Māori culture and customs

Where can I find information about traditional Māori culture and customs?

Image: Marae by fortymillionsheep on Flickr.

Entry last updated: 16/08/21


The arrival of Kupe in Aotearoa marked the beginning of Māori culture and customs in New Zealand. The early Māori were known to have established their own traditions and rituals until the arrival of European settlers. The new arrivals had a huge impact on the lives of Māori, their language and tikanga.

Traditional Māori lifestyle

Here is a list of some familiar te reo Māori words used to describe various aspects of Māori culture and customs. These are just some examples.

Tangata whenua: Original people of a land or people of a tribal region (does not include visitors).

Tikanga: Values and practices that are a part of Māori social life.

Taonga: Any knowledge, property or object that is treasured or prized.

Kaitiakitanga: Guardianship or protection of the environment, based on traditional Māori customs.

Tūrangawaewae: A powerful Māori concept used to describe a connection to a place where you feel empowered and like you belong.

Pōwhiri: A ceremony of encounter performed at the beginning of a meeting between host and guest.

Haka: Māori war dance traditionally used to challenge the enemy. It can also be used to welcome people in peaceful times. There are many different types of Haka.

Waiata: Māori songs. There are different types of waiata, for example waiata tangi (laments) and waiata aroha (songs of love).

Rongoā: Traditional Māori medicine made from plants.

Kōwhaiwhai: Patterns that were painted on ridgepoles. Kōwhaiwhai represents genealogy so each tribe has their own kōwhaiwhai pattern.

Hāngī: Originally the earth oven used to steam food, now often used to describe a meal cooked in this traditional way.

Marae: A fenced in area with a carved building that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe). It serves as a meeting place for cultural or official events.

Pre-European Māori

Pre-European Māori refers to the time when Māori first arrived in Aotearoa till the arrival of James Cook in 1769. In this section we will look at some Māori beliefs, food, medicine, and customs as they were before Europeans came.

Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara is an excellent starting point for all questions about New Zealand Aotearoa.

Go down to the area called Sections and explore each of the following sections to discover information on various aspects of pre-European Māori.

Tips: Te Ara is bilingual which means you can read this site in Māori or English. If we scroll down to the bottom of the page we can see that the website belongs to the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, so the information is well-researched and reliable.

New Zealand Geographic Archive

This is one of the EPIC resources — a collection of reliable databases covering lots of different topics. It is put together especially for New Zealand school students and helps to answer questions like this.

Here you can find information on how the Māori survived when they first came to New Zealand.

Tips: To get to the EPIC resources you will need a password from your school librarian first. Or you can chat with one of our AnyQuestions librarians between 1 and 6 pm Monday to Friday and they will help you online. Some EPIC databases may also be available through your public library.

National Army Museum - Te Mata Toa

The National Army Museum is about New Zealand’s military history, military exhibits, memorabilia etc. You will find information about the weapons used by early Māori.

Tips: Websites that have .com or .co in the address can have good information, but you need to assess how reliable it is. Check the About us link on the website, if you can find one. That can tell you what the company’s mission and values are.

Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage

The website from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage has a useful page with lots of videos on early Māori history.

  • Go to About us then select Connect with us online.
  • Under the heading YouTube select the link for the ManatuTaonga channel.
  • In the search feature for the channel enter 'early Māori'.
  • Kupe in Hokianga and Wellington Harbour's taniwha are two examples of early cultural stories of places in New Zealand.


This video sharing website allows individuals and organisations to upload videos and make them available to people around the world. There are some great videos uploaded by Waka Huia TVNZ, the New Zealand Maritime Museum and other organisations about the history of New Zealand.

Tips: Remember to check that the videos you are watching are from a reliable organisation. YouTube allows people to comment on videos so you might come across different opinions. What’s important is to take what is positive and constructive from these comments.

Topic Explorer

Topic Explorer is an online tool from the National Library of New Zealand. It contains a wide range of quality resources for students in a range of formats on a variety of topics. These resources have been selected from reliable national and international sources.

Here are some topics that relate to Māori culture and customs from various points of view:

Tips: Topic Explorer supports and inspires inquiry, so you will find that the topics have been expanded to include aspects that cover as many learning areas as possible.

Māori culture in colonial New Zealand

Colonial New Zealand is the period between the arrival of James Cook in 1769 until 1914 when the First World War began. The Europeans dominated New Zealand in colonial times and this had an impact on Māori life, including food, farming, government, religion, and land ownership.

Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara also has good information that explores the influence colonisation had on Māori life.

  • Scroll down the page to Sections.
  • Select Social Connections, then Religion, then Missions and missionaries to read about Māori converts.
  • Select Settled Landscape, then Claiming the Land, then Ahuwhenua - Māori land and agriculture to read about Changes to Māori agriculture and Land ownership and Māori agriculture.
  • Use a variety of search words or keywords to find related information on this topic (you could use some of the words from our list of te reo Māori words above).


The relationship between Europeans and Māori could be very difficult. Many wars were fought between Māori and European settlers. There were also wars fought between Māori tribes.

  • Search words such as ‘Musket wars’, 'New Zealand Wars', ‘kingitanga’ and ‘parihaka’ will bring up articles and images on these significant events in the history of colonial New Zealand.
Tips: Remember to check the related content that comes up on the side of your results page. Besides links to articles and images, there are links to biographies and other related sites that will help you further explore your topic.


This website has films, short films, documentaries, music videos, television footage, and video clips that reflect New Zealand’s heritage.

Use search words such as ‘Māori culture’ to bring up short films like:

  • Whare Māori - a 13 part series on the history of Māori architecture, which includes the impact of colonial architecture.
  • One Land - Two families (one Māori and one Pākehā) go back in time to the 1850's to try to live on one land and learn about one another's cultures.
Tips: Search words, or keywords, are the most important words in our question. Usually it’s better to leave out small words like ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘of’ and just choose the main ones, e.g [topic word]. We can always change our keywords or add more if we need to.

New Zealand History Collection (BWB)

This is another EPIC resource. This particular resource has lots of full-text books covering the history of Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand.

Tips: To get to the EPIC resources you will need a password from your school librarian first. Or you can chat with one of our AnyQuestions librarians between 1 and 6 pm Monday to Friday and they will help you online. Some EPIC databases may also be available through your public library.

Survival of Māori culture

Māori culture struggled for survival in a European dominated society. However there were people like Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck, Princess Te Puea, Dame Whina Cooper and others who will always be remembered for leading the fight to preserve Māori language, rights and traditions.

Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Te Ara has some great sections on important events in the history of Māori-Pākehā history such as the Treaty of Waitangi and the Declaration of Independence.

Scroll down the page to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

  • You can search by name for biographies of famous Māori such as Sir Apirana Ngata, Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck), Princess Te Puea and others.
  • The biographies cover their lives and the part they played in the struggle to retain Māori identity and tikanga.
Tips: Te Ara contains biographies of people who have made a significant contribution to New Zealand, but it does not include people who are alive. Remember to explore External links and sources as they include links to other websites with more information about your topic.

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori

The Māori Language Commission was set up in 1987 to promote the use of Māori as a living language. This was an important event in the revival of te Reo māori. This site has some valuable links for you to explore.

  • Go to Tātai Kōrero to explore History of Te Reo Māori.
  • Click on the tab called Learn and read Tikanga — it has guidelines handed down through generations on how to interact with Māori culture.
Tips: This site is bilingual so it can be read in Māori and English.

Te Ao Hou: The New World

Published from 1952 to 1976 by the Māori Affairs Department, this website lets you search and browse all 76 issues of the magazine Te Ao Hou: The New World. This magazine was meant to address matters of interest to Māori.

You can browse this magazine using the tabs at the top of the page or use the search box.

Tips: Te Ao Hou has bilingual content so articles can be read in both English and te reo Māori.

Contemporary Māori culture

Museums, Māori art, maraes, waiatas, and the performance of haka at games and special occasions are all examples of how Māori culture and traditions are alive today.

All Blacks

The haka has been associated with the All Black rugby team since 1888. Today the haka is a much looked forward to custom that precedes every game played by the team.

  • Scroll down the front page to the link The Hak a for an explanation of the origins of the haka, the myth behind this famous ceremonial dance, and the commitment of the All Blacks to continue with this tradition.
  • Scroll down this page and watch the video Kapa O Pango, the special haka written for the All Blacks and why it was added.

Zealand Tattoo

Even though this is a commercial website, it has comprehensive coverage on ta moko.

  • Select the tab Tattoo Styles.
  • Select Maori Tattoo: The Definitive Guide to Ta Moko to read about ta moko, how it became popular, the legend behind the art, the process, and how the art lives on today.
  • Further down the page you will find explanations and meanings for common Māori designs and patterns.

TKI Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI) - the online knowledge basket belongs to the New Zealand Ministry of Education. It is one of the best places to find information, resources and curriculum materials for schools.

Tips: Websites that have .org or .net in the address can have good information, but you need to assess how reliable it is. Check the About us link on the website, if you can find one. That can tell you what the organisation’s mission and values are.

Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage

The purpose of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is to develop policy and law around promoting a confident and connected culture of New Zealand.

  • Go to NZ Identity & Heritage and find Taonga Tūturu protocols to learn about how the Ministry for Culture and Heritage should interact with iwi.
  • Explore What we do to see some the cultural projects they are involved with.
  • Explore Funding NZ Culture to find information on funding of cultural agencies like Te Matatini Kapa Haka Aotearoa.


Your public library or school library will have many books on Māori culture and customs. Here are some titles to start with:

SCIS no: 1834253

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