The haka — an ancient Māori war dance performed by the country’s All Blacks rugby team before matches — put New Zealand’s native people on the global map.
But there’s so much more to the culture of the Māori, who traveled by canoe from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand before 1300. They developed their own tribal society, language, mythology, arts and crafts before the first Europeans arrived more than 300 years later.
Now, Māori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, with most living on the North Island. Their history and culture is part of the nation’s identity.
Here are five traditional Māori cultural experience not to miss:
One of the best places to experience Māori culture is at a marae, or tribal meeting grounds, which are the center of Māori communities. You’ll see them throughout New Zealand, but especially on the North Island.
The complex of buildings and land belongs to a certain tribe (iwi), clan (hapū) or family (whānau) who only visit and stay there during important times, such has tribal meetings, celebrations, funerals and educational workshops. You can stop and look from the outside, usually behind a fence, but you cannot walk on to marae grounds without a formal invitation. You can visit a marae with a tour group in Rotorua on the North Island.
I visited a marae in Koriniti, a settlement near Whanganui on the west side of the North Island. (See photo above.) The marae was peaceful but vacant. I viewed the three meeting houses (wharenui), complete with carved figures on the roof and walls, from afar.
To see the inside of a wharenui, I headed to the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington. It’s home to Te Hau ki Turanga, New Zealand’s oldest meeting house with beautiful and intricately carved panels.
A visit to a marae may include a traditional hāngi involved wrapping food, such as fish, chicken and root vegetables, in leaves and cooking it in pit ovens in the ground. Today, hāngi also may include pork, lamb, potato, pumpkin and cabbage.
You can arrange to attend a hāngi feast with traditional singing and dancing. Rotorua is best known for its Māori marae hāngi and performance. The South Island’s only Māori village experience — Ko Tane — can be found at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch.
Māori are known for their wood and stone carvings and weaving skills typically using flax (harakeke). Styles vary from tribe to tribe, but many patterns are inspired by nature, including fern fronds (kore).
The Auckland Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa are treasure troves of traditional Māori art and culture. For a more modern art, kayak or take a boat tour to see Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell’s 33-foot carving of an ancient Māori navigator on a cliff face at Lake Taupō.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is one of New Zealand’s most historically significant places. It’s where New Zealand’s founding document between the Māori and the Europeans was signed in 1840. The grounds, which overlook the stunning Bay of Islands, include the Treaty House, the carved Meeting House and the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe. You also can attend a hāngi or paddle a Māori canoe.
Haka traditionally was used on the battlefield, but it also was performed at peaceful gatherings. The dance is a display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Loud chanting (describing ancestors and events in the tribe’s history) is accompanied by facial expressions like tongue protrusions, foot stomping and rhythmic body slapping. Today, haka is still used during Māori ceremonies and celebrations.
In addition to Rotorua, Waitangi and Christchurch, you can see haka performed at the top of the gondola in Queenstown.