Things You Need To Know About Māori Before Traveling To New Zealand

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Things You Need To Know About Māori Before Traveling To New Zealand

Where are you from? Greece? Italy? Spain? You look Greek. Are you Greek?

When I say I am Māori, Ngāti Porou from New Zealand, I get one of several responses

  • You are very White, how much Māori are you
  • Oh, like the haka – you know the All Blacks
  • A blank look

Travelling as an indigenous person often means wearing an invisible cloak connecting me to my ancestors, bloodlines, connections, and stories while becoming an observer and an outsider. I also wear these on my skin, my marks of who I am and where I am from.


Every time I step outside of my comfortable life in New Zealand, I am not seen as indigenous. I don’t change, my identity doesn’t change – but with my change in context – how I am viewed in the world changes.

There is a privilege that comes with this – one of inclusion, being able to move through the world with ease, not being categorized as the ‘other’ or a statistic. It is a privilege and classification I wear with unease – but one I am happy to take advantage of, recognizing that few of my indigenous brothers and sisters can do so. And recognizing that once I step back into home, I will be reclassified again.

But throughout I remain the same person. Let me introduce myself.

Being A Māori Woman

I am Catherine Nesus a proud Ngāti Porou woman from New Zealand. Yes, I am a New Zealander, but I am Ngāti Porou first. I am Ngāti Porou, Te Whanau o Puutanga. I am also English and a Pakeha, which generally means European descent New Zealander. My Māori ancestral connections stretch into the depths of the East Coast of New Zealand.

Ngāti Porou is New Zealand’s second largest Māori tribe with 72,000 identified members. Approximately 1/6 of Ngāti Porou people remain within their ancestral territory. The majority of members live in Auckland, Wellington, and other urban centers.

My grandmother was born in the small rural Māori community of Tikitiki on the banks of the Waiapu River. She grew up on the family homestead surrounded by family. Tikitiki, along with many similar communities and towns in New Zealand, were thriving communities with local economies. The combined impact of World War II, where many local young men joined the war effort, and economic downturn in the 1950s and 60s led to urban drift across New Zealand. Between 1936 and 1986 the Māori population changed from 83% rural to 83% urban. My grandmother was part of this urban drift and moved from Tikitiki to Wellington in the mid 1940s, met my Liverpudlian grandfather – and the rest they say is history.

I am a product of urbanization, growing up in the city, I have had to learn who I was disconnected from. I grew up in Wellington and Kaikoura, New Zealand with my parents and three sisters. We have always identified, and been identified, as Ngāti Porou Māori. We have always regularly connected with our extended family in the Wellington region. Local leaders from our tribe hold regular gatherings to learn tribal history, traditions, songs – and of course build and maintain relationships. So no matter how far I was displaced, I wear my identity with pride. It is who I am. It cannot be taken away from me, lessened, or removed.

View of Tikitiki, East Coast New Zealand

Being Māori & Pakeha

These ancestral connections sit alongside those of my English and New Zealand ancestors. My father’s family are New Zealanders with ancestral connections to Scotland and Europe. I need to say that it is possible to be Māori and a New Zealander and have English heritage. Since I grew up having strong ties to both my Māori and non-Māori family, there were so many situations as children where my sisters and I were the brownest children in the room or vice versa, our cousins were the whitest.

Having feet in two worlds is a gift. I’ve learned to move between different cultural environments and contexts, learning early to code switch, and able to see the world from various perspectives.

My Māori/English mother went to University when we were children. A strong focus on education in my family means all six of us now have Masters degrees. Like my heritage, my career has always been focused on the intersection of New Zealand government and Māori.


Protecting Māori Interests

I spent ten years working in arts and heritage. I was first a Bicultural Policy Analyst at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa where I was in charge of making sure Māori intentions were involved in all provisions and actively protect Māori interests. I had a responsibility to ensure decisions and outcomes balanced the interests of Māori and the Crown. I then managed The Repatriation of Human Remains Programme where I worked to get Māori human remains that were being held in international museums and collections returned to New Zealand and then to their ancestral homeland. It was an absolute privilege working in this area. I was able to understand the impacts of colonialization, colonization in museum practice, and how indigenous peoples were viewed as ‘other’, ‘curiosities’ or ‘a dying race’.

Later on I was the Director of the Waitangi Tribunal. The Waitangi Tribunal investigates claims brought by Māori relating to acts and omissions of the Crown that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi was a treaty signed in 1840 between the Māori and the British Crown, which was made to obtain Māori consent by the British before establishing any form of government to manage the increasing number of British people coming to live in New Zealand. However, the problem was there is an English version and a Māori version. The translated Māori text was signed by 500 Māori members, the English text by 50 Māori members. Due to the deficiency in language translation, the Waitangi Tribunal reviews cases based on Māori interpretations.

Prior to becoming this, I managed the review of the New Zealand Foreshore and Seabed Act, which was arguing that Māori groups have rightful claim to the country’s seabed and foreshore even though in 2004 the New Zealand Parliament deemed the title to be held by the Crown. The law was repealed and replaced with the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act in 2011, which guaranteed free public access to marine and coastal areas.

Following working in post-earthquake Christchurch recovery of government services, a 6.2 earthquake that put the country in a state of national disaster, I set up a family business focusing on supporting individuals and organizations to identify and achieve their aspirations. This has mostly been focused on strategic planning and development with indigenous (and other) organizations and commercial development. I also do 1:1 coaching with many fabulous folk remotely from anywhere in the world!

Maori-Museum of New Zealand
Te Hono ki Hawaiki Marae, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Travelling While Indigenous

My heritage and culture influences how and where I travel. Travel is a gift and privilege I am fortunate to experience, and I am going to wring everything I can out of it. I have been travelling now for seven months – with my favourite travel buddy – my husband. We made the decision to take a break from our busy New Zealand lives and venture out into the world. We made the call – let’s do it, let’s go. We aren’t spring chickens and want to experience as much of the world and its peoples as we can. It has been both challenging as well as rewarding. Travel has also made me think a lot about identity, who I am and where I am from.

Being indigenous influences how I travel, where I travel and what I do, because as a Maori woman, I am a reflection of my ancestors and their lives. So when I travel I am always interested in understanding local history and identifying the local people and their beliefs, values, celebrations, traditional foods, and how do they view the world. It can be small things like – how do the locals dress? Or big things like am I respectful to local customs? Being Māori has influenced to observe context, how people are reacting, and what they aren’t saying. It has also led me to be aware that my way of seeing things is not the only way and that I need to acknowledge that I am in someone’s land and home. It is my responsibility to change my behaviour, rather than expect them to put up with my lack of knowledge or ignorance! Plus, I have seen travellers doing things when they come to New Zealand that make me cringe – and I don’t want to be that person in some one else’s homeland!

I am also keen on ensuring indigenous peoples aren’t only classified as the ‘other’ or ‘exotic’, and that we (and the indigenous people we meet as we travel) aren’t just props in someone else’s’ dream trip, Instagram photo or Facebook post. This starts first with how I behave, but also pointing out where I see it happening, like sheesh Instagram can be a depressing place sometimes. Seeing people use Māori people, places, and traditions as props, not OK. Also, we are not homogeneous peoples. We are different across tribes, families and homelands.

Maori-Victoria University
Te Herenga Waka Marae, Victoria University of Wellington

History of New Zealand

Land Conflict Between Māori And The Crown

New Zealand’s history is not unlike other countries that were colonized in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Our history and contemporary life as Māori also bears remarkable similarities to those of our indigenous brothers and sisters around the world. We have a history of marginalization, land wars and confiscation. In the 1840s and 1860s there were many conflicts over sovereignty and land leading to battles between government forces and some tribes, the New Zealand Wars.

Even though there is a Treaty between the Crown and Māori tribes, like I described before. The Māori have been fighting for the rights outlined in that Treaty since it was signed in 1840. The Government, as representative of the Crown or Queen of England, set up the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to hear claims about Treaty breaches. While no new historical claims can be lodged with the Tribunal, it has six inquires underway involving about 900 claims, which they aim to complete by 2020. There are also negotiations to settle these claims. Since 1989, 54 settlements have been completed, with financial redress to the Māori of approximately of $1,500 million (NZD). You can find out more here.

Language Conflict Between Māori and the Crown

There were also laws designed to explicitly prevent us speaking our language and exercising our cultural practices. In 1847 an ordinance was put in place specifying that education only be carried out in English. In the following 150+ years there was a proliferation of laws and policy aimed specifically at increasing the use of English and lessening or devaluing the Māori language. In 1890, the devaluation of Māori was explicitly promoted when a policy was focused on ensuring children with Māori as a first language would have it replaced by English when they left school. Teachers adopted practices where they would not use the learner’s native language. In 2017 a new law was passed aimed at the promotion and retention of the Māori language. But for some of us – we are still fighting to have our names said properly! The fight to hold on to our language continues.

Social Conflict Between Māori and European New Zealanders

Today, New Zealand’s history influences our contemporary life – whether we realize it or not. Today, we are negatively represented in health, welfare and social statistics. For example, Statistics NZ reports that in 2017, the unemployment rate for Māori is double the national rate. In 2016, Statistics NZ released new worth information and found ‘The median net wealth of European people was $114,000, which is three times that of the Asian population ($32,000), five times that of the Māori ($23,000), and nine times greater than Pacific people ($12,000).

We still hear the cry of ‘middle’ New Zealand – when will it all be over, this ‘Treaty business’, we need to move on, it was all in the past. The history of our country is not universally taught in schools, generations of New Zealanders have grown up not knowing or understanding the history of their own county, or why there needs to be a Waitangi Tribunal or settlements.

Maori-Catherine Selfie

Positive Changes For The Māori In New Zealand

There are so many positive things happening, though. I am astounded by the pride and confidence of our young people, who know who they are and where they are from.

Land Resolutions

We are starting to see the difference economic power can make for tribes. Many tribes who have settled their claims – while of course not getting full compensation for lost assets, lives and potential – have turned those settlements and assets into strong economic bases across the Country, with a value of over $6 billion. One of the earliest tribes to settle, Ngai Tahu (1998), have grown the value of their settlement from $170m to an asset base worth over $1,27bn! While there is still plenty of work to do, much progress is being made – often by Māori for Māori.

Language Resolutions

In the 1970s, in response to the perilous nature of the Māori language, several community initiatives were established on providing Māori language preschool opportunities and in-home learning. These initiatives were centered on Māori pedagogy, traditions and cultural contexts.

In the 1980’s, Māori language immersion schools began to be established, along with the first Māori tertiary institution. Following the Māori Language claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987, which started a court action for the government to fund the Māori language. This resulted in a 1993 establishment of the Māori Language And Culture Broadcasting Funding Agency by the NZ Government. In the 2000s, there was a network of over 20 Māori radio stations and in 2004, the Māori Television Service was set up to increase Māori language broadcasting.

So there are many young people whom are confident in their own Māori language – as their first language­ – who had total immersion education for all of their schooling (pre-school to tertiary). But there is still a lot of work to do to ensure our language continues to grow and be used!

Maori-Wellington Harbour
Wellington Harbour

Things To Keep In Mind When Traveling To New Zealand

If you are travelling to New Zealand it is important to remember you are travelling to the ancestral homeland of indigenous tribes. We are interconnected with the natural environment, it is not ours, we are part of it and it is part of us.

Alongside New Zealand’s undisputed natural beauty, you can also experience and get insight into the indigenous peoples across the country. One of the great ways to access a diverse range of indigenous tribes is by supporting them economically by choosing to use indigenous-owned local tourism opportunities and travel experiences. The New Zealand Māori Tourism website is where you can find local businesses (tours, accommodation and so on) run by indigenous peoples. Check them out! You will get to see a whole different side to New Zealand.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when travelling to New Zealand:

  • Don’t judge a book by it’s cover – Māori don’t all look the same, we are diverse and have diverse points of view
  • You will hear lots of Māori language in every day use. If you aren’t sure what is being said – just ask.
  • Do not sit on tables, desks or benches, or put bags on tables. It is linked to Māori beliefs about the tapu (sacred) nature of bodily wastes and the need to keep them separate from food.
  • Avoid touching another person’s head, putting hats on food tables, sitting directly on pillows, or passing food over anyone’s head because the Māori regard the head as very tapu (sacred).
  • Avoid entering or crossing a room while someone in authority is speaking as Māori culture is very hierarchical. For the same reasons women should not step over a man. You can find more information about why and other cultural practices to be aware of here.
  • You may notice people take their shoes off when entering spaces, homes – watch and follow suit.
  • Some people may greet you with a kiss, handshake, hongi (nose press) – watch others and follow suit
  • Ask if you don’t know

Most of all, feel welcome.

Maori-Catherine Selfie

About The Author

Catherine Nesus is from the Ngāti Porou Māori and an advocate for Māori interests. She founded Nesus Consulting, which is a team of private and public sector experts that focus on supporting indigenous individuals, groups, organizations and businesses to identify and achieve their aspirations. She has a Masters in Public Management and a Bachelors of Arts from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. To reach her on a business platform, click here.

Otherwise you can find her enjoying the luxury of travel and blogging about it on her blog, Red Door Ponderings. You can follow her on her journy on the social media buttons below.

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