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Culture of Aotearoa (New Zealand)

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Culture of Aotearoa

  1. Overview

    Kia Ora…and welcome to — the Polynesian Cultural Center’s islands of Aotearoa, or the “Land of the Long White Cloud” as the New Zealand Maori call their homeland of the past 1,000 years. Aotearoa forms the southwestern apex of the Polynesian
    Triangle and is the only part of Polynesia to experience four seasons. Consequently, you’ll notice the Maori — whose name means the “true people” — created significantly different housing and lifestyles than their Polynesian cousins in the
    tropical islands. Oh, and yes, the appropriate response to a Maori greeting, which means “good health,” is also Kia Ora.

  2. Location

    New Zealand is located approximately 4,000 miles southwest of Hawai’i.

  3. Geography

    New Zealand consists of two main islands – North Island, with its capital at Wellington, and Auckland as major urban centers; and South Island, as well as several other smaller island groups, such as the Chathams and Kermadecs. The spectacular
    scenery of both major islands has recently been featured in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy The land mass totals approximately 270,000 sq. km. – about the size of Japan or the state of Colorado.

  4. Population

    Approximately 4 million people live in New Zealand,about 10-10%of whom are of Maori heritage – making them one of the largest groups of Polynesians today. Another 4% of the population has immigrated there from various other Pacific Islands,
    especially Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau Islands. Auckland is generally considered the largest Polynesian city in the world.

  5. History and Discovery

    Dutch explorer Abel Tasman saw and sailed near New Zealand in 1642, but significant European contact probably started with Captain Cook’s three voyages to the country from 1769-79. With the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand became
    a British colony in 1840.

    Even though New Zealand became an independent member of the British Commonwealth almost a century ago, all government functions reflect the strong British influence, and many people say “Kiwis,” as New Zealanders are nicknamed, speak with a
    British accent. They, of course, insist that it’s a New Zealand accent.

  6. Languages

    English and Maori are the official languages. Maori is a major Polynesian language, and as such, is similar to Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, and other island languages, with which it shares many words that are identical or similar in sound and
    meanings. The Maori have made a conscientious effort over the past several decades to reinforce teaching their language to children – a preschool model of which has also been instituted in Hawai’i.

  7. Village Life

    Over the centuries, Maori intertribal warfare became relatively common, so their pa or villages were traditionally fortified with wooden stake fences completely surrounding the perimeter for security. Many villages actually had three such
    fences arranged concentrically, with deep ditches dug in between them. Gateways into the pa in those times, unlike modern ones such as at the Polynesian Cultural Center, were usually narrow and short, allowing at most two people to squeeze
    through at one time.

    Watchtowers or pharaoh were built at intervals to protect the village. They were manned 24-hours per day. A pa was usually situated on top of a hill so the extra height of a tower could allow a sentry to see for miles around the village on all
    sides. If strangers were seen approaching, the man in the watch tower would blow a large wooden trumpet to warn the people in the village. Then a scout, sometimes two or three, would be sent to the gate to ascertain if the strangers came in
    peace or war.

    To determine the intent, the scout would go through a wero or challenge. After grimacing fiercely and performing menacing postures, the scout would place a small ceremonial token such as a carved stick or leaves on the ground before the
    visitor. If the visitor accepted and held the token in his hand or aloft, it signified he came in peace. In such cases, the scout would signify the visitor could enter by slapping his thigh. Strict Maori protocol followed, consisting of
    speeches, singing, feasting and entertainment. If the token was refused, it meant a declaration of war.

    Whare Runanga or Meeting House, or House of Learning

    The whare runanga or Maori meeting houses is the focal point of all Maori cultural and tribal activities to this very day. It is the place where tribes and subtribes observe traditional customs, ceremonies and events. All Maori whare runanga
    are considered sacred, and as such, have names that are historically significant. People traditionally remove their shoes before entering.

    For events that last longer than a day, tribe members and guests will stay overnight in the meeting house; but according to ancient traditions, food must be eaten in the whare kai (eating house): All modern whare runanga in New Zealand have a
    separate kitchen and dining facility.

    When the decision was made to build the Polynesian Cultural Center in the early 1960s, Maori tribal elders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which established the Center in 1963, agreed to pattern the meeting
    house in Laie after its namesake in Nuhaka, New Zealand.

    Master carvers, artisans and their apprentices fabricated all the significant elements in New Zealand, then shipped them to Hawai’i where the Polynesian Cultural Center’s meeting house was constructed piece by piece. At the time, it was the
    only Maori meeting house to be built outside of New Zealand; and it is still the site where Maori at the Polynesian Cultural Center greet dignitaries and traveling parties from New Zealand.

    The architecture and design elements of a meeting house are filled with symbolism: The house itself represents the body of a man, his head directly underneath the tekoteko. The first rafter represents his extended arms with his fingers spread
    out at the ends. The rafters inside the building are his rib cage. Thus, the very common Maori custom of speaking to a building as a person and giving it a personal name makes sense.

    All traditional Maori buildings were made from the natural materials of the land, including walls and roofs covered with bark and the split trunks of the punga fern — which may grow up to 30 feet high in New Zealand. Although the Polynesian
    Cultural Center’s meeting house is large, still larger ones exist in New Zealand: Their size is usually determined by the population and prosperity of the village or tribe and the amount of carving and panels to display

    The large red carved poupou panels on the walls represent the history of the tribe. Each figure symbolically depicts a specific ancestor and the carving would indicate information about him and his accomplishments. Because a person’s status in
    the community was determined by his bloodline, it was important for the Maori to memorize and recite their genealogy; consequently, viewing carved figures as these would always be a dignified experience.

    The eyes of poupou carvings are made of paua shells, which are similar to abalone shells. However, paua shells in New Zealand are a blue color, which gets deeper and darker the further south the shell is found. The characters in poupou panels
    often depict the ancestral figures with facial tattooing, rolling eyes and protruding tongues, and the legs are in a flexed dancing or fighting position — all still characteristics of modern Maori traditions and dances.

    Kowhaiwhai Rafter Panels

    The kowhaiwhai or painted rafter panels are symbolic of nature. Some designs represent foods and plants such as the sweet potato, peas berries and the curling fern. Some are phallic symbols representing the male seed which allows one
    generation to become fathers of another generation. The union of male and female was considered sacred and beautiful in Maori tradition.

    Whare Whakairo, the Family Dwelling

    As with most Maori houses, this dwelling, too, has its own name and was used as a sleeping place for the chief and his family. The chief would sleep at the rear and mats were spread around the perimeter for the family. A large pit with stones
    was placed in the center of the whare and rocks would be heated during the day so when night fell, the room would be warm. The chief also used this whare to entertain and discuss official matters.

    Whare Puni or Family Dwelling House

    The kowhaiwhai or painted rafter panels are symbolic of nature. Some designs represent foods and plants such as the sweet potato, peas berries and the curling fern. Some are phallic symbols representing the male seed which allows one
    generation to become fathers of another generation. The union of male and female was considered sacred and beautiful in Maori tradition.

    Pataka (Food Storage Hut)

    Maori used a small raised structure called a pataka to store dried and preserved food. The foods, sometimes salted, dried or smoked to preserve them, were usually placed in gourds. Chiefs also stored their heirlooms such as jade (pounamu)
    pendants, weapons, adzes for canoe building, etc., in a pataka.

    The pataka at the Polynesian Cultural Center is heavily carved with the theme of “food in abundance.” The carvings include the head and eye of a whale. The decorations on the carved figure are called tara-tara-akai. Tara-tara means “notches”
    and akai means “food,” signifying the pataka is a place where food is kept.

    Pataka were placed high on stilts to keep animals away from the vegetables, including sweet potato, taro, tapioca and the “Maori potato” known for its distinctive purple flesh. Maoris ate “bread” harvested from the core of the tree fern; and
    before the arrival of Europeans, they also ate a certain type of dog and the giant moa bird, which is now extinct. Other foods included fish, shellfish, chicken and birds.

    Waka Taua (War Canoe)

    The waka taua at the Polynesian Cultural Center is one of the finest examples of Maori war canoes in the world. It was hand-carved to accommodate 40 paddlers and is named Te Ika Roa a Maui, or “Maui’s Long Fish.” The name recalls the legend of
    Polynesia’s mythical demigod, Maui – who plays a significant role in the cosmology of most of Polynesia – who used a magical fishhook to fish up the islands of New Zealand in the long ago.

    The Center’s war canoe is 60 feet long and weighs 2.5 tons. Carved from a single native kauri tree in the Northland of North Island, it was originally intended as a gift for King George Vl of England. However, when the king died before the
    canoe was finished, work ceased and it was abandoned in a field until 1962, at which time tribal elders agreed it should be completed and sent to Laie, Hawai’i, in time for the Polynesian Cultural Center’s opening in 1963.

    A war canoe of this type was traditionally used as a coastal raiding vessel. Fully manned, it could reach a speed of up to 15 miles per hour for short distances. When on a raid, lengths of black hawk feathers were hung on the stern to give the
    canoe a more fearsome appearance. The rowing warriors sat on short platforms while the head warrior stood in the stern beating and chanting out the timing.

    As with many Maori objects, the canoe is intricately carved: The head on the prow looks forward, while three heads look back, watching for evil spirits in the wake of the canoe. The long line of figures carved down the sides represent a human
    chain of people holding hands. At the stern, the main figure represents the god of the sea while the lesser figures represent various demigods. The stern post is covered with many figures separated into the upper heavenly gods and the lower
    land gods. The spiral designed on the stern represent a man and woman interlocked in marriage, representing the continuation of life.

    Moari Poi Balls

    Maori poi balls are both percussion and dance instruments. It is said Maori women use the poi to imitate the sounds, actions and rhythms of nature in their dances and songs and to enhance storytelling. Poi dances utilize either single or
    double short poi balls with cords about 8-10 inches long, or single or double long poi with cords about 25-35 inches long.

    Originally, poi balls were made of dried moss wrapped with raupo (flax) which produced deep and distinctive tones as they hit the person’s wrists or arms. Today, poi balls are made with tissue paper wrapped in plastic, while the cords are
    braided from yard, and they are used primarily for dancing. A sample of old-fashioned poi balls are displayed in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Whare Runanga.

    Tititorea – The Stick Game

    Tititorea requires an even number of players who simultaneously toss specially carved sticks back and forth to each other in various patterns and in rhythm to music. The object of the game is not to drop any of the sticks. The stick game is
    used to develop quickness of the eye and hand. Anciently, tititorea was a competitive physical activity partially used to train warriors for battle. Today it is a fun and precise recreational activity. More skilled players form groups of four
    and have evolved complex patterns of play.

    Uses of the Flax Plant

    Maori made many uses of raupo or the flax plant. After harvesting the abundant plant, women would scrape the leaves with a sharp stone or shell to expose the inner fibers. These fibers would then be cleaned, prepared and woven, dyed and
    braided into many items such as mats, baskets, rope, fishing nets and piupiu skirts for dancing.

    Maori Finger Weaving

    Maori, who did not use looms to weave, could still finger-weave cloth very similar to linen, which could then be used for wrap-around skirts, cloaks of feathers and dog skins, piupiu skirts, and chest bands and head bands for men. The threads
    are dyed and woven into cloth of different patterns using the traditional colors of red, white, yellow and black with each pattern corresponding to a different family.

    Maori also made feather cloaks or korowhai from native bird feathers. These were beautifully patterned in purple, green, blue, white, black and brown. Today, kiwi feather cloaks are especially prized together because of their rarity.


    The taiaha or fighting lance, similar to a Chinese bo stick, is probably the most beautiful and effective weapon of wood used in close combat ever invented by a warrior race. The taiaha features a long, tapering flattened shaft or blade
    broadening towards the opposite end with a tongue-shaped spearhead. Its combined uses include that of a broad sword, quarterstaff, club and spear.

    Many of these ancient weapons are exhibited in museums throughout the world. Maori chiefs highly favored taiaha at ceremonial gatherings because they could be wielded for effect, grace and dignity. Maori orators also employed the taiaha to add
    emphasis their words with movements called taki as well as facial and body gestures.

    The mere or short club is another effective Maori weapon that was usually tucked into the waistband of the warrior’s skirt and hidden from sight with a cloak. Mere could be made of wood, stone, bone and jade.

  8. Interesting Facts

    The Maori people, the Polynesian natives of New Zealand, are known as great navigators. Kupe, one of the first to discover New Zealand, named it Aotearoa, or “land of the long white cloud.” The Maoris were not only fierce warriors (using
    pukana, or the protruding tongue, as a form of intimidation and a distraction to their enemies), but they are also skilled craftsmen, creating beautiful carvings and painted wooden rafters in their buildings to tell stories and record their

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New Zealand | Polynesian Cultural Center