The Maori are the indigenous people – the Tangata Whenua - of Aotearoa-New Zealand, but they are not originally native to the country – they travelled from home islands known in the oral tradition of the Maori as Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa and Hawaiki-pamamao. Although Haiwaiki is not known now, it is thought to be in Polynesia, an idea upheld by the fact that the Maori language is closest in structure to the language of Rapanui (Easter Island). The settlement of New Zealand by Maori took place in several waves between 950 – 1130 AD.

As an important aside, there is no ‘S’ in Te Reo Maori – the language of the Maori – and it is considered insensitive and bad-mannered to pluralise Maori words by adding an ‘s’ – therefore “Maori people” or simply “Maori” should be used, rather than “Maoris”.

Until the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century, Maori history was preserved through an oral, tradition, but this doesn’t mean that it was in any way sketchy or lacking in cultural depth.

The Maori were a warlike people, and, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, they had a history of tribal conflict. This involved a level of cannibalism – a ritual thing, in which the consumption of an enemy meant taking his mana (a complex word tied up with honour, prestige and so on) into oneself. Maori built fortified pa to protect themselves – these structures were the forerunners of modern trench warfare.

Although Abel Tasman “discovered” New Zealand in 1642, it was not until after James Cook visited the country that mass settlement from Europe (primarily the UK) started at the end of the 18th century with whalers. The first coming of Europeans did little to unite the Maori – at first they were far more interested in the weapons the new settlers brought with them as a more effective means of wiping out their enemies.

In 1840 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This document made New Zealand a British Colony, and the Maori British citizens, but the terms have been hotly disputed since.

However, unscrupulous dealings between the British settlers and various Maori did unite many of the tribes of the late 19th century, leading to the Land Wars, in which the Maori were comprehensively beaten – but only because of vastly superior numbers and armaments on the side of the British.

At the end of these wars, a policy of integration was established, with English as the primary language. However, compared with other indigenous peoples, the Maori suffered no great atrocities at the hands of the Europeans, and there has been relatively little racial conflict in New Zealand’s history. Intermarriage between Maori and Pakeha is accepted and unremarkable, and of recent years there has been a renaissance of bi-culturalism, with a revival in Te Reo, Kapa haka cultural groups, traditional crafts and Maori-specific broadcasting. In addition, there is an ongoing process of hearing and settling claims under the Treaty of Waitangi, in an effort to reverse past injustices.


Genealogy –Whakapapa – is at the centre of Maori culture. This gives each person a sense of where they belong in the overall scheme of things. Maori are divided into Iwi (tribes) with each Iwi being made up of various Hapu (subtribes), which are, in turn made up of several Whanau (families – usually refers to the extended, not the immediate, family). Ultimately Maori can trace their genealogy back to one of the great canoes – the Waka – with which the islands were settled.

The Whanau, not the individual, is the central cultural unit for Maori. Children may be as likely to be raised by grandparents, aunts uncles or cousins as parents, depending on the family situation. Informal adoption is common, for a whole variety of reasons. Whanau may often support individuals at formal occasions like interviews, or when going to speak to lawyers or government representatives. As in many primarily ancestor based cultures, family events are strongly emphasised and funerals or Tangi are major gatherings, that follow a full ritual, and last thee days.

Iwi business is primarily carried out through hui, or meetings, which take place on a tribal marae. Protocol is strict, beginning with Te Powhiri, a welcoming ceremony, and continue in a formalised manner.

As far as religion is concerned, most Maori are Christian – they seem to have managed to develop a faith that complements, rather than obliterates, their own creation stories and racial mythology.

Song, dance and crafts such as carving and weaving are all integral parts of Maori culture, with the whare (meeting houses) on the marae being decorated with symbolic carvings and woven panels which outline the whakapapa of the local inhabitants.


The spelling of Maori words is entirely European generated, since there was no written tradition prior to British settlement.

The language consists of five vowels:

A – pronounced “ah” as in lava
E – pronounced as in the word pet
I – pronounced “ee” as in the ie in families
O – pronounced “or”
U – pronounced “oo” as in boo!

A macron, or line, above a vowel indicates that it is double length, but does not change the base pronunciation. (macrons are often rendered as umlauts in character sets which don’t contain the macron accent, alternatively, it is common to simply double the macronised letter.). The word Maori itself is, strictly, macronised as Mäori, although this convention is not always followed. Diphthongs don’t exist per se, as every letter in a Maori word should be pronounced, but elision of the sounds often creates an effective diphthong – thus “ai” (ah-ee) tends to sound like eye.

There are eight single consonants:


These are all pronounced as they would be in normal English usage.

There are two consonant digraphs:

NG – pronounced as in the word song.
WH – generally pronounced roughly as ‘f’ or “ph”, occasionally “hw”, “w” or “h” (Why the settlers came up with that grouping I don’t know, other than trying to reconcile the varying pronunciations of common words, perhaps)

Various stress rules are supposed to exist, but native speakers of the language have told me that in fact Maori contains no stresses on syllables.

Many Maori words are compounded so breaking them into constituent parts can help in translation, for example “wai” is usually “water”, “nui” = large, “Roto”= lake and so on. However this isn’t universal, so you can’t rely on it 100% - after all, a “carpet” isn’t an animal who lives in a motor vehicle.

Statistics and other information

Controversy has always surrounded the fate of the Moriori, who settled the South Island and the Chatham Islands concurrently with the Maori. Popular history says that this group was wiped out by the Maori – but it’s by no means definite that the Moriori were a separate and distinct racial group. It seems unlikely that any definitive answer to this question will ever be forthcoming.

According to the 1996 census, the Maori population is in excess of 500,000 -- around 15 percent of the population of New Zealand -- and more than 95% of Maori live in the North Island. Population centres are found especially in Auckland and North, on the Coromandel Peninsular, and on the East Cape and Gisborne. However, it should be noted that the figure of 500,000 consists of people who identify themselves as Maori – that is, those with a significant proportion of Maori antecedants -- the extent of intermarriage between the Tangata Whenua and Pakeha has been such that there are very few pure-blooded Maori.

Tattooing of the face with traditional designs - te moko is enjoying a new popularity amongst Maori youth, and although, originally, moko were reserved for the highborn, it is now a more universal practice. Tattoos of all kinds - especially arm-bands - are a much larger part of New Zealand culture as a whole than they are elsewhere in the world, largely because of the Maori influence.

Maori today are probably not as disadvantaged from living in a primarily Caucasian country as many minority groups are, but even so, they are under-represented in senior jobs, education in Maori-intensive areas tends to be less extensive, and there are disproportionately high numbers of Maori in jails and on benefits. Government policies and schemes exist to attempt to redress this, but the growing global awareness of issues surrounding ethnic minorities means that there has been a much greater focus on injustice and racial conflict over the last fifteen years than there was before – extremists on both sides are more vocal, but it’s hard to determine whether the conflict that underlies the reportage is worse, or simply more visible. Certainly, cultural sensitivity and bi-culturalism plays an increasingly large part in New Zealand politics.