Let me show you a little video illustrating the warm, understated welcome that is traditionally given visitors to a Maori marae (meeting house):
This dance—called the haka—is part of an elaborate welcome ceremony that may last for more than half an hour. The fierce ritual dates back to the days when the Maori were divided into warring tribes who needed to prove their strength to strangers. It also explains why, when the English explorer Captain Cook first came to New Zealand in 1769, his men ended up shooting several warriors who meant no harm (“an honest mistake,” one of our Maori guides told us with a shrug).
While there are variations, the ritual generally begins with a challenge from one or more men, who make threatening gestures with spears and distort their faces into grimaces, shouting all the while. The lead warrior then drops a token such as a leaf in front of the visitors, and a representative of the group goes forward to pick it up, never breaking eye contact with the warrior as he does so to prove his own courage.
And then the most magical thing happens: a female elder begins to sing. We went through this ceremony a half-dozen times in New Zealand, and this moment never failed to send a shiver down my spine. The Maori words were unfamiliar, but from the first time I heard it I recognized immediately what she was doing: she was weaving sacred space, making it safe for the two groups to meet. On and on she would sing, the unfamiliar cadences creating a haunting spell. In her song she welcomed not only the visitors, but also all their ancestors, particularly the ones who had recently died.
Then the speeches would begin, alternating between the two sides. Elders would speak on behalf of each group (our designated chief was a former president of the Society of American Travel Writers). In five of the six ceremonies that we witnessed, women were prohibited from speaking. We were told that the reason was that women need to be protected. As life-bearers, they are more valuable than men and must not be exposed to any harmful forces that might be present when strangers enter the meeting house. “You may think we discriminate against women,” one guide told us. “But keep in mind that it is a woman who must start the ceremony. Unless her song creates the sacred space, nothing else can happen.”
The ceremony (called a Pōwhiri) concludes with the traditional Maori greeting called the hongi, when each of the visitors presses noses and foreheads with their Maori hosts. For westerners with fairly large bubbles of personal space, it felt very foreign to press noses with complete strangers. But after awhile the practice grew on me. It’s a brief but very intimate moment, meant to ensure that each person shares in the other person’s breath. In doing so, their spirits are linked as well.
Of all our experiences in New Zealand, it was during these welcome ceremonies that I felt most strongly that the Maori still have a living, vibrant culture. We heard many times from our Maori hosts that spirituality is at the heart of their lives, and I glimpsed it most powerfully in these passionate and complex ceremonies.
Rituals of any sort are intriguing to me, and it’s interesting to see the flow of the Pōwhiri, which begins in simulated aggression, which flows into song, which leads to formal speeches, and which ends with a blending of breaths. We in the west take greetings so casually—perhaps we can learn something from the Maori, yes?