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Experiencing New Zealand’s thriving indigenous culture

Traveling around New Zealand, I was surprised by how thouroughly Maori culture permeated through the whole country. While still somewhat marginalized in society, the Maori seem to have a stronger national presence and hold more important business and political positions than other indigenous groups I’ve seen around the world. There are popular Maori musicians and dancers, and even a Maori cartoon show. Kiwis of European descent also seem to be embracing Maori culture. Many have started using the original Maori names of places instead of their English names and some even had tattoos done in traditional tribal patterns. New Zealand’s beloved national rugby team, the All Blacks, even do a Maori-inspired haka (war dance) before each match.

Which brings to me my experience attending Te Matatini, the biannual national competition of Kapa Haka, a Maori performance art that incorporates singing, dancing, and the war dance. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but it turned out to be a full-blown display of Maori passion and theatrics—not a tourist show at all. The mostly Maori crowd was exuberant—family, friends, and fans of the 30 competing groups, who were from regions all over the country.

There were three days of competition, with each group getting 25 minutes on stage. Groups consisted of 40 members, both male and female, and were dressed in traditional Maori costumes: the men often covered in full body tattoos, and the women with painted facial mokos, ink patterns on the lips and chin. Each group had to fit several required elements into their performance, including singing, traditional chants, choreographed dances, poi (an art form where female dancers manipulate little balls on a string), and—most people’s favorite part—a chest-pounding, feet-stomping war dance by the men.

The singing was all in Maori so I didn’t understand the themes until some of the performers explained them to me afterwards. Some kapa hakas were traditional while other others were comments about current issues facing the Maori, such rising levels of domestic abuse in some tribes or the struggle to maintain Maori identity in the modern world.

I was moved by the performers and the responses of the crowd, who often cheered, cried, and even performed spontaneous hakas to show their support. I’ve only ever seen Red Sox fans get that emotional.

I had to leave to catch my plane back to the U.S. before the winners were announced. But it didn’t really matter—it was just great to see a culture that had once been so mistreated now thriving.

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