The Cultural Concepts and Practices of the Maori Tribe in New Zealand

The Māori cultural practices form part of the distinct cultures of the New Zealand. The cultural practices have over time taken place in the various eras such as before the spread of the European into the country, during the spread and interaction of the European, and lastly, the modern era of the 20th century. There are proofs that the culture of the Māori has been greatly influenced by the western European cultures but there are traces of it that has been retained but in a manner that is different from the original form.

The Māori culture (Māoritanga) has thus undergone many changes; however, at present, the New Zealand government has invested on its retention through the schools so that through learning, the culture can be revived in the country. This paper thus seeks to analyse three cultural aspects of mana, tapu and utu and their significance to the society in the New Zealand.

Mana: this often referred to power, status, authority or the prestige that one had in the society and therefore whoever was considered to have mana could be recognised in the society.

As much as it was inherited from other members of the society or family members in which leadership had come from, it could be obtained, increased or even lost through the behaviours, actions and habits of an individual in the society. The leadership, especially Rangatira (chiefs) recognised the need for them to keep their mana as high as they could. This is because those whom they were leading were looking up to them in almost all the ways.

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This enabled the mentorship of other members of the society by the leaders and this was thus important in instilling the morality among the people.

The individual status influenced the behaviours of various groups of people and it is because of this that Māori group had to defend their mana as much as they could. This therefore contributed in shaping the behaviour and keeping the cultural norms of the society intact; preventing the culture dilution aspect in the society. This why they had to restrict the entry of the European into their country so as to protect their mana from interference from the society.

It is therefore argued that the maintenance and increment of the mana regarding the whanau and hapu (families), and to some extent, loyalty could not be questionable in the cultural values of Māori. Due to the prestige of power or even the authority of one, the names of either people or places was considered as fluid and this explains why names could be changed severally depending on the situation in the cultural aspect.

For example, in the event that hapu migrated to a new place to utilise a given resource in a particular area, they would change their name to match the ancestor who had benefited from that same resource at that same place long ago (Lowe 2009). It is therefore true that the change of names or fluidity of Māori enabled members of hapu to access a resource that they would otherwise not if they had names belonging to other ancestors different from the one where the resource is available.

Moreover, if one was connected to powerful hapu which had many known and familiar ancestors, then there would be a protection to that particular hapu within the society. This would then make them survive well in the society and in the process enlarge their scope of operation because such hapu was feared in the Māori community. It is through this that the mode of communication became so oral in nature and it was varied depending on the needs of each of the whanau and hapu in the society at any given point in time.

Utu: this in simple terms is the revenge but in other broader perspective, it referred to the balance or harmony maintenance in the society. Under this value, any wrong was to be made right by anybody hence the need for freedom within the setup. However, the mode of correction varied depending on the times and situation or even to some extent the hapu which was involved in the wrong.

This value was taken in various forms and looking specifically at the gift exchange form, it enhanced social bonds and togetherness in the society. If there was any disturbance in the form of how people of the Māori related, then the balance in their way of life could be restored only by the utu. One of the forms in which it used to take place was taking of property to compensate for the offense that had been conducted by an individual. This process of compensation is called muru.

Muru, therefore, would end the issues and its nature depended on the mana of the offender or even how severe the offense was to the offended. This was thus a way in which conflicts would be resolved easily in the society and is therefore important in bringing the members of the Māori together. It was important in this way since unity was restored once the muru had been performed.

In the event that the utu could not be restored then the result would be taua (the hostile expedition) could follow. It would involve taua muru or taua roto (bloodless expedition and death revenge) respectively. In this respect, utu was very necessary especially at the earlier stages so that death form of revenge would be avoided in the society and thus muru proves to be the best form of restoring the balance in the event that cases arose between the members of the society in the Māori cultures.

Upon the arrival of the Europeans to the country and specifically to the land of the Māori, they only allowed trade to take place between them and it was majorly the utu, mana and tapu concepts that were guiding the whole process of trade with the European nation. The utu, which is reciprocity or the process of balanced exchange, dominated the process of trade and exchange with the European nation in the New Zealand upon their arrival into the country with trade. This therefore took the form of exchange of gifts and was viewed in three dimensions which are

  • It did not stipulate a return of the present and therefore was treated as free in nature. There was no expecting of returns on any gift given to an individual in the process of exchange.
  • In the event the receiver had to reciprocate the gift, then they would increase the value of the perceived gift in return.
  • There was also the need for the exchange to continue and anyone who would fail to respond to the exchange process would be considered as one who has lost the mana.

This encouraged the process of socialization and interaction of the Māori community within themselves or other cultures that were coming into their lives. It also facilitated togetherness and concern in the society; for example, when people were travelling long distances to give gifts, they got to know how others lived and in the end, they would also be treated the same way.

Tapu: this is the declaration of a thing sacred in the society of the Māori therefore would not be touched by another person. The main aim of this was to give spiritual protection of the some of the things in the society. By placing the tapu on things and people, the life of the Māori was restricted in a way and therefore it controlled the behaviour of people towards others or even their environment in which they lived and this gave protection to people and the natural resources around them.

It is therefore true that every activity or even ceremony in the life of the Māori was for the purpose of maintaining mana and tapu in the whole idea. This is serving as the strongest force or restriction in the life of Māori as it maintains and imposes strong prohibitions and rules to the people. People, places or objects declared as tapu could not be touched or even approached depending on whether the tapu is private or public (Mead 2003). This gave some sought of respect to individuals, places or objects that were considered of value in the society.

Initially, members of the community considered to be of higher rank would be declared tapu in the society. They would not therefore touch that which belonged to the lower ranked members of the society and the reverse would be the same and a breach of the tapu would result into the death of either party as the only penalty for doing that which was declared sacred by the society. A hara, the violation of tapu would result to the wrath of God and thus anything made tapu would only be touched by a qualified priest. All this was meant specifically to create a distinction between people of rank and those who were not, objects that were considered sacred would thus not be depleted from the environments in which they existed and the only way to do that was to restrict their accessibility or their touch by members of the society.

Some of the things that were tapu in the Māori community included food cooked specifically for the ariki (chief), and even the houses of the ariki. Due to this, a woman would not just enter these kinds of houses unless a ceremony (karakia) was performed. This was a restriction that would help to restore respect to highly ranked members of the society. Again, it was a form of maintaining order so that people would not just get used to them and in the process prevent them from performing their duties in the society because of lack of respect. Priests and healer (tohunga) were also tapu in the Māori community and anything that belonged to them was treated the same way. This also applied to the tohunga burying grounds (urupa) and their places of death (wahi tapu) and such were always under protection by putting a fence around such places.

In many cases, diseases in the Māori community was considered the effect of violation of tapu and thus it was the duty of tohunga to separate such people from the rest so that they would be cleansed and receive blessings (noa) from such conditions. One of the common diseases that needed separation was tuberculosis and it was considered that it was demons (toke toke) that brought diseases to people through the witchcraft (makutu). The noa ceremony in the Māori community is the only way through which the considered wrath of God can be removed from the individuals who had violated the tapu in the society. The main reason for such tapu was to give protection to people, places and other objects of value in the society or in the environment where people stayed hence it encouraged sustainability in the Māori society.

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The Cultural Concepts and Practices of the Maori Tribe in New Zealand. (2023, Jan 09). Retrieved from

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