Real Maori


David Whitley gets a glimpse of authentic Maori culture on New Zealand’s East Cape.

Authenticity can be something of a double-edged sword. And this is particularly the case when it comes to understanding Maori culture in New Zealand.  To many visitors, this is a case of going to Rotorua, going through greeting rituals and having a meal as Maori in traditional costumes dance.


And if you like that sort of thing, then go for it. But such cultural villages generally make me want to cry. It’s a different story on the North Island’s East Cape. This is arguably the most Maori part of New Zealand. Over 50% of the population in this part of the world identify themselves as Maori, and the old ways are still strong. Outside the main city of Gisborne, settlements are small and  rural. There’s an end of the world feeling to East Cape, but if you take the time to detour out there you’re more likely to get an �?authentic’ Maori experience than you will do anywhere else in New Zealand. 


The flip side is that this authenticity comes with baggage. Sitting in a café in Tolaga Bay, Anne McGuire tells me about the village. “Anyone who wasn’t here before 1940 is regarded as being not part of the community,” she says. “It’s quite closed, and if you’re not from here, people will make sure you know that.”This isn’t what you expect from a tour guide, but it does shine a light on why the East Cape hasn’t yet made it as a massive cultural tourism destination. The term Maori is a relatively recent one. Many native New Zealanders do identify themselves as such, but ties are a lot stronger to their tribes and sub-tribes. Someone in Tolaga Bay is more likely to feel a part of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti than a wider Maori nation. 


It would be a mistake to think that most conflict in New Zealand’s post-European settlement history has been between the Maori and the white interlopers. It hasn’t – most of the worst violence has been between competing Maori tribes. Past wars have, in many cases, led to lingering feuds, bad blood and mistrust. And that wariness of the people in the village down the road can translate as an unwelcoming attitude to all outsiders. In short, don’t expect to come to the East Cape and expect to be welcomed into the family by hundreds of smiling theme park Maori. But it is possible to get a small window into Maori life. Anne takes me to her marae. It’s difficult to adequately describe what a marae is, but the closest approximation is a tribal headquarters. It is where important meetings are held, and members are always welcome to stay there.


We go into the main meeting hall. A stack of mattresses and pillows are crammed into the corner near the back window – visitors pay what they can afford when they book the hall for funerals, weddings and the like. The architecture is distinctive. The building represents an ancestor. The triangular roof decorations represent the arms, the door is the mouth, windows are the eyes and a central pillar is the heart. Removing shoes before entering is regarded as a sign of respect to that ancestor. Upkeep of all the buildings and the grounds of the marae is conducted voluntarily by whichever tribe members can spare the time, and most important discussions are conducted there. 


Anne tells me that, in the past, everyone would talk in turn until everyone was happy with a decision. You could not talk without holding the talking stick, and the idea was to achieve consensus however long it took.It rarely works like this in the modern world – votes often take place instead. People can’t spend weeks debating something any more – they have other things to do. This is one of the subtle changes that traditional culture has undergone over the years, and the clash between the old ways and the new can be painfully clear to see at times. There are approximately 20,000 members of Te Aitanga-A-Hauiti, but only 700 or so still live in the local area. Members working in Auckland or abroad have very different needs to those in Tolaga Bay. Catering for everyone’s is difficult, and ties are much stronger for some members than others.


My visit was a little look through a window onto Maori culture. It’s complex, forever changing and not easy to suddenly throw yourself into. There’s a lot more to it than hakas and costumes. But those looking for authenticity may not find the simple life they seek.



Disclosure: David was a guest of Tipuna Tours ( and Tourism Eastland ( 



By David Whitley