Maori Lifeways: Dispatch 8 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

March 24th, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is eighth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: New Zealand

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tounge. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tongue. Photo: Richard Kurin

We arrived in Hamilton, New Zealand on the north island and had a stunning drive through the greener than green countryside of farms, cows, and sheep to Rotorua. Rotorua is a center of Maori culture and home of thermal springs that have drawn tourists since the late 1800s. The springs are fed by volcanic activity—New Zealand is on the Pacific “ring of fire” and this region is particularly susceptible to earthquakes and eruptions. Geysers shoot up and steam emerges from fissures in this crater lake town.

Our group is literally herded to supper by two sheep dogs and their handlers. Yelps, barks and whistles keep us moving along—there’s some “bah” “bahing” in recognition of our role. We dine in a building devoted to the 19th century baths—where people the world over came for “the cure.” Instead of being subjected to the somewhat bizarre sulfur water and electric shock therapy of the past, we are nonetheless electrified by the presentation of Te Taru White.

Taru is the former head of Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand and now leads the Maori Authority and the Te Puia Institute. He helped the Smithsonian develop its concept of the National Museum of the American Indian. He joined us on the National Mall in Washington in 2004 for the dramatic opening of that museum and was kind enough to host me in New Zealand when I did a lecture tour of the country. Taru and I move our heads together to touch our noses—the traditional Maori greeting, or hongi—which signifies the sharing of breath, or life.

This head, hand-carved by a Maori craftsman, depicts traditional facial tattoos. Photo: Richard Kurin

This head, hand-carved by a Maori craftsman, depicts traditional facial tattoos. Photo: Richard Kurin

Taru begins with a Maori invocation. Well spoken and charismatic, he lectures on Maori settlement of New Zealand. He sings a love song, describes the oral knowledge and traditions of his people, their philosophy of life, and the challenges they face. His smooth and dignified voice holds our attention. His clarity engages our minds, and his passion, and charisma transfix the audience. He talks about people taking pride in their culture and representing it in educational and commercial ways. He makes the strongest case possible for the survival and development of Maori cultural specifically, and diverse cultures generally, as the means of living in a meaningful world as well as contributing to humanity’s enrichment. He ends his inspirational talk with the Maori hakka dance, traditionally used by warriors and now by New Zealand’s rugby team as a way of saying—look at us, this is the way we are, harsh if you are against us, but extremely hospitable if you come in friendship.

The next morning we read in the newspapers about the eruption near Tonga—small world!

We visit the Rotorua Museum and then Te Puia, the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. At Te Puia our group is hosted with greetings, chanting and singing in the community house—conceived of as a living human, its roof lines forming arms, its pillars legs, and so on. We then witness a variety of historical exhibits of Maori life and a demonstration of weaving techniques. A visit to the institute’s woodcarving school where apprentices learn traditional techniques and designs from master carvers is a highlight. The work is exceptional, and our travelers ask a hundred questions and are absorbed in scores of discussions about Maori carving. Our respect and appreciation of that art is subsequently reflected in the gift shop—which supports the artists and enables the culture to flourish.

Thanks to the Around the Mall Blog for mentioning this series of dispatches.

This post is eighth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

For more information on our tours to Oceania, click here.

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