Discovering Maori – An Introduction

Over the years I have often found myself pondering over the word ‘māori‘, being at times a little fearful and quite intimidated by its use. The desire to be rid of the fear or mis-understanding has prompted this small study of the word.

My own known ethnic origins are most likely Western European / Celtic, the family having been in New Zealand 190 years with my forbears speaking the language of the New Zealand pre-European people most fluently and with very good understanding.  My personal comprehension of the language is limited, and so for reference, ‘A Dictionary of the Maori Language’, (H. W. Williams, 1971)1 is used, his definition of ‘maori’ being found under my ‘zAppendages‘ category. In that definition the author states that as a noun (a word naming something), Māori is a ‘person of the native race, a New Zealander, Maori’, and that it first appeared in that form of use in about 1850! That is ten years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed!  [My spelling of the maori ‘a’ I shall try and keep it as it was spelt at the respective time period it or the source material is referring to, and upper-case ‘M’ where a noun.]

Prior to about 1850 ‘maori’ simply meant (and still does) natural, common or ordinary; ‘tangata maori’ being a natural or ordinary human being, and there appears no indication of the word imparting any distinction between colour or ethnicity prior to the European arrival in New Zealand. Before 1850 terms like, New Zealanders, Aborigines, Natives or Savages were in use, ‘Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand‘ being used for the Treaty of Waitangi. The New Zealand Native words ati, ngati or ngai used as a prefix to a tribal or other group names also do not appear to indicate any distinction between those of different ethnic origin, which makes me wonder if (for an example), the ancient Ngati Hotu red-haired and fair-skinned people of the Central North Island (mentioned in the book ‘Tuwharetoa2 and elsewhere), lean less towards the Polynesian origins than I have been previously led to imagine.

An earlier 1844, ‘Dictionary of the New-Zealand Language’3, gives a description meaning for the word ‘Maori’, as being ‘Native’, and uses the following examples: He wai maori; native water, or fresh water. He tangata maori; a native man. He kai maori; sweet potatoes. Kuri maori; native dog, and so on. He mentions the ‘New Zealand Language, Native race, native oven, native mat, native flute, native house, etc.’. But nowhere does he mention Maori in the manner that we would use today with reference to the name of the people, or with terms such as Maori oven, Maori this or that, or just straight ‘Maori’. It just didn’t exist.

All New Zealanders regardless of ethnic origin are born maori (lower-case ‘m’).

All humans belong to the human race, there being one only human race (of course), if indeed race is an appropriate word to use.).

It is important to read this with careful consideration as to the dates mentioned above, for then the sequence of events should paint a clearer picture. I doubt if there was ever a Treaty prior to 1850 that had a version with the word ‘Maori’ in the title.

(I have since found another small publication4 published in 1892 with a very similar theme to this whole article.)

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A Dictionary of the Maori Language, Herbert W. Williams, M.A. 7th Edition 1971. A.R. Shearer, Govt. Printer, Wellington.
2 Tuwharetoa, John Te H. Grace 1959. Published by A. H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington.
3 A Dictionary of the New-Zealand Language and a Concise Grammar; to which are added a Selection of Colloquial Sentences by William Williams, B.A. Archdeacon of Waiapu. Paihia 1844. Copies online and in E-Books
4 What is Tangata Maori? A.S. Atkinson 1892 from the Journal of The Polynesian Society Vol.1, No. 3, 1892.

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