Pōwhiri: A Day in the Life

posted in: Down Under 2024 | 0

A pōwhiri is a traditional ceremony of welcome to guests of a Māori iwi. Yesterday I was honored to be welcomed to the marae of the Ngāi Tokowaru along with my fellow travelers.

I want to share this experience. But I am bound to get some of the details wrong. I am basing what I write on my memory of what I experienced. But I think that’s okay. I want to share my experience, which lives in my memory and not in the reality of what was taking place.

A Day in the Life

Every OAT tour has a thing they call “A day in the life.” This is meant to be an immersive experience for travelers, where we have an opportunity to interact with local people and learn about their culture and traditions. In the past, I’ve had a visit to a farm in Patagonia and to an Egyptian community on an island in the Nile. Yesterday’s experience with the Māori was this trip’s version of A Day in the Life.


All the Māori words are new to me, so here’s a glossary. By the way, a long line over a vowel just means to give it extra stress, as if it were a double letter.

  • Māori: the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand (Aotearoa). Māori originated with settlers from East Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages between roughly 1320 and 1350. The word māori means “normal,” “natural,” or “ordinary.” It distinguishes humans from deities and spirits.
  • Iwi: the largest social unit of Māori society, often translated as “tribe.”
  • Hapū: a sub-tribe or clan. The hapū is the basic political unit of Māori society. Each hapū has its own chief and can generally operate independently of its iwi.
  • Whānau: family or extended family.
  • Waka: literally “canoe,” a person’s waka is his or her ancestry and refers to how the ancestors arrived in Aotearoa.
  • Pepeha: a way of introducing yourself in Māori. It tells people who you are by sharing your connections with the people and places that are important to you. Every Māori we met shared their pepeha with us, first in the Māori language, and then again in English. When we met Ra on our first day, after she shared her pepeha with us, she invited each of us to create a pepeha by talking about where we come from. You can create your own pepeha.
  • Marae: a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular iwi, hapū, or whānau.
  • Wharenui: meeting house. Photos of dead ancestors decorate the walls inside.
  • Hongi: a traditional greeting done by touching noses and sometimes foreheads.
  • Harirū: shaking of hands

The marae we were welcomed into is called Tipapa. It is the marae of the Ngāi Tokowaru hapū, part of the Ngāti Manawa iwi.


In the morning we drove from Rotorua to Murupara, a small town about an hour away with a predominantly Māori population. When we arrived, we met Kiri, a young woman (maybe in her early 20s), who came on our bus and shared her pepeha, which she described as a sort of passport. We then drove to the marae as she told us about life in Murupara. She loves living in a small town because she knows literally everyone, but she acknowledged that there are many problems because of high unemployment.

She told us that the local economy was, for a long time, based almost entirely on the timber industry. Her iwi worked in that industry until offshoring and automation led to a loss of jobs. She spoke of alcoholism, drug abuse, gangs, and domestic violence, particularly among her generation. But she also exuded optimism and pride in her community. 

The Pōwhiri

The pōwhiri begins with the entrance of the guests into the marae, women in front, followed by the men. Taz, a member of the hapū, led us in and served as our representative. Then we took seats in chairs, this time with the men in front. The ceremony began with a woman doing a chant, and then there was a lengthy chant by the chief of the hapū. I made a video.

After this, Taz spoke on our behalf. Then we sang a song we had practiced for this occasion:

E toru ngā mea
Ngā mea nunui
E ki ana
Te Paipera
Ko te mea nui
Ko te aroha

There are three things
Very important things
As stated in
the Bible
and the greatest thing

Finally, we went to the front, single file, and greeted the members of the hapū with hongi and harirū. Now the chief invited us to enter the wharenui, where he told us about some of their traditions and explained some of what took place. Then we went to the community hall (the large building on the right side of the marae for tea and cookies.

The Business

I understand that tourism is a business. This pōwhiri was not a unique honor for OAT travelers. (In fact, there was another tour group who also participated.) The hapū did not invite us to be their honored guests. We paid for this experience.

But as we sat in the community hall and had our tea and cookies, Taz got up in the front of the room at talked to us. And I learned something more valuable than experiencing the pōwhiri.

Some economics

The Māori have a long history of being persecuted by the British settlers who came to New Zealand starting in the late 18th century. In 1840 the British and the Māori signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding documents of the Commonwealth of New Zealand. But the English version and the Māori version of the treaty diverged on several points. For more than a hundred years, Māori were second-class citizens. They could not practice their traditions. They could be, and were, punished for speaking the Māori language in public. The government stole Māori land and displaced the people.

Gradually the Māori have won back their lost freedoms and regained freedom and equal status under the law. In 1987 the Māori language was named an official language. 

But the problems Kiri told us about have plagued the community in Murupara and elsewhere. The lack of job opportunities has especially hurt the young adult generation.

Tourism to strengthen the community

A woman named Nadine Toe Toe, member of a different hapū who married into this one, had an idea, to use tourism as a way of strengthening the community by involving young people in cultural exchanges. Bringing tourists to Murupara not only brings a much-needed financial boost, but also creates opportunities for cultural exchange. By employing young people like Kiri and Taz as local guides, she has opened their world. We learn about Māori traditions, and they learn about other parts of the world. Nadine opened a Kohutapu Lodge, where tourists can come to engage in more activities and stay overnight in cabins or in a big communal house. 

Last year a group from Murupara, including Kiri, attended and participated in a program in Australia where they worked together with Aboriginal people there to find new ways of advancing their cultures and economies. They are getting ready to do their first triple exchange with First Nations people from British Columbia. And in the process, they are finding solutions to the problems that have disproportionately hurt teens and young adults.

If you have a Facebook account, you can watch this video that Taz showed us about the exchange program, you can meet Nadine (and Kiri is in there too), and you can feel a little of what I felt yesterday at the marae of the Ngāi Tokowaru.


I may have come to Aotearoa on a different waka, but I felt like I have connected with my whānau.

Kohutapu Lodge

After Taz talked about this, we went to Kohutapu Lodge and met Nadine. She came onto our bus and, shared her pepeha, and welcomed us with so much exuberance, it is easy to understand how she has made a success of the work she is doing. We shared a fabulous meal cooked in a hāngī, an underground pit filled with stones that are heated until they are red hot. Then the food is placed in metal baskets on top of the stones, and everything is covered with cloth and then buried, and it is allowed to cook for several hours.

Taz and a buddy unbury the hāngī

After lunch, Taz showed us around and explained the use of the traditional weapon, the taiaha.

Before we left, Taz and his buddy performed the haka, a ceremonial dance.

I love to travel for many reasons, but nothing beats this kind of experience. 

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