Pōwhiri is a reinvented tradition

In the Comments section of my last blog on pōwhiri, I and others have had a spirited debate about tradition, colonisation, and gender roles. One of my assertions is that the pōwhiri has been subject to colonisation and transformed by the experience. I wanted to follow up on this and consider what may have happened to our tradition under colonisation because “the interrelationship between the consciousness of self and the emancipatory programme is of paramount importance” (Biko 1978: 152); which is to say being truly aware of what is happening to you and your community is the heart of being free.

In her book Hui, Dame Anne Salmond states that Māori “rituals have survived with little change for 200 years since earliest contact” (Salmond 1975: 121). This seemed then, and seems now, patently wrong to me. However, fan boy moment: I love Dame Anne. I love her books. I love her views. I am critiquing her statement, not her. In critiquing this a few years ago at uni, I read four 19th century English travel writers’ journals (mostly pre-Treaty), primary sources that my wife used in her Masters: J.L. Nicholas; Richard Cruise; Edward Shortland; and Joel Polack.

Let me say at the outset: the four travel writers are not neutral observers. They judged, studied, and depicted Māori by imposition of a dominant culture. They are exploiters and colonisers. But they were actually there, and actually saw what our old people were doing, so remain valuable.

Pōwhiri are a microcosm of the broader process of colonisation. “The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role” (Biko 1978: 28). Colonisation is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence. It was intended, it was planned, it was enacted.

As tāngata whenua, we are complicit in maintaining the frameworks of domination. Whilst we fight for emancipation, we are foolish if we do not see that tāngata whenua often provide little overall challenge to the structure of the State, as our leaders seek acknowledgement and acceptance within those systems. We have been “reduced to an obliging shell, [we look]… with awe at the white power structure and accept what [we regard]… as the ‘inevitable position'” (Biko 1978: 28).

The inevitable position we accept is that our culture must be modernised, because we learnt to devalue our culture from the moment of first encounter through to today. To convince us to devalue our culture required that we change our terms of reference for our culture. Essentially, “not only must the black man be black, he must be black in relation to the white man” (Fanon: 1967a: 77). To succeed in New Zealand is to reject ourselves as tāngata whenua. Yet in our rejection of ourselves (and whānau mā, who hasn’t got a cousin who is a more committed Pākehā than most Pākehā we know), we find out we’ll never be good enough Pākehā either. The dominant structures are designed for our subservience. So ultimately many of us return with a religious passion to our tikanga Māori. We revalorise our culture.

The clever response of the State to our retreat to our culture, our tikanga, our society, is to imprison and objectify our culture. Think of all of these agencies: Te Puni Kōkiri (I worked there); Office of Treaty Settlements; Crown Forestry Rental Trust; Māori Trustee; Te Ohu Kaimoana; Waitangi Tribunal; Te Taura Whiri I te Reo Māori. These are not emancipatory agencies. They are Crown funded organisations that give the State’s approval and guidance to the development of our society and our culture. Don’t be fooled, “any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity” (Friere 1972: 21).

So, how do pōwhiri fit into this. The aspects of our culture that we often revalorise are archaic. Colonising systems will only allow us access to those cultural processes that do not threaten the status quo, so that “this culture, once living and open to the future, becomes closed, fixed in colonial status, caught in the yoke of oppression. Both present and mummified, it testifies against its members” (Fanon 1967b: 44). Now, this is not the truth and whole truth; we are not inactive participants. However, to participate in even our own culture, we must be smarter, more inventive, more active, and more cunning than the coloniser, because colonising systems are designed to stymie our cultural development.

So what we have done is put pōwhiri on a pedestal as a counterbalance to Pākehā society, emphasising the spiritual and emotional aspects of Māori society such as a love of nature, and cherishing the elderly and the dead. I suspect that our simple processes are imbued with more significance than they had historically as “it is much easier to believe something about oneself if one succeeds in convincing someone else of it” (Hanson 1989: 896). We tend to idealise the pre-colonial past, something talked about by Edward Said in Orientalism (1995).

Pōwhiri become important because they tell us a story we desperately want to believe about ourselves, our world view and our values. Yet pōwhiri have been transformed by this need and by colonisation. Early writers can give us a clue as to what has changed. A note of caution here: there is no such thing as a pōwhiri process. All around the country they are different. However, I’m looking at some shared practices.

Aspects that have been reinvented


“When the canoes got close enough to the shore the people in them to land, Duaterra [sic: Ruatara] and all his warriors starting up with horrid yells from the place where they were sitting, ran along the shore, making furious gesticulations; and presenting their spears and muskets at the approaching party, as if to initimidate them from landing.” (Nicholas 1817b: 20)

This snapshot of the beginning of wero to manuhiri is full of imagery of intimidation and threat. Yet today, the role of wero in intimidation has essentially gone. Mostly its an honorific for visiting dignitaries. Wero has become a form of entertainment, there being no genuine threat attached. The retention of wero as an honorific without any expectation of intimidation is instructive. Most dignitaries who receive it have positions of power in a colonising system, like ministers, heads of state, military officers, and so on. The wero in these instances becomes a wave breaking on the mana of the representatives of colonising power; it can never touch them, never hurt them, only enhance them. Wero are now a show that subconsciously communicate that tāngata whenua at their most physically powerful are lacking in true power and influence. Wero have become more of an entertainment that an assertion of power.


“It is customary with these extraordinary people to go through the same ceremony upon meeting as upon taking leave of their friends. They join their noses together, and remain in this position for at least half an hour; during which time they sob and howl in the most doleful manner. If there be many friends gathered around the person who has returned, the nearest relative takes possession of his nose, while the others hang upon his arms, shoulders and legs, and keep perfect time with the chief mourner” (Cruise 1974: 18-19)

“that an additional zest might be given to the entertainment, sharp mussel shells were used to excoriate the body; and in a short time, stream of blood trickled down the face, arms and every part of the body” (Polack 1974: 85)

Colonisation seeks to make things easier for the coloniser. So activities that offend the sensibilities of colonising observers are transformed and diminished. Compare these observations with your own experience of emotion on marae, and you reach the conclusion that “today emotion is more restrained” (Salmond 1975: 146). The change in expression is the cleaning up of tāngata whenua and a reinvention of our values to match the restraint of our missionaries and their society. Acknowledging or accepting a colonising standards of behaviour in grief and joy is an admittance of dominance and a submission. Our pōwhiri are now very accessible to the coloniser as we have reduced the cultural shock of its practices. School groups, public servants, church groups and so on all come on to our marae and have no sense of culture shock. Access is the right of the coloniser, unconsciously assisted by us.


Koha was and is  “a transaction [that] fulfils some wider social purpose, the acquisition of goods not being the principle motive” (Firth 1959: 402). The principle motive is to enhance mana. However, the Māori economy, a subsistence economy, has changed considerably with colonisation. At the time of first encounter, food was a most highly valued commodity, the original conspicuous consumption:

“At a great feast given at Waimate in 1849, the ‘potehe’ or stage was said to have been one of the largest ever put up. It was oblong in shape, 211 feet long, 18 feet wide at the base, tapering to 8 feet wide at the top. To form the framework 160 kauri spars were raised perpindicularly… the erection of such stages must be considered as a stupendous achievement” (Firth 1959: 319-320)

The hākari at this time was a statement about the importance of hospitality, co-operation and generosity to the maintenance of the society. With the arrival of a complete financial system, this has changed. Pākehā financial systems are now the arbiter of the new economy. Māori could probably not exist outside of this financial system, ensuring their enslavement to the dollar. Consequently, koha today is the gift with the greatest mana in our society: cash. Our own gift economy has been superseded by the capitalist economy.

Aspects that have been retained

The above are aspects that have been fundamentally changed as tāngata whenua sought to include, impress and submit to this colonising power. However, just as important are the aspects retained.

To the outside observer, the karanga and hongi are markers of welcome and have been retained in much the same form over the period of colonisation. For observers, they build a mythology of the friendly native, exotic enough to be titillating, but recognisably friendly and comforting.

Similarly, the whaikōrero have always impressed outside observers:

“we could not help admiring… the free born confidence with which these people communicate their sentiments to one another; the natural ease and gracefulness of their carriage, and the marked silence and deference with which they are heard” (Cruise 1974: 161).

However the admiration is an Orientalist view, much as one might regard a piece of art. Whilst all the travel writers comment favourably on the speaking ability, the content is of little interest. This has not changed much to today; the speeches are an event, not a commentary. Whilst that is not what is actually happening in the most articulate of whaikōrero, the view has impacted on Māori views of whaikōrero. Rote, parroted speeches are pretty common as the level of te reo in the population plunges, and there are few who can truly communicate to an audience, Māori or Pākehā. Any threat of speaking truth to power has been decimated by reducing access to te reo Māori. We are a people who increasingly cannot understand the very forum that is ours, that has the potential provide for our emancipation.

Traditions are not stable realities. They are constantly being reinvented. Both the coloniser and the colonised have a hand in the reinvention of Māori traditions. The changes in pōwhiri are but an example of this reinvention. The risk that I perceive is that these changes are driven by what is acceptable to the coloniser, who dictates the access or restriction to the traditions of the colonised. So we end up with an archaic, isolated pōwhiri practice. If nothing else then, we need to be aware as tāngata whenua of who speaks into our traditions. We need to be strong in our defence of what we have, and yet humble enough to know it is but a shadow of what we had.


Biko, S. (1978) I write what I like Heinemann: London.

Cruise, R. (1974) Journal of a 10 months’ residence in New Zealand, 2nd edition (1st edition 1824), Capper Press: Christchurch.

Fanon, F. (1967) Black Skin White Masks translated by C. Markmann, Granada: London.

Fanon, F. (1967) Towards the African Revolution, translated by H. Chevalier, Penguin: Middlesex.

Firth, R. (1959) Economics of the New Zealand Māori, 2nd edition, Government Printer: Wellington.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed translated by M. Bergmann, Penguin: London.

Hanson, A. (1989) “The Making of the Māori: Culture Invention and Its Logic” in American Anthropologist, Vol 91: 890-92.

Nicholas, J. (1817) Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand performed in the years 1814 and 1815, in company with Reverend Samuel Marsden, Volume I, Wilson and Horton Ltd.

Nicholas, J. (1817) Narrative of a voyage to New Zealand performed in the years 1814 and 1815, in company with Reverend Samuel Marsden, Volume II, Wilson and Horton Ltd.

Polack, J. (1974) New Zealand: Being a narrative of travels and adventures during a residence in that country between the years 1831 and 1837, Volume I, Reprint, Capper Press: Christchurch.

Polack, J. (1974) New Zealand: Being a narrative of travels and adventures during a residence in that country between the years 1831 and 1837, Volume II, Reprint, Capper Press: Christchurch.

Said, E. (1995) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Reprint, Penguin: London.

Salmond, A. (1975) Hui: A Study of Māori Ceremonial Gatherings, A.H. and A.W. Reed: Wellington.

Shortland, E. (1980) Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders, 2nd edition (1st edition 1856), Capper Press: Christchurch.

7 thoughts on “Pōwhiri is a reinvented tradition

  1. pretty swift with ya words, graham..

    enjoyed reading this a lot…and too true..and yet we maintain the stance of being ‘maori hard’. Totally diggin’ the – “We need to be strong in our defence of what we have, and yet humble enough to know it is but a shadow of what we had.”

    It is the rigid loss of the ‘unseen but seen’ aspects that will continue to haunt us and allow te ao maori to continue to be revalorised (new word, whoop).

    It is increasingly important to have conversations and actions that lay out the question of: what is the purpose, the intention of…powhiri…wero…hongi…tangi…utu…TPK…other govt. agencies that are in the ‘best interests of tangata whenua’ etc etc. and how do we example these purposes deliberately that is inclusive with “te ao maori in its entirety”..

    We have it and are more than capable of being intentional and determine what stays in and what goes out – when we are open and humble to admit our shortcomings.

    Time to unrestrain ourselves..

    1. Kia ora Shae, I like the idea of unrestraining ourselves. It is going to be so important for us to be able to imagine a new tikanga and relationships in all our settings going forward if we genuinely want a living culture.

  2. I enjoyed this so much! Love the way you write, tote captured my attention. This is exactly what I was looking for, for part of my dissertation. Thank you

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