New Zealand Cultural Evolution


The above Maori totem art suggests power and strength.  Almost all cultures the world over stick out their tongues for one reason or another, sometimes it is positive, but most of the time it is a negative gesture.  The Maori use it in their traditional Haka Dance, because it is part of their war chant, which preceded a battle.  Sticking out the tongue was a gesture to intimidate the enemy long ago, and is still used by the New Zealand Soccer team to intimidate the players on an opposing team before competition begins.

Early Peoples

The nation of New Zealand, which consists of a North and a South Island, as well as several adjacent islands, is also know by the Maori word Aotearoa, meaning Land of the Long White Cloud.  According to oral history the first Maori, named Kupe, arrived in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago.  The Maori have had a long tradition of using the stars and the ocean currents to navigate in ocean waters.  They came in groups, over long periods of time, in their large canoes, called waka houruas, from an ancestral Polynesian homeland, which they call Hawaiki.

Hawaiki cannot be found on any map today, but the descendants of those first settlers still exhibit similarities in language and culture to others of Polynesia, including those in the Cook Islands, Hawaii, and Tahiti.  It is also believed that the first settlers returned to their original homelands and back again many times.  The migrations were meticulously planned, as those first people arrived with supplies and food to last them until they could adapt to their new homeland of Aotearoa.

The Maori were hunter gatherers and fishermen.  They lived in small fortress-inclosed villages and were fierce warriors.  They wove fishing nets from the native New Zealand flax plant and sculpted fishhooks from bone and also stone.  They were horticulturists and cultivators who introduced vegetables and sweet potatoes from Polynesia.  They wove baskets to carry and harvest food and they stored foods in raised storehouses upon stilts.

According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand website, the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman was the first European to “discover” New Zealand in 1642, followed a century later in 1769 by a British Captain named James Cook.  The Maori may have thought of the newcomers as returning ancestors or supernatural beings.  Abel Tasman described the Maori as “Indians,” a common term used by Europeans to describe any native peoples they encountered in their exploration travels.  It wasn’t until around 1830 that Europeans began to call the natives of New Zealand Maori.

The Maori, however, were not the only people to arrive early in this Austral-European Global Village from Polynesia.  Another people known as the Moriori lived on the Chatham Islands, adjacent to New Zealand about 900 kilometers east of Christchurch.  They were a peace-loving people and thought to have migrated from the South Island to the Chatham Islands.  They were attacked so often by the Maori that their numbers declined rapidly and the last full-blooded Moriori supposedly died in 1933.

Thoughts of Federation

In the mid-19th century there were political leanings towards combining New Zealand and Australia into a Federation of one British entity.  However, New Zealanders were afraid that the Maori would not be treated well, as only about 50,000 remained; and they were not a military threat.  The Maori became a unique identity for New Zealand; and Australia, on the other hand wanted to promote their own national identity, “which they found in the ‘bush legend’ about the hard-bitten people of the outback.”  New Zealand wanted to be “Maoriland” and Australia wanted to claim the “outback,” so they parted ways to become separate nations, yet still under the protection of the British Crown, though economically they each had to pay their own way.

After World War II, the United States, already having arrangements to protect the Philippine Islands and the Islands of the South Pacific, entered into a security agreement with Australia and New Zealand.  This security arrangement is known as the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) treaty, and was ratified on September 1, 1952.

All three nations desired to declare, publicly and formally, their sense of unity against any potential aggressor and the preservation of peace in this region of the world.  The ANZUS treaty was valuable during the Vietnam War years, preventing further communist aggression beyond Southeast Asia into the South Pacific.

Culture Changes

With decline of British power, economically, the sense of being an independent nation began to take hold of both New Zealand and Australia.  By 1973, both nations realized that, “the empire could no longer pay the bills.” Each nation began to change their immigration policies as they no longer had to adhere to the rules of rejection that the British had established.  In the 1970’s, there was a strong feminist movement, which “promoted a fuller and more public identity” for women, even though New Zealand had allowed women to vote since late 1893.  Women began to participate more actively in men’s sports, especially rowing and cycling; and they were more active in politics and some became owners of large companies.  They chanted mantras of,  “Burn your aprons!” and “Kiss cake baking goodbye.”

Urban living became the norm in the 20th century with fewer and fewer people making a living off the land.  The Maori were major players in New Zealand life.  They voted, they had their own members of Parliament, they were on national rugby teams, went to war, and intermarried with other immigrant populations.  However, those who lived in the country still carried on native traditions out of sight of most New Zealanders.  Those that did move into the city were discouraged from speaking their own language and the New Zealand government began to promote integration more than assimilation, which meant that, “In practice, ecause Maori were a minority, this tended to mean the swallowing of the smaller fish by the bigger.”

Maori Culture Revitalization

In the late 1960’s the Maori began to challenge the integration policy.  They began movements to strengthen Maori language, culture and political power.   The loss of Maori lands due to treaty infringements dating back to 1840 were disputed; and they began to argue for Maori sovereignty.  As a result, the term bi-culturalism began to be a buzz word, meanikng that New Zealanders could still be one nation, but with two peoples.

As a result the Maori were allowed to speak their own language, pursue their own traditions, have their own schools and universities, provide for their own social welfare, and be in control of their own businesses.  More Maori names began to surface on businesses, institutions, and street names.  Museums now promote both New Zealand (Pakeha (white)) culture and Maori culture.

There is now so much “mixing it up” that many New Zealanders have heritage from both sides.  Such mixed emotion was summed up by the artist, Alan Wehipeihana, who uses both Maori and European symbols in his work.  He says he is one of those, “of mixed heritage who stand in this space scratching our skulls, not sure whether to tick the “Maori,” “Non-Maori,” or “Other,” box on official forms, feeling like we leak through any definition of race and culture.”




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