I did a “Maori tour” a few days ago on the South Island but it took me this long to metabolize it enough to write about. Words are still failing me but here goes.
I’ve been wanting to learn about Maori culture but there are only limited opportunities for this, like if you know someone and get an inside view. The alternative seems to be going to these horrible Disney-fied evening “traditional shows” which make you uncomfortable in ways you never knew possible (I attended one last time). The political history of the Maori and the British in New Zealand is multi-layered; here’s a brief summary.
So a van pulled up to my hostel and a middle-aged Maori woman got out and introduced herself as Rebecca. Inside the van was a British couple, Lorraine and Gerard; we would be the only ones on the tour (yay). The driver of the van, a stoic Maori man in his 60’s, was introduced to us as “Uncle.” Rebecca explained that he was a tribal elder (and, in fact, her uncle). They are members of the Ngai Tahu tribe, which has 52,000 members and 18 subtribes in this region of the South Island.
Rebecca handed us laminated pages with a Maori song her sister had written and said by the end of the day we would all know the song (we practiced between van stops). It was called “Stand in the Heart of the Day.” The Maori alphabet has 16 letters and has only been a written language for several generations:
Our first stop was the former site of the pa (a fortified village in which Maori lived during wars). Rebecca sang us an invitational welcome into the pa. Then Uncle spoke very seriously in Maori, telling us first where he was from, then the kind of canoe he traveled in, then his family name, then his first name.
Then Rebecca gave us all Maori names. She said she would tell us at the end why she had chosen each name. I was called Wha, which is pronounced “Fa.” It is short for Whanaungatanga (fa-nong-a-TOO-ah-ga). We were instructed to introduce ourselves using the same formula Uncle had: I’m from the land of the skyscrapers. I move by subway. My family name is Einhorn. My given name is Kama. My Maori name is Wha.
Then Rebecca did the hangi—the Maori greeting, but really more of an embrace—for each of us. She pressed her nose and forehead against mine, keeping her eyes open. We were greeted three times once for each part of ourselves—physical, mental and spiritual. It felt quite intimate.
On a walk through a forest Rebecca showed us native trees and plants and explained their medicinal uses. There were these enormous trees called tortara, which live for 1000 years. Uncle stayed at the van. When we returned, he asked us if we’d seen tortara. Yes, we said. Not many big trees left,
Rebecca taught us how to make a flower from a flax leaf. I was much better at it than I was at kayaking and had no meltdown whatsoever. It was like Maori origami:
Then we visited the home of her brother and sister-in-law, Heather (they own the company; Heather is a white New Zealander who married into this Maori family):
We sat in the living room and were offered snacks: egg salad sandwiches, apricot squared, hummus and vegetables, and tiny pancakes with jam and cream. It felt kind of British, everything presented very daintily, but the tea was kawa-kawa tea. Kawa-kawa is a plant with a long list of health benefits. Here are the leaves:
We went to the backyard to see Rebecca’s brother’s traditional carving:
When Rebecca’s brother wanted to start the tour company, he had to go to the tribal elders to permission since he would be speaking for the tribe. The elders said yes, under the condition that the company operate according to nine Maori values and that all the guests know about them, so at the end we were each given this card:
It turned out that Rebecca had taken our names from this list, and mine (Wha) means “building and encouraging relationships”!