seats in the national legislature. Most discriminatory laws were repealed. Health, housing, and education policies were reformed. Arts and crafts were revived by 1940. Since the 1960s, Maori have struggled valiantly to maintain a distinct culture and identity as urban dwellers. In 1995, the queen apologized for “wrongful and unjust” confiscation of their lands and made reparation. Legally recognized as a minority, Maori receive special legal and economic considerations. Traditionally, the nuclear family (whanau)of a descent group possessed rights to resources and land that could be passed to members’ children. Nonmembers had to seek permission of an entire descent group. Conquest was a legitimate way of gaining access to food or land, equal to ancestral right or prior discovery. Even though loss of life was probably negligible from primitive weapons in battles shortened by the demands of the growing season, constant threat of attack made it important to own land communally. Local border disputes continued from the middle of the 16th century.
Battles to avenge insults or extract retribution became one of the best ways for a tribe to promote its mana. War had its own worship, sacrifice, ritual, dance, and art forms. Losers often became slaves or food; cooking and eating an enemy delivered the ultimate insult.
A person’s brothers and maternal and paternal cousins all were called “brothers.” A person’s sisters and cousins all were called “sisters.” Children were desired, and adoption was frequent. Children were educated by relatives, particularly grandparents, with songs, stories, and competitive games to imitate adult activities. A Maori child had as many mothers as his or her biological parents had sisters. An extended family, the basic social unit, consisted of an elder, his wife, their unmarried children, and their married sons and their families. Divorce was commonplace and required no more than a simple agreement by two partners to end the marriage. Population control was accomplished by means of abortion, infanticide, and postpartum sexual abstinence.
The largest kin groups were 50 independent political tribes (iwi) occupying particular territories. Iwi whose ancestors arrived in the same canoe felt obligated to help one another. Marriage partners, chosen by senior members of the whanau, allowed new relations to be established with other kin groups and brought new members into the subtribes (hapu) in each iwi. Aristocrats such as chiefs usually betrothed their children as infants. Aristocratic females brought gifts of land and slaves to marriage. Marriages were monogamous, but chiefs took several wives. Marriages were usually between members of the same tribe, frequently between members of the same hapu, but never between first and second cousins. Commoners exchanged gifts when they married. Rank determined individual and group tapu and mana.
Iwi and hapu members, bilaterally descended from a founding ancestor, owned discrete territory, but the hapu determined land use. Individuals’ bilateral descent allowed them to affiliate with more than one hapu if they desired. A household officially affiliated with a hapu by means of genealogical link and participation in daily life of the group. Members could leave an overgrown hapu and start another one led by their chief’s sons or brothers.
In a culture where true money did not exist and goods and services were compensated through gift giving, a man of high status who provided food and gift items during times of feasting (hakari) would greatly enhance his mana even though he and his family might have few possessions left to them afterward. Craftsmen were descended from chiefly lines in traditional society; each paid homage to the god of his occupation and was initiated through a series of rituals into his craft. Tattoo artists, raft and canoe builders, house builders, and carvers all were classified as tohunga, a title that conveyed the qualities of sacredness associated with “priest.” Rangatira, or chiefs of the hapu, were often trained priests. They were beneath ariki, or chiefs of the most senior hapu and supreme chiefs of the iwi. Commoners (tutua) were beneath priests.
Tohanga communicated with a pantheon of gods and repeated rituals associated with offering. They also maintained history, genealogy, stories, and songs by committing them to memory in the absence of written language. In this way, tohanga defined ancestral and family ties and each person’s place in the tribe.
A memorial to ancestors was the or ancestral meetinghouse (whare hui), the center of community life. The marae was an open assembly space of sacred ground in front of it. When someone died, the body would lie in state on the marae for days. Farewell speeches full of mythological allusions and figures of speech could be heard along with high-pitched wailing by women. Then the body was wrapped in mats and placed in a cave or tree. The body was removed 1 or 2 years later so that bones could be cleaned, painted, and carried between villages for a second time of mourning before final burial in a sacred place.
Visitors to the marae brought with them memories of their dead. Maori saw themselves not as individuals but as part of the collective knowledge and experience of ancestors. An elaborate ritual in Maori language awaited visitors. Women called out a greeting that could include a ceremonial challenge. After a visitor replied, welcoming speeches were given, followed by song. Once ancestors had been praised and lineages established, the tapu of visitors was lifted. Hosts and visitors could exchange handshakes and pressing of noses (hangi). Before leaving, visitors made farewell speeches in the form of thanks and prayer.
Any business not completed on the marae before nightfall was continued inside the meetinghouse, a structure commemorating a well-known ancestor. The ridgepole inside symbolized his backbone, and the rafters symbolized his ribs. Carved posts on walls represented gods, legendary figures, cultural heroes, and other famous ancestors. Many new maraes today invite city-born children to learn Maori language and culture and to test their ideas against the wisdom of their elders. Voluntary associations and benevolent societies also enable Maori urban dwellers to maintain a distinct culture and identity as they champion their rights.
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- Neich, R. (2001). Carved histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai woodcarving. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.