A wharenui, Maori communal meeting house, in a school in New Zealand. New Zealand schools are required to teach the Maori language, and this, as well as other aspects of Maori culture, will be taught in the wharenui.
My husband is from New Zealand, and I think it is important in our household to acknowledge New Zealand celebrations and holidays, such as Waitangi Day on February 6th. This day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 which made New Zealand part of the British Empire and gave the Maori the rights as British citizens. In New Zealand, Waitangi Day is a public holiday and is a time for concerts and festivals, as well as an opportunity to celebrate Maori culture. I therefore thought that Waitangi Day would be a good time to share some of my thoughts about New Zealand culture, and because this is my Pagan Mirror Book, its spirituality.
(Be warned – I have never lived in New Zealand for an extended period so my knowledge is limited to what I’ve learned from my husband as well as patchy internet resources, so some of my conclusions may be inaccurate!)
Because so many New Zealanders have British ancestry and the main language spoken is English, and because New Zealand is a small island nation in a temperate zone, it’s easy to assume that New Zealand culture would be similar to British culture. But New Zealand’s fascinating heritage makes for some marked differences. Firstly, there is its ethnic make up – you have the people with the oldest claim to the land, the Maori and other Polynesian groups with a culture going back thousands of years, living side-by-side with European settlers, who represented the wealthiest and most technologically advanced civilisation when they first arrived. And on top of that, you have a lot of other significant minority groups, such as immigrants from East Asia. Second, there’s economy – it’s a “first world” economy that is based largely on agriculture, something that’s rather alien to us in the UK. And thirdly, there’s its population size; in a landmass greater than that of Britain, its population is roughly equal to that of Liverpool. This environment is one of the factors that brings about New Zealand’s distinctive culture.
What I find most fascinating of all about New Zealand is the proactive integration of Maori culture into most aspects of society. I like to compare this with Welsh culture in Britain, as the differences in how the two are treated are very interesting. The Welsh culture and language, which pre-dates that of the Anglo-Saxons, is very much limited to Wales. I myself am half-Welsh, but because I live in England I do not feel I know that much about Welsh culture at all because it just isn’t a part of life in England. And that is especially true of the Welsh language – despite being one of Britain’s native tongues, it is taught fairly exclusively in Wales and non-Welsh speakers of the Welsh language are rare (Even though I’m half-Welsh I only know about a dozen or so words). Despite being side-by-side, there feels like quite a gulf exists between England and Wales, which is rather a shame.
In contrast, Maori culture and language is celebrated by all New Zealanders, regardless of whether or not they are of Maori descent. The Maori language is compulsory in New Zealand schools (all school teachers must have a basic grasp of the Maori language), and it’s not unusual for schools to have wharenui (traditional Maori meeting-house) where Maori language and other aspects of Maori culture are taught.
The result is not only that Maori culture is preserved – it becomes part of the identity of all Kiwis, both Maori and non-Maori alike. And this does include certain aspects of traditional Maori spiritual beliefs.
My husband isn’t particularly religious (he appreciates Paganism but doesn’t really consider himself Pagan), and he doesn’t have a single drop of Maori blood in him (he’s of Norwegian/British heritage). But there are certain things that he’ll do that are rooted in Maori spiritual traditions. One of the first gifts he gave to me was a pounamu pendant – a pendant of green New Zealand jade. Pounamu is considered sacred to the Maori, and my husband made sure to tell me that there are certain “rules” you should follow when it comes to wearing it – you should not let metal touch it, and it should be worn against the skin. When talking about someone’s personality, he’ll sometimes refer to mana, a complex Maori concept that originally referred to divine energy (some compare it to the Japanese word kami) but has come to mean strength of character as well in modern Kiwi English. In Maori culture, excessive pride diminishes one’s mana, so like many other Kiwis my husband doesn’t like to show off or boast (this is somewhat different to English culture where individual successes are admired and a bit of indirect bragging is fairly common). Although he knows exactly how to perform the haka, he will point-blank refuse to do it unless the occasion is 100% appropriate because it is a sacred dance that should not be done just to amuse others. And the idea of building somewhere where a taniwha (a magical water creature in Maori folklore) might live appals him.
The incorporation of Maori spiritual thought into the non-Maori Kiwi psyche is not so much the result of imitation, but a natural process of syncretism between two cultures living together and working together for several generations; my husband’s Maori-influenced thoughts and feelings are just as natural to him as those originating from his European heritage.
And when you look at New Zealand’s landscape and economy, embracing traditional Maori spirituality does make a lot of sense. The ancient Maori religion is a Pagan one – it is polytheistic, nature-based and animist. Perfect for a society that depends on the land – which, of course, New Zealand does greatly, being such an agricultural society.
It’s very exciting for me to see a thoroughly modern country where ancient Pagan beliefs have such deep relevance. It makes me wonder to what extent traditional Maori culture will continue to form a part of the psyche and customs of all Kiwis.
Of course, if you want to talk about New Zealand spirituality in depth, you have to talk about New Zealand’s biggest “religion” – rugby. But perhaps that’s a post for another time…