My most memorable time in New Zealand was spent with a few kind Maori people that were willing to show me a little about there culture and ways. I was fascinated and grateful for the opportunity. I met Leanne Maahingarangi Morehu at this year's Kiwi Link trade convention in Los Angeles in May. She is soft spoken, bright and enthusiastic. She is also truly proud of her Maori heritage. Here is our chat.
I was fortunate enough when I was in New Zealand to go on several different Maori tours and had a wonderful time. I was completely into the Maori cultural while was there and I really loved it. I gather you are of Maori Dissent?
I am actually of Maori and Scottish dissent.
Is that an unusual ethnic combination?
Not in New Zealand.
How do you participate in your Maori culture?
We live our culture every day, more so, when there is an occasion in the family like a wedding or a big birthday like a 21st birthday, or funeral or whatever the issues are at the time. We practice our culture every day in our lives. Our marae is our base. The marae is the ground outside our meeting house. And the whare tipuna is the ancestral or meeting house. And every Maori person has a base where they belong. The marae is where you will find your history, your geneology, your place of standing. So we use the marae a lot. We practice the traditions of our people when we are at the marae and even when we are not there we still have traditions we practice. What you saw this morning was traditional as well as entertaining. Because we are not the people of this land, but we are here to give people an insight into our culture. We performed a ceremony called a Whakatau which is a ceremonial cleansing of the pathway for us, because we are not from this land we acknowledged the indigenous people, the Indian people, in our speech. We acknowledge that they are the people of this land. We are here only as visitors and that we are here to give people an insight about the Maori culture. Of course, people don't know that unless you tell them. We also carried on with poi and song. We do it everywhere we go not just be culturally correct but to acknowledge the people of the land. Every day in our personal lives we practice our culture.
What makes the 21st birthday special in Maori culture?
When somebody turns 21 it's like, I suppose, like a debutante ball. You have those here don't you? It is sort of like that. It is a big occasion. Everyone comes to the marae to celebrate this special birthday of what we call "mokopuna uri." A mokopuna is a grandchild and uri which is the word for a descendent. There are several tribes within New Zealand and I belong to one called, Te Whanau a Apanui (The family of Apanui). And that's a tribe in New Zealand. Most of the group come from Te Arawa in Rotorua. I married into the Te Arawa tribe. My family are from the East Coast of the Bay of Plenty in the North Island.
What do you think your average visitor should know about Maori culture before they go visit New Zealand?
It is a living culture. It's not something that we just do for people who come to visit New Zealand. We actually live our culture. We do want to share it with people so that there is an awareness. So they know a little bit more about our culture then they understand what the protocol is, I suppose, what the customs of our people are, and then they don't get embarrassed. Even though we understand that sometimes people may not know what to expect here when they do get to New Zealand. We can pretty much put them at ease and we can just tell them this is the right thing to do. Or don't do that because it's traditionally not the right thing. That would probably be the most important thing. Also, simple things like the hongi, the pressing of noses is different from a hangi. They are spelled almost the same except one is spelled with an "a" and the other an "o." The hangi is a traditional meal. And the hongi is a greeting. The hongi has huge traditional significance. It's about the breath of life. It is about bringing the breath of life of two people together into one bond of friendship. That's an experience in New Zealand you'll have if you go. It's also important to note that the Maori people live normal lives just like everyone else. We do this [performing] because we love it – because we love our culture. We are passionate about wanting people to know more about us. But in terms of day-today employment, we have a policeman here. We have two schoolteachers. We have a university student and high school students – they happen to be my children, and I work in the health industry in New Zealand. So it's not something we do all the time. Sometimes people have this misconception that being a Maori is all we do, that we don't do anything but dress in our traditional clothes. It is also a misconception that that we live in our marae. We don't. We only do this (stay at the marae) for special occasions, when we have get-together's. They're really quite special to get 200 or 300 people to come together, to be together as one. But, we have our own homes. We have our own jobs, just like everyone else. When it comes to custom and tradition we don't separate it from our normal lives – these things are part and parcel of what it is to be Maori.
Written by Devin Galaudet
Photograph From left to right – (standing) Julian Ratana, Leah Ratana, Te Whanarere Morehu, Asoiva Morehu, Warwick (sitting) Aneta Morgan, Erina Morehu, Leanne Morehu