A Maori Welcome
By Cheryl Fleet, Trip Leader

First published in Cultural Travel eNewsletter November 2004

Omaramutu is on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, close to where the movie "Whale Rider" was filmed. I have been leading our 18-day trip to Fiji and my native New Zealand each February since 1999 and our stay at this marae, or Maori homeland is a definite highlight. We are welcomed with warmth and ceremony, treated with generosity and kindness and we leave as family. Repetition can sometimes diminish the impact of an experience but if that is so, why is my heart buzzing?

Petera Hudson and his mother Martha greet us outside the gate to the marae. Both have beautiful open smiles and long gray hair, Martha’s in braids. They shake our hands and welcome each of us with a kiss on the cheek. Petera explains the protocol during the hour-long formal welcome. We’re all a little excited and nervous.

We walk to the gate and wait. Bobette, an elder of the whanau (extended family) begins the powhiri (sung welcome). She stands about 200 yards away on the steps of the whare nui (meeting house). It’s a beautiful yet heart-stopping wail, the call in Maori silencing even the chirping birds. As we walk forward onto the sacred marae, Martha answers the call. Even though we’ve been told she is going to do this, nothing prepares us for the emotions that well up inside us. She’s so close to us and her cry sends shivers down our spines. They call back and forth to each other as we walk to the middle of the lawn.

About thirty of the whanau are standing near Bobette. We take our seats facing them. The meeting house is beautifully carved and the carvings tell the story of their tribe. The Maori are a very oral society. Terry, the chief of the whanau is the first to speak. He’s a retired sheep shearer with a shock of white hair and he holds an intricately carved staff. Tradition demands that Terry speak in Maori so Martha and Petera translate in a whisper for us. Terry begins with a prayer honoring the ancestors. Maori have a fundamental sense of place so he relates their whakapapa (geneology) and identifies their maunga (mountain), awa (river), iwi (tribe) and tupuna (special ancestors). As his speech ends, the whanau stand and sing a waiata (song in support of his speech). Two other speakers follow in similar fashion. Terry sometimes breaks tradition by choosing a younger man to speak, using our visit to give their youth practice in speaking Maori in public.

Now it’s our turn! Mercifully, women cannot speak on the marae and Petera speaks on our behalf and we follow with a waiata – usually a song known to all like “You Are My Sunshine.” Petera speaks in a mixture of Maori and English as he is not fluent in Maori. Despite having parents who spoke in their native tongue at home, he is typical of middle aged Maori who grew up in a society that sadly discouraged the use of his native language. Thanks to activists who demanded change twenty years ago, there are now Maori radio and television stations and total Maori immersion schools with wonderful teachers like Martha.

Petera places an envelope of koha (cash for our stay that we have given him) on the lawn and the chief sends a young boy out to pick it up. In English he thanks us for the koha. The whanau line up and greet us with a handshake and hongi (ceremonial touching of noses). We’re all quite nervous doing this but they take the lead and laugh with us making us feel wonderfully welcome. We all walk to the whare kai (dining room) for dinner and the children race all around. A beautiful feast is laid out – some of it caught in the local river and ocean. Terry says a karakea (prayer) and the kids are reigned in for the moment. Our group all sits at different tables so that we can get to know the locals. The food is delicious and the meal ends with pavola and trifle, favorite New Zealand desserts.

The whare kai is decorated with mementos of past visitors and special whanau gatherings. Petera takes me into the kitchen and points out the new floor, counters and appliances purchased with koha from previous Canyon Calling visits. It is heartwarming to know that our staying at the marae is mutually beneficial. Terry tells me that our visits are equally important in bringing the tribe together and in creating opportunities for the younger ones to practice the traditions of their heritage.

The next treat in store for us is a concert performed by the children whom Martha teaches. Amazingly, the children are not dressed in their usual school uniforms but in traditional costumes of flax skirts and red, white and black bodices and headbands. They look stunning and my heart just bursts when Martha tells me that the costumes were bought with extra koha I’ve been slipping her for the kids on each previous trip.

The children’s performance is wonderful and our travelers are enthralled. There’s no need for microphones – these kids have incredible voices and their singing fills the hall. The boys perform a haka (war dance). It’s slightly frightening to see eight year olds yelling and dancing with bulging eyes and sticky-out tongues – the intimidation of course, is exactly the point. The girls demonstrate their dexterity dancing with the poi (ball on the end of a rope). Then the children honor us by singing “America the Beautiful” in Maori. There’s barely a dry eye amongst us and then they tip me totally over the emotional edge by singing New Zealand’s national anthem in Maori. As a 20-year ex-pat I’d never experienced this. I was thrilled to learn that the anthem is now sung in both Maori and English on every state occasion.

At this stage of the evening we’re exhausted and head to the showers. Sleep is going to have to wait another hour however as it’s now our turn to speak! Tradition not only allows women to speak in the whare nui where we’ll sleep the night, but this is the part that the women of the whanau look forward to the most. They want to get to know us. So there we each stand in turn, in our pajamas on our mattresses, sharing our heritage!

The Maori people account for ten percent of New Zealand’s population of 4 million. They are said to have descended from twelve canoes that departed from the mythical Polynesian land of Hawaiki and landed in different parts of Aotearoa (New Zealand) beginning in 925AD. Whenever a Maori speaks at a marae they always begin by identifying the canoes from which their parents descended – emphasizing again that Maori sense of place.

The whanau are equally interested in where we come from. I don’t mean Columbus, Ohio - they want to know which countries our grandparents came from. This has proved to be a wonderful experience for many of our travelers who are so used to ignoring or minimizing their heritage in order to assimilate as Americans. Some have even followed their talk by singing a song learned on their grandmothers knee – something they haven’t sung in years. I once asked Bobette how many people were in the tribe and was surprised when she asked “Living or dead?” Their deceased ancestors are very much part of their lives and photos of them hang above our heads as we sleep.

And sleep we do! It has been a very full evening. The whanau sleep on one side and we visitors on the other. Terry always sleeps closest to the door on the whanau side and Petera does the same on our side of the whare nui – this is traditional protective position. It’s wonderful to see all the different generations sleeping side by side. Terry ends the evening with a karakea. The trick is to get to sleep before the snoring begins!

The next morning a cooked breakfast is served in the whare kai. After breakfast we’re invited to speak about our experience. Some of our travelers express appreciation to the whanau for the generosity of their hearts and the joy of the visit. Most are beyond words. As tour leader I thank the whanau on our behalf and present a gift to the tribe – often an article made by a Native American crafts person. Terry then gives a final speech of farewell and says a karakea for our safe passage throughout the rest of our New Zealand tour. A guitar appears and the whanau sing “Now is the Hour,” the traditional New Zealand song of farewell.

The previous day we were invited to “Bring in with you your anger, your discontent, your questions but take with you the gifts of peace, goodwill and friendship.” This we have done. Many of us are thinking how rich the Maori are in their connectedness with their land and each other and are despairing a little about the lack of community in our own lives. As we drive down the hill overlooking their cemetery by the sea, the whanau all walk across the marae to wave to us from up on the hill. We wave back but no one can speak. We are too moved by the fullness in our hearts.


Cheryl & Martha

Terry & Adventurers


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