Thursday, April 28, 2011
Tamaki - a night with Te Arawa
It was a hell of a greeting.
And that was precisely the point.
As our interpreter through the Tamaki Maori Heritage village said, "In no other culture are visitors greeted with outright hostilility."
This powhiri - a Maori greeting ceremony to determine if visitors come in peace - was certainly that: a ferocious challenge. The warriors come out of the village to confront the visitors. They brandish their Taiaha (a spear-like weapon), they scream and make guttural noises and ululate. They move like the earth, the wind and the creatures of their world, our guide Sonny told us. The eyes bulge. The tongue comes out. The roar rises. It's a fine how do you do.
The Maori believe that any visitor coming with evil in his heart will react to such provocations with violence - and that it is better to discover such intentions outside the village. How many hosts over the years have invited guests into their midst only to be slaughtered in the night? (Hello Glencoe.)
The first time I was "treated" to a powhiri, I was part of a group on its receiving end. I can tell you without fear of being called wimpy that it is a terrifying, knee-buckling ritual. This time round I was off to the side and able to observe the powhiri. After Sonny had explained to us what was happening, how the warriors are not only showing off their martial skills, but are also interpreting the world around them, I can tell you that it is a most beautiful dance of death.
This was not a kitschy night, though done differently and by others it could have been. Sonny explained to us that the Maori are deeply proud of their culture and honored to share their lore, their customs and their language with people from the four winds. He was quick to point out that this was not an amusement park. Do not laugh, do not mock. He might have added - as a dozen Maori have told me on separate occasions - that such disrespect has often been punished by a quick thump across the back of the head with the Taiaha. This being a slightly more commercial venture, that would probably not have been good business.
We were also told that the traditionally recreated village was a historical time piece. "Maori don't live like this anymore," Sonny said. "We live in the suburbs now with 52-inch TV screens and everything."
It was a fun evening, but a serious presentation of the Maori ways. Sonny, though his last name is the Scottish Corbett, something he said was quite common, said the Rotorua Maori mainly belong to the Te Arawa iwi, or clan. There was only one joke about cannibalism - in which we were assured that Maori didn't eat Americans because they were too high in cholesterol. There was, however, plenty of Aussie leg pulling. Until, as it always does in New Zealand, it ended with a sincere acknowledgment of the closeness between the two countries.
Once the Teka, the offering placed before the visiting chief, had been picked up and the visitors were determined to have come in peace, the Karanga, the welcome call, rang out. Then the women of the village sang and invited in the visitors with traditional dance and chants.
The darkness of the night was broken by little fires in front of wooden huts. The village itself was of remarkable beauty, surrounded and covered by monumental gum trees. Each hut was fronted by a Maori expert in one of the traditional arts, such as weapon making or Te Moko. That is the art of tattooing. In Maori tradition the moko are like the open diary of a person. Every accomplishment, on the battlefield or in the village, is commemorated with ink. Each person's tattoos are completely unique, their public DNA. In fact, Michael King, in his history of New Zealand, wrote that the Maori chiefs, who had no written language, signed important documents with images of their tattoos.
Young Maoris were schooled in warfare from as young as five. They were taught footwork, weaponry and trained to become strong. But as much of the Maori culture was about hunting and music. So, from the village we were ushered into the hall where we were given a haka, the war dance, some songs and stories. It was a graceful evening. All the Maoris I have met are sincere in their desire to share their culture with outsiders. This evening was no exception.
We all had a wonderful time and were fed very well from the hangi, the pit in which, like their Polynesian brethren in Hawaii, the Maori prepare their feasts. We did a bit of eye-rolling when we were told, after dinner, that the gift shop would be open. Judging by the scale of the rest of the operation, we imagined it to be a large warehouse. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, that the store was modest, bordering on the disinterested.