Before collecting our baggage at Auckland Airport, we pass under a wooden archway of carved traditional figures, tongues extended and mother-of-pearl eyes staring fearsome challenges. Next we face down a line of very broad-shouldered immigration officials ranged at their desks like the All Black defence though, unlike Kiwi rugby players, they cheerfully let Australians through.
We’d like to learn more about Maoridom before we leave Aotearoa, and to improve on our sketchy knowledge of New Zealand’s history which currently consists of: moas, Maoris, Tasman, settlers with pianos, Sir Edmund Hillary, America’s Cup, Lord of the Rings.
Our education starts at the Auckland Museum, which stages a Maori cultural performance three times daily. Such events can be very earnest, but this time the ice is quickly broken as six energetic young singer/dancers (“warriors” and “maidens” they call themselves) from the Ruaruka company launch into an eyebrow-raising, tongue-thrusting haka.
The explanation that follows is friendly, funny and unpretentious. For the next half hour, the performers demonstrate deft dances with twirling poi balls, play traditional games with juggling sticks, and the warriors show us how to do serious damage with a variety of hand weapons.
They sing and dance well, and it is innocuous, entertaining, good-humoured stuff, without a word about musket wars or European invaders. Nor is there any mention of the problems that Maoris still face in education, employment and health.
To try to get more sense of traditional life, we spend some time in the museum’s display areas. The Maori Court features collections of baskets, weapons, jewellery and domestic implements. Highlights are the elaborately decorated ancestor house and a 25metre long war canoe, which could carry up to 100 warriors.
Touch screens and videos tell us something about life in the pa (village), family structure and the significance of ancestry to Maori people, and we learn how their language is thought to have spread across the Pacific. Upstairs in a corner of the natural history museum is a corner dedicated to Maori creation stories, well told. All in all, very well done.
Next, to get a real hit of Maori culture we drive three hours up to Waitangi in Northland (the pointy bit that sticks up above Auckland). It was here that the first Maori migrants probably landed over seven hundred years ago, and in 1840 this was the site where Maori tribes agreed terms with the British crown by signing the Treaty of Waitangi.
The treaty grounds, ‘the birthplace of our nation’, are open to the public, free to Kiwis, though foreigners pay a toll plus extra fees for guides and performances. I opt for the ‘Make My Day’ package, which includes a tour of the grounds and an interpretative walk through the surrounding nature.
When I arrive for the first tour of the morning, it turns out I’m the only customer, though other visitors join us later. Maori guide Vern tells me the story of the place. He explains how his ancestor Kupe the Explorer first discovered the land of the long white cloud around the year 900, and carried the story back to his native Hawaiki, thought to be near present-day Tahiti.
On the spreading lawns, with great views over the Bay of Islands and the Maori flag fluttering overhead, I learn of the negotiations between the Maori chiefs and British resident James Busby, a ‘man-o’-war without guns’. Busby had a good rapport with the local people, but when the first treaty was proposed the chiefs ‘spat on it’. Then after days and nights of deliberations, they signed up to an amended version.
Decades of warfare followed. ‘Why did that happen?’ I ask. ‘Aren’t treaties supposed to stop that sort of thing?’ It’s a tough question, and Vern doesn’t have a satisfactory answer either. ‘It was a start, and it showed our people had rights,’ he shrugs, ‘but some of them still aren’t satisfied. They want more, even today.’
At night on the treaty grounds, Culture North stage a two-hour drama and light show, dramatising New Zealand history. Sad to say, it’s a bit of a let down. Is it an immutable law of travel that cultural performances staged principally for tourists must leave us slightly underwhelmed? Or is it our own fault for not seeking out something with better artistic credentials?
After all, if we want to introduce visitors to Aboriginal culture, a performance by Bangarra Dance Theatre will be far more satisfying than some phoney corroboree featuring boomerang throwing and average didgeridoo playing.
The Culture North show begins well. The director gathers us at the gate to teach us the protocol. Three rather embarrassed older gentlemen are selected from the audience to be our ‘chiefs’ to face down the challenge as we approach the meetinghouse. Traditionally dressed warriors appear in the light to scream at us in Maori, threatening us with clubs and spears.
They throw leaves on the ground and our chiefs, as instructed, step forward to pick them up. ‘Then stand your ground,’ warns the director. ‘A step back is a sign of weakness and taking your eye off the warrior shows disrespect.’
It is a genuinely powerful theatrical moment. Once we have been accepted as friends, we remove our shoes and shuffle into the meetinghouse, adorned with beautiful carvings, to sit on none-too-comfortable plastic chairs.
The show begins – more hakas and poi dances, but this time performed with variable concentration and skills. The linking dialogue as a grandfather tells his granddaughter the potted history of their people is stilted and awkwardly delivered, and we even catch a performer stifling a yawn. None of which would matter too much, except that we’ve paid the sort of money that would have bought a ticket to a terrific Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu concert.
We clap politely at the end; these people have no doubt done their best, and other audience members seem more impressed than we are. They queue to be photographed with warriors brandishing weapons and sticking out tongues.
Over the course of our stay in New Zealand we meet a number of international tourists who’ve been to various Maori hangis (traditional feasts of steamed food) and concerts, and most have the same response – it was nice enough, but a bit forced and plastic.
So we’re left with as many questions as answers. How did a deeply spiritual people, so aware of their own history and proud of their culture, living on their own land and speaking their own language, become disadvantaged, despite having serious political clout in modern New Zealand?
To find the answers, we’ll have to read some books. The Maori tourism experience has at least sparked our interest. It’s a start.
Cultural performances at Auckland War Memorial Museum cost NZ$25, including museum entry.
Entry to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is $20, and guided activities and shows cost an additional $12 each. Cheaper packages are available for groups, families and additional performances.
Culture North’s Night Show costs $60 per person.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney