Māori Culture in New Zealand
Many of the cultural experiences that you can enjoy around New Zealand, or Aotearoa are run by local iwi (tribes) or descendants of local Māori chiefs. These will give you a genuine connection to Māori history and heritage. Māori view the land and water of Aotearoa (New Zealand) as taonga (treasures), and see themselves as the kaitiaki (guardians) of this taonga. As tangata whenua (the people of the land) they are proud to share their traditions, sacred places and stories with visitors.
One of the most well-known myths in Māori culture is how Aotearoa came to be. Legend has it that the brave demigod Maui pulled up an enormous fish from the depths of the ocean with his magic fishhook. Maui’s fish became the North Island and his waka (canoe) the South Island. The Māori name for the North Island is “Te Ika a Māui’ or ‘Māui’s fish’. Maui’s other exploits included harnessing the sun, lifting the sky and taming fire – he’s a legend in his own right!
You can discover other captivating myths and stories and engage in meaningful Māori cultural experiences all over New Zealand.
Before you visit
Before visiting culturally significant places it might be useful to know how to behave. This is known as tikanga, which translates as custom, etiquette or ‘the Māori way of doing things’. Learning about tikanga will enrich your cultural experience. Tikanga varies between regions and iwi, so it’s vital to listen to your guides or Māori leaders as they prepare you for the interaction.
For example, when you visit a marae (meeting house), it’s important to show respect for the building itself as well as your hosts. You may be greeted with a pōwhiri (a formal Māori welcome ritual) or enjoy a cultural performance. It’s important to remain quiet when these are taking place and follow your guide’s cues. If you are lucky enough to eat at a marae, make sure you wait for the karakia (prayer) to be said before you tuck in to your meal.
Where to experience Māori culture in New Zealand
Known as the birthplace of New Zealand, the beautiful Bay of Islands is home to one of the most culturally significant places in New Zealand – the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It was here in 1840 that Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi, our founding document. Today you can take a guided tour of Waitangi, listen to the story of this somewhat controversial treaty, and stand in awe of the intricate Māori carvings at the carved marae.
You can visit the Bay of Islands on a return day tour from Auckland, or spend a few days there and immerse yourself in other cultural activities. Journey north to Cape Reinga at the very top of New Zealand. Māori believe the spirits of the deceased travel here before they return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.
Although Auckland is a bustling city, its roots remain strongly connected to its Māori heritage. Explore Auckland on a GreatSights city sights tour and finish with an afternoon at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Here you’ll experience a dramatic traditional Māori cultural performance by members of the local Ngāti Whātua iwi (tribe). You’ll also have time to explore the museum marvelling at Māori and Pacific treasures, collections and artworks.
The Waitomo Caves lie within the heart of the Waikato region, just south of Auckland. Local Māori chief Tane Tinorau and an English surveyor called Fred Mace first explored the caves together by candlelight in 1887. They discovered a vast underground network of caverns full of amazing limestone formations and twinkling glowworms. Visitors can take a guided tour and see its beauty for themselves. Many staff employed at the caves today are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti. You can visit the Waitomo Caves with GreatSights on a day tour from Auckland or Rotorua.
A popular destination for so many reasons, Rotorua provides a Māori culture experience like none other. The Rotorua Sights day tour gives an insight into New Zealand’s Māori culture at Te Puia and Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. You’ll see beautiful Māori architecture, national schools of carving and weaving and Rotorua’s famous geothermal wonderland of bubbling mud pools and bursting geysers.
You can also experience Māori culture with an evening tour of Tamaki Māori Village. Your hair will stand on end witnessing the famous haka war dance and passionate poi dancing and hearing the heartfelt harmonies of traditional waiata (songs). The tour also includes an authentic hangi dinner – find out more about this traditional meal.
From Rotorua you can also visit Waitomo Caves and the Hobbiton Movie Set, learning about the history of each attraction and connection they still have with local Māori today. The journey to both of these attractions is a cultural experience in itself as you pass Waikato farmland, the Kaimai Ranges and the Waikato River where guides share historic stories.
Explore remote areas of Queenstown’s Dart River, Te Awa Wakatipu by jet boat and discover a unique and dramatic environment rich in both cultural heritage. The Dart River Wilderness Safari is run by local tribe Ngāi Tahu. During the tour you’ll journey through native bush as your guides share stories and ancient Māori legends.
Milford Sound or Piopiotahi was first discovered by local Māori more than 1,000 years ago. Māori would make the journey to Milford Sound to hunt, fish and gather a precious stone called pounamu, also known as jade or nephrite. They used pounamu to make weapons, tools and jewellery. Visit Milford Sound on a day tour and be in awe of the spectacular natural landscape discovering why Milford is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can read more about the history of this stunning region here.