Seeing Aotearoa through Te Ao Maori

May 9th, 2022

For domestic travellers, the Māori worldview unlocks new experiences and new understanding.

While everybody knows about the sensation of ‘déjà vu’, (literally, already seen), few know of its opposite ‘jamais vu’ (never seen). This phrase describes the strange sensation when something familiar suddenly feels new and unknown. For many New Zealanders who have gotten used to a largely European understanding of the country, Te ao Māori (or the Māori worldview) offers the chance to experience the otherwise familiar landscape of home in a way that can feel intensely new and unknown.

Recently, the re-embracing of Māori place names in many parts of Aotearoa where English names have been the norm, has helped provide a glimpse of the historical and cultural backdrop to a place. Often the names stand in stark contrast to associations we might have of the area. Instead of only seeing genteel and cultivated Hawke’s Bay; Te Matau-a-Māui offers a notion of the bloodied jawbone of Maui’s Grandmother, that the god used to fish the very North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui), out of the ocean depths.

Sometimes Māori names tell more fanciful stories. The world’s longest place name is in Te Reo; Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu. The full translation is “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as land-eater, played his flute to his loved one.” Other names and stories, like Te Urewera, should only be looked up when you’re safely off your work computer.

But beyond names, Te ao Māori can reveal a surprisingly geo-political Aotearoa to domestic travellers. You may be crossing hard won tribal boundaries without thinking, however as you learn the historical enmities and interrelations between the iwi, a far more dramatic landscape emerges. In the upper North Island the remains of fortified pā still tell of the time when conflict and strategic warfare were a part of life. The later musket wars have also left their marks on the countryside.

Although much of the historical day-to-day life has been lost to time, what remains in strength across Aotearoa are cherished Māori concepts. Increasingly these are being embraced by many tourism operators who see it as only natural to share the country using the customary practices and ideas associated with Te ao Māori.

At Barefoot Sailing Adventures in Paihia, Rachel Biggins believes practising manaakitanga (hospitality, manaaki – cherish, conserve, sustain) is about being authentic in their actions and how they host travellers; sharing the area’s story with them. Their sailing cruises take in some of the earliest settlements of both Polynesians and Europeans in the area. By visiting these sites, guests are immersed in the history and are given some understanding of the heritage of the local community.

In Canterbury, Pohatu Penguins is a tour experience that gives travellers a chance to engage with a colony of Korora on a family farm. Here Shireen and Francis Helps have embraced the concept of kaitiakitanga. A kaitiaki is a guardian, and the Helps family have certainly played that role nursing a small colony initially plagued by rats, hedgehogs, cats, ferrets and stoats, to become New Zealand’s largest mainland population of Little Penguins.

Down at Wild Wire in Wanaka, the Māori concept of koha (or gift-giving) has inspired a pay-what-you-can scheme for those in the community put under financial strain by the recent pandemic. Since its implementation, some people have paid full or partial price, while some have paid in kind with local goods like honey.

The reoccurrence of these Te ao Māori concepts throughout our country has led the New Zealand tourism industry to weave them together into what is known as the ‘Tiaki Promise’. Tiaki means to care and protect, and the promise is a commitment that tourism providers all across the country have signed and agreed to. If Te ao Māori gives you access to a different side of Aotearoa, then the Tiaki Promise is surely the watch-words for experiencing it.

NŌKU E TAKAHI ANA I TE MATA O AOTEAROA, ME
TOITŪ TE WHENUA, TE MOANA, ME TE TAIAO ME TAE MĀORIMAI, ME HOKI MĀORI ATU
HAUMARU TE HAERE, ME TE WHAKAARO NUI KI NGĀ TĀNGATA KATOA
TOITŪ NGĀ TIKANGA, TUKUA MĀ TŌKU WAIRUA AU E KAWE

While travelling in New Zealand I will care for land, sea and nature. Treading lightly and leaving no trace. I will travel safely, showing care and consideration for all. I will respect culture, travelling with an open heart and mind.

Imagery: Graeme Murray