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Māori people, history and culture: all about the first New Zealanders

by Pilar Dujan | February 19, 2024
Learn about the Maori of New Zealand here

New Zealand is a fantastic country with no limit of things to do in it. The beaches in New Zealand are some of the best, their cities are modern and safe and the other natural landscapes of the islands have no comparison. It’s always a great choice to travel to New Zealand!

But first, you need to learn about the country’s past so you can appreciate its future. Prepare to discover everything about Māori, their standing in present-day New Zealand, their culture and art forms (and yes, also about the notorious haka). 

What is Maori? 

The Māori were the first settlers of New Zealand, which they call Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu in Māori language. 

Māori people are Polynesian. They migrated in waves mainly to the North Island between 1320 and 1350 CE, in a process that started in modern-day Taiwan. This originated new settlements in New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Easter Island and Hawaii. 

Māori believe that the first migrants traveled to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the mythical homeland of the Polynesian, now associated with Tahiti. But New Zealand is a mythical land in itself for Māori people, as they have their own explanation for the origins of the two islands. 

According to Māori culture, the North Island was fished out of the sea by the demigod Māui while out one night with his four brothers. You may remember Maui from a little movie called Moana, which is the Hawaiian and Māori word for “ocean”. 

The South Island was the canoe (waka) Maui and his brothers used, with each part of the waka representing different areas of the island. 

Māori represent about 15% of the country’s population. They are legally recognized as tangata whenua, which means “people of the land”. This is a sign of the strong ties the Māori have with the lands they inhabit, which has impacted their relationship with the colonial and independent New Zealand governments. 

Maori canoes

Relationship between Māori and Pākehā

Māori people settled in the North Island in the 14th century. They lived surrounded by their hapū, the primary political organization unit. They had their own chief, separate from the iwi (tribe) to which they belonged. They settled in pā, fortified villages built on hills. 

That was the status of Māori living when the first Europeans (Pākehā) arrived. They came in two separate instances, one led by the Dutch Abel Tasman (1642) and the other by English Captain James Cook (1770). Although Tasman was the first to arrive, he had conflicts with Māori and was gone in a matter of days. 

James Cook had a Māori on board, Tupaia, who helped him become the first European to communicate with Māori chiefs successfully. Tupaia was also a very capable navigator who had vast knowledge of the location and names of the islands neighboring New Zealand, greatly increasing his usefulness in the mission. Even though he got along with Maori people in New Zealand, James Cook did have issues with another Polynesian civilization: he was killed by the locals in Hawaii.

The shipwreck of the vessel Captain Cook used to sail to New Zealand for the first time, the HMS Endeavour, may have been found off the coast of Rhode Island in the US, with final conclusions about the finding expected for 2024. 

Europeans began to settle in the islands in the early 1800s. In 1840 the British signed a treaty with several Māori chiefs, the founding document known as the Treaty of Waitangi. The date in which the document was signed is a national holiday in New Zealand to this day (February 6th, celebrated as Waitangi Day). 

In the Treaty of Waitangi the British Crown officially established their sovereignty over Māori and Pākehā, while recognizing Māori ownership of their lands and granting them British citizenship. However, the Treaty of Waitangi gave place to new conflicts between Māori and the European settlers, particularly about the subject of British sovereignty.

This gave way to the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872). Most of the casualties of the war were Māori. However, their greatest loss was of land. This was one of the real reasons for the wars: the Pākehā wanted to expand their territory, and often did it by wrongly or unfairly taking Māori lands in violation of the treaty, which was declared null in 1877. 

The land conflicts between the Crown and Māori continued after the war. Māori started to claim that they were owed reparations for the confiscation or unlawful purchase of their ancestral lands, and the courts agreed. The settlements amount to millions of dollars to this day, although they’re still cause for contention amongst Māori and Pākehā. 

Māori have representation in present-day New Zealand politics, and some world-renowned artists of Māori descent are helping bring their culture to the forefront. Examples include the Academy Award winner Taika Waititi and Game of Thrones actress Keisha Castle-Hughes.

Maori rock carving of a face in Lake Taupo

Understanding Māori culture

Key concepts: Tapu, noa and mana

The Māori worldview (Te Ao Māori) stated that the natural and supernatural coexisted in one world. They didn’t even have a word for “religion” when the first Europeans arrived as the concept didn’t exist. They ended up using the term Whakapono, a word that also means trust and faith. 

Māori culture is best explained through the key concepts of tapu, noa and mana

  • Tapu: this concept represents sacredness or being special, and it restricts human behavior. All people, places and things can be tapu, and all tapu things or beings need to be separated from the noa. It’s inherited from the parents, ancestors and from the gods. 
  • Noa: it’s the antithesis of tapu. It means normal, ordinary. Māori priests (tohunga, which can also mean “expert in a field”) performed ceremonies to remove tapu from people or objects so they could be unrestricted. 
  • Mana: this concept symbolizes authority and prestige, and it can be obtained in many different ways (by birth, demonstrating power or authority, winning a dispute, etc.). Māori believed that first-born children and tohunga had more mana than others and had a special standing in Māori culture. Mana can also be lost if someone is defeated in combat or is humiliated, for example. In fact, this has been pointed out as one of the causes of one of the worst encounters between Māori and Pākehā: the Boyd Massacre

What is the Maori language?

The Māori language, Te Reo Maori or Te Reo (“the language”), is one of the official languages of New Zealand alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language. 

The use of Te Reo had fallen into disuse because of the forced assimilation of Māori culture with Pakeha or European culture. However, in the 1960s a revival campaign started to bring Māori culture back to its former importance, with the creation of many Te Reo schools and media stations to help protect the language.

Now, about 4% of New Zealand’s population speaks Te Reo Māori. The common Māori greeting kia ora, which wishes the essence of life upon the other person and is a synonym of “hello”, is widely used even outside of Māori circles. 

Te Reo shares many similarities to the other Polynesian languages developed after the great migration. For example, the word Maori itself (meaning normal or ordinary) appears with slight differences in other Polynesian cultures: it’s Maohi in Tahiti and Maoli in Hawaii, to name a few.

Here are some common phrases you can learn to communicate respectfully with Māori in their own language, as well as a pronunciation guide.


Maori pounamu carving

Pounamu is a green stone found exclusively in New Zealand. It comes from riverbeds and boulders in the South Island, particularly in the West Coast. 

Pounamu is essential to Māori culture: they made intricate carvings out of pounamu to create fish hooks, ornaments, pendants, knives, chisels, spear points and more.

Māori placed such importance in the powers of pounamu that they even named the South Island in its honor: Te-Wai-Pounamu (“the waters of greenstone”). 

Māori dance: What is the Maori Haka?

Maori men doing the Maori haka

Māori Haka is the famous group war dance or challenge. It’s a display of a tribe’s strength and pride. However, it wasn’t only used to prepare for battle: it was part of the encounter customs in general, even if the two groups met in peace. 

Contrary to popular belief, the haka isn’t just performed by men. Although it became a global phenomenon thanks to the male New Zealand rugby team (the feared All Blacks), the female team (the Black Ferns) has their own haka. It’s called Ko Uhia Mai (Let It Be Known) and it’s just as impressive as the All Blacks’ Ka Mate.

Haka is still being performed today for special ceremonies and celebrations like a graduation or a funeral. You can learn more about kapa haka (Māori performing arts) here.

The importance of the Māori face tattoo

Maori woman with a Maori face tattoo

Māori believe that the head is the most sacred part of the human body, you’re not allowed to touch another person’s head without their permission or lie on a pillow used for the head. 

This is the reason why the famous Māori face tattoo (Tā moko) is done on this specific part of the body: it makes it more special. They have intricate designs, which represent the person’s history and family. 

These tattoos for men are called Mataora, they are done in the face and they represent nobility. The women receive Moko kauae and they’re done on the lips and chin. The Māori face tattoo for women is a symbol of their standing within their community. 

This ritual tattoo is still being performed, although now it’s usually done using the modern tattoo methods (a needle and a tattooing machine). However, some still do it in the traditional manner (chisel blades dipped in black pigment). 

Although they also tattoo other parts of their bodies, the most important is the Māori face tattoo.