Words in New Zealand are proving difficult for me to pronounce. Yes, I do know English is the official language in New Zealand. No, the English words are not my problem. The language of the Māori, however, is filled with sounds my lips have never had to produce. I’ve been walking through New Zealand, struggling to properly pronounce words that have been repeated to me at least ten times. Mt. Mauganui, Waitangi, Waiheke, Tiritiri Matangi – the tongue twisting list could go on forever, because nearly every city, mountain, street and river in New Zealand is in Māori.
The Māori people are of Polynesian decent and arrived in New Zealand around 1200 AD. In typical imperialistic fashion, the indigenous people lived comfortably until the 17th century when Europeans reached the shore and laid claim to their newly found lands.
Initial relations between Māori and Europeans was relatively peaceful, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 resulted in a relatively quiet coexistence between the two cultures. Peace remained until the 1860s, when land disputes led to conflict. Epidemics, social upheaval and decades of conflict significantly reduced the Māori population by the end of the 1800s.
During the 2oth century, the New Zealand government attempted to increase the social standing of the Māori. They granted vast sums of guilt money in exchange for stolen lands and funded two television channels broadcasted in Māori – 15% of New Zealand’s population is Māori and 24% of Māoris speak the language fluently. Roughly 150,000 people in a country of 4.4 million can hold a conversation in this indigenous language.
What may be doing a better job of retaining Māori culture is the good ole’ tourism industry. Two out of every five international visitors participate in at least one activity centered around Māori culture – that’s over 1 million people per year. Tourism is so darn good at capitalizing on sacred, ancient traditions, isn’t it?
I honestly had never heard of the Māori prior to planning my trip here, but the rugby fans of the world will be intimately familiar with the infamous All Blacks rugby team. The All Blacks famously perform the traditional Māori haka before every game, an intimidating war dance that must work because they are the only team in the world to have a winning record against every single nation they have played.
Today in New Zealand, from a backpackers point of view, there seems to be a discrepancy between what the government is pushing for and how New Zealanders actually feel about the Māori. The government has done a fine job of equating the two cultures on every plaque, building and sign around the country – I almost always see both English and Māori translations on government projects. In fact, the first memory I have of entering New Zealand is the Māori phrase, “kia ora” or welcome when I stepped off the airplane. But, visually representing two cultures equally hardly changes a nation’s prejudices. In my short experience, I have heard blunt statements about the laziness and dishonesty of the Māori. I’ve been warned against associating with them and have never, in fact, heard a single nice thing said about the population.
It seems to me like the only way to come to my own conclusions is to make a couple new friends, preferably with Māori ancestry. Before this year is up, I am bound and determined to get a little first-hand knowledge of Māori culture – outside of a museum or tourist trap. Who knows, by the end of it all I may even know how to pronounce a handful of Māori words. I”ll be sure to keep you posted!