New Zealand Culture

Indigenous Culture

The Maori people are the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and first arrived here in waka hourua (voyaging canoes) from their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki over 1000 years ago. Today, Maori make up over 14 percent of the population. Their language and culture has a major impact on all facets of New Zealand life.

Rich and Varied

Maori culture is a rich and varied one, and includes traditional and contemporary arts. Traditional arts such as carving, weaving, kapa haka (group performance), whaikorero (oratory) and moko (tattoo) are practised throughout the country. Practitioners following in the footsteps of their tipuna (ancestors) replicate the techniques used hundreds of years ago, yet also develop exciting new techniques and forms. Today Maori culture also includes art, film, television, poetry, theatre, and hip-hop.

Te Reo Maori — the Maori Language

The visitor to New Zealand will become immediately aware of the Maori language as the vast majority of place names are of Maori origin. At first, visitors may be puzzled by the seemingly impossible- to-pronounce names. In fact, Maori has a logical structure, and, unlike English, has very consistent rules of pronunciation.

How Do You Say Onehunga, Whangamomona, Kahikatea, and Nguru? Maori consists of five vowel sounds: a e i o u (‘a’ as in ‘car’, ‘e’ as in ‘egg’, ‘i’ like the ‘ee’ in ‘tee’, ‘u’ like an ‘o’ in ‘to’). There are eight consonants in Maori similar to those in English — ‘h’, ‘k’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘p’, ‘r’, ‘t’, and ‘w’. There are also two different consonants — ‘wh’ and ‘ng’. Many Maori pronounce the ‘wh’ sound similar to our ‘f’. The ‘ng’ is similar to our own ‘ng’ sound in a word like ‘sing’, except that in Maori, words can start with ‘ng’.

Kia ora = Gidday!

An attempt by a visitor to use Maori greetings will almost certainly elicit a delighted response from both Maori and Pakeha (European) New Zealanders.

Kia ora — Hello
Kia ora tatou — Hello everyone
Tena koe — Greetings to you (said to one person)
Tena koutou — Greeting to you all
Haere mai — Welcome
Nau mai — Welcome
Kei te pehea koe? — How’s it going?
Kei te pai — Good
Tino pai — Really good
Haere ra — Farewell
Ka kite ano — Until I see you again (Bye)
Hei konei ra — See you later

Maori Protocol

Being a tribal Polynesian people, Maori have a unique protocol. The best place to observe it is on a marae (Maori meeting grounds). Many tourist operators in New Zealand organise visits to marae.

Welcome to the Powhiri

A powhiri (formal welcome) at a marae begins with wero (challenge) A warrior from the tangata whenua (hosts) will challenge the manuhiri (guests). He may carry a spear (taiaha) then lay down a token (often a small branch) that the manuhiri will pick up to show they come in peace. Some kuia (women) from the tangata whenua (hosts) will perform a karanga (call/chant) to the manuhiri. Women from the manuhiri will then respond as they move onto the marae in front of their men.

Whaikorero — Speeches of Welcome

Once inside the wharenui (meeting house) on the marae, mihimihi (greetings) and whaikorero (speeches) are made. To reinforce the good wishes of the speeches, waiata (songs) may be sung. It is usual for the manuhiri then present a koha (gift) to the tangata whenua after greeting the hosts with a hongi — the ceremonial touching of noses. After the powhiri, kai (food) may be shared.

Stories and Legends

Maori is an oral culture rich with stories and legends. The Maori creation story describes the world being formed by the violent separation of Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, by their children. Many Maori carvings and artworks graphically depict this struggle.

Fishing Up An Island

The creation of New Zealand is described by the legend of Maui. This god was a cheeky trickster who managed, among other things, to harness the sun in order to make the days longer. However, his biggest claim to fame was his fishing up of the North Island, which is described as Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui). A look at an aerial map of the North Island will show how closely it resembles a fish. Maori believe the far north to be the tail of the fish and Wellington Harbour the mouth. Maori describe the South Island as Maui’s waka (canoe) and Stewart Island (Rakiura) as his punga (anchor).

Modern New Zealand

Today, New Zealanders are largely sophisticated and highly educated urban dwellers. Members of a unique and vibrant multicultural society, New Zealanders are embracing 21st century technology and culture in record numbers. But New Zealanders also have a background of quiet but rugged individualism, self-reliance, and a genius for invention — qualities still evident in the population today.

Unique in the World

New Zealand has a diverse population — but with some uniting features that make it unique in the world. Our relatively isolated South Pacific location and rugged landscapes still makes many New Zealanders quiet and independent, yet resourceful and self-reliant, with a famous ‘Kiwi ingenuity’.

Early Voyagers

Over four hundred years before Christopher Columbus and the rest of Europe worried about falling off the edge of the world, the first New Zealanders, the Maori, voyaged thousands of miles across the vast unknown Pacific Ocean in small ocean-going canoes. In order to reach New Zealand, these brave adventurers developed their own navigation system using the stars and the currents.

Rugged Pioneers

New Zealand’s European pioneers were also brave, rugged and independent. Before establishing farms and settlements, they had to first clear the land — a painstaking and sometimes dangerous activity. Their isolation and exposure to the elements forced these early New Zealanders to become hardy and multi-skilled. This resourcefulness and ingenuity has greatly contributed to the New Zealand character. The same qualities can be seen today in the new pioneers — a generation of young Kiwi business executives, computer software builders, film-makers, fashion designers, and sportspeople making waves around the world.

Backyard Genius

Since before Sir Ernest Rutherford ‘split’ the atom early in the twentieth century, Kiwis have been discovering and inventing things. Many of these inventions have literally been created in a backyard. While frozen meat, the Hamilton Jet boat, and the bungy jump are probably our most famous Kiwi inventions, there are many others. New Zealanders are also responsible for the tranquilliser gun, seismic ‘base’ isolators (rubber and lead blocks which minimise earthquake damage), electric fences, the fastest motorbike in the world, freezer vacuum pumps, stamp vending machines, wide-toothed shearing combs, and the electronic petrol pump — to name a few!

Outdoor People

New Zealand has a low population density and spectacular scenery. As a result, many New Zealanders have a love of their landscape and the outdoors. Hiking, mountaineering, and kayaking are enjoyed by many New Zealanders, while many more will explore their landscape with a trip to the beach or a bush walk. They are following in the footsteps of perhaps the most adventurous Kiwi, Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, in 1953.

Water Passion

With so much coastline, it is little wonder New Zealanders love the water. Since Kupe, the first explorer to reach New Zealand, made landfall in the far north of the country over a thousand years ago, New Zealanders have had a passion for ocean-going craft. New Zealanders were at the forefront of yacht design and racing during much of the 20th century, and continued their dominance into this century by winning and retaining the prestigious America’s Cup. New Zealanders have also won many Olympic medals for yachting, windsurfing, kayaking, and rowing.

Fair Go Mate

Tempering the rugged individualism of New Zealanders is a strong egalitarian streak and a sense of fair play and teamwork. This may be partly due to the co-operative ‘whanau’ (extended family) structure of Maori society, as well as the make-up of early Pakeha (Europeans) society. Many European immigrants came to New Zealand to escape the class system. A small population meant co-operation was vital for survival. The artificial class structures of ‘home’ became irrelevant in such a rugged and young country. New Zealand was also one of the earliest countries to grant women the right to vote and has a strong trade union tradition.

National Character Building

The two World Wars saw heavy casualties inflicted on the New Zealand male population. But it also saw loyalty to your friends and comrades — ‘mateship’ — become a prized social value. This quality is still seen on the sporting field today. Rugby football is the most popular spectator sport in New Zealand, and the legendary All Blacks have won the World Cup twice and been a finalist twice. Though the sport has public school beginnings in England, in New Zealand, rugby is definitely the sport of the ‘average bloke’.

Rural Economy

As the 20th century progressed, the make-up and character of the New Zealand population began to radically change. In the early part of the century, the New Zealand economy was largely dependent on agriculture and the export of primary produce. However, after the Second World War, more and more people moved to the cities, and manufacturing and tertiary industries became established.

New New Zealanders

In the 1970s, large numbers of Pacific Island immigrants settled in New Zealand, followed in the 80s and 90s by Asians, Europeans, and many others. These new arrivals contributed, along with technological and economic changes, to a totally new national identity. In the last twenty years or so, New Zealanders have embraced the global economy and the latest technology. Per head of population, New Zealanders are some of the highest mobile phone and Internet users in the world. They also read the most newspapers.

Taming the Land

Despite recent changes, New Zealand still has a sizeable rural population and farming is a major export earner. While the traditional exports of wool, meat, and dairy products are still very strong, new products, including Cervena (New Zealand venison), flowers, fruit, biotechnology, and wine are now also contributing greatly to our exports. Like the rest of the population, the farming sector have diversified and embraced technology, making New Zealand one of the most productive and efficient agricultural producers in the world.