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  • Writer's pictureSpiced Cranachan

Musings on Maori Culture

(UPDATE: this post was written and published prior to the Maori protests of December 2023)

When travelling, there are two types of experiences: the known and the unknown.

The known is our constant and our expected experience: in fact, it is often the sole reason for travel in the first place.

However, the unknown can be a little more tricky, and when we find ourselves in new and unfamiliar surroundings, the unexpected is bound to happen. These experiences that we could not have predicted take many forms, good and bad, but arguably these are what make certain trips stand out as memorable.

Visit to Lake Rotoiti

I recently found myself travelling across New Zealand, Aotearoa, making my way from Auckland to Christchurch over four weeks.

Once the jet lag had worn off and the trip was properly underway, I found myself enchanted by the culture around me. This was, of course, expected as I had heard much about the culture in Aotearoa and have in fact visited once before.

But, quite unexpectedly, I began to notice something that I don't believe I have ever seen before; the celebration of both the indigenous Maori culture (Māoritanga) and the influence of Eurocentric culture (Pākehā).

Pou whenua in Whakarewarewa Forest

Now, I stress that I am merely a visitor in this country. My perspective is based on a relatively short trip and many of my experiences are influenced by what is purposefully shown to me.

My knowledge of Aotearoa is shaped by articles online, museums, books and the odd conversation in-country, and is by no means the full picture.

But what I saw here is a far cry from my experiences at home.

Artwork by the Arts Village in Rotorua (artist not mentioned)

Many forget that Scotland suffered at the hands of the British Empire. Our culture was stifled and often outlawed; Gaelic became illegal to speak and we were forbidden from wearing tartan. As a result, much of our natural culture has been lost. Gaelic is a forgotten language to most in modern day Scotland and traditional clothes have become customary only during some celebrations, and certainly not for the majority of people.

And yet, here I am in a Aotearoa, a country that was heavily influenced by European settlers, and I am stunned by the Māori culture that I can see reflected in the land, the people and the way of life.

Groom's Tartan brooch at his wedding

I find my thoughts drifting to it at almost every spare moment. I was elated to see indigenous culture shine through the mire of colonial repression, and determined to learn as much as possible about it all; I wanted to know what the relationship was like between the Māori and Europeans, how their culture was affected and how it has somehow managed to survive to present day, albeit not without damage and difficulty.

The first stage of my learning process was to visit a few museums. Most were incredibly informative and helped me to form a fuller picture of Aotearoa's history.

Auckland Museum lent a wealth of knowledge into Pacific and Māori culture. It displayed a number of carvings, most notably the Hotunui whare rūnanga (meeting house) which is currently on loan to the museum. I took off my shoes to enter and photos were strictly forbidden, but I didn't feel defensive about this; on the contrary, I found this token of respect entirely appropriate. Standing in the middle of the carving, I felt humbled not only by the sheer craftsmanship of the whare rūnanga, but the obvious importance placed on connection to one's ancestors and history.

Upon reading more into its history, I was struck by just how important it is in the history of Aotearoa. Following the confiscations of land in the 1860s, Ngāti Awa reaffirmed their culture in the creation of two carved houses, one of which was Hotunui. This was led by Wēpiha Apanui and his father, Apanui Te Hāmaiwaho, and Hotunui was built in 1878 as a wedding gift for Wēpiha’s sister, Mereana. And now here it was, in the Auckland Museum, and I - a complete stranger to this land and its traditions - stood within, marvelling at it and everything it stands for.

Gateway carving at Auckland Museum (NOT Hotunui)

This was the first museum visit in my trip, and while many others would follow one in particular would stand out. I don't exaggerate when I say this may be the greatest exhibition I have ever experienced in my life.

Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand based in Wellington, joined forces with Weta Workshop to tell the story of the Gallipoli Campaign in WWI. The exhibition focusses on eight ordinary New Zealanders who were involved, and tells their life stories up to either their end or the war's.

Focussing on a few stories in detail instead of thousands forced me to confront the reality of Gallipoli from an extremely emotional point of view. And Weta Workshop had crafted enormous replicas of these individuals, often in visceral poses, which reminded me of the very real human lives behind this bloody part of our history.

Lieutenant Spencer Westmacott, the first story on the exhibition trail

The entire exhibition was accompanied by a haunting score of music, which ranged from solemn to enraged to desolate. It highlighted what was to me perhaps the most striking part of the entire exhibition: the inclusion of Māori men and their involvement in the war.

Ignorantly, I had no idea there was even a Māori contingent in the war. And as I entered the hall of Private Rikihana Carkeek and Corporal Friday Hawkins, both Māori soldiers, I was overwhelmed entirely.

The Battle for Chunuk Bair - Carkeek and Hawkins defiantly man the machine gun

The sounds of battle could be heard, gunfire and barked orders, with a soft but striking musical score humming in the background. But soaring above this all is the Haka. As I walked through this frozen moment in time, the words "ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora" boomed through the room. I was speechless. I ended up spending a good 10 minutes stood silently in this room, letting the scene and soundtrack wash over me.

The impact of the Māori contingent on the campaign was emphasised greatly in the exhibition. They were considered fierce fighters and they terrified the Ottomans with their Haka.

The Spirit of His Fathers - William Blomfield, 1915

The acknowledgement of Māori people and their place in such a significant moment in global history was incredibly powerful.

I would later go on to visit other museums, even art galleries. These highlighted various key moments in the history and culture of Aotearoa, and while they didn't quite leave the same salient impression as the Gallipoli exhibition, they each played their own part.

I would also later speak with a Māori woman on pounamu (jade), specifically pounamu jewelery and the importance of it as well as her thoughts on cultural appropriation versus appreciation. She also spoke about the legend of Poutini and how jade supposedly came to Aotearoa. A short conversation, but an important one, and one which spoke to a subtler area of culture that is often overlooked and bought as a mere trinket with no thought to the culture behind it.

Pounamu Koru Necklace

And as I hiked and photographed the beautiful landscape, I also noted the importance of each place to the Māori; from Tongariro Crossing to the Franz Josef Glacier to the Waitākere Ranges, each location had either dedicated signage or a designated page on the New Zealand official website outlining its place in Māori culture. This acknowledgement could have been excluded and many never have known of the connections these locations have to Māori culture. But it wasn't.

And finally, I made my way to Carter Observatory in Wellington and signed up for the tour of the night sky. I'm an avid stargazer already but wasn't expecting the session to be run through the lens of Māori astronomy. It was fascinating to see the night sky from the perspective of the southern hemisphere, but more so to see the Māori signs in the sky and learn about their astral legends and stories.

I was struck by this inclusion, primarily because it hadn't even been advertised as a "Māori experience." It was simply just expected to include these details; after all, the Māori were reading the stars in Aotearoa and the surroundings seas far before any Europeans.

Aotearoa sky at night

I hasten to once again state that my opinion is based on a mere 4-week visit. I have no idea as to the full treatment of Māori today and my understanding of the history thus far has been formed primarily through secondary sources.

But I still can't help but compare my experience in Aotearoa to my experience at home. Our history is barely known and children are lucky if they are taught it in their schools. The importance of Scots throughout history, let alone in the world wars, is not well-known. Our landscapes and highlands are enjoyed by millions, but rarely understood. We have a intense sense of patriotism and pride in ourselves, but very little of our culture has managed to stay afloat in the sea of colonialism that swept the Earth.

I look back at Aotearoa with a bittersweet lens; I see before me a people who know who they are and have rightful pride in where they come from and what they have endured, but I mourn for my home and the part of ourselves we have lost.

Reflections in the Sand


Nov 30, 2023

Beautifully presented in an enlightening way


Nov 30, 2023

Fascinating. Well written

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