WAITANGI, NEW ZEALAND—There I was, nose to nose with the most intimidating man I have ever seen. He had tattoos covering his face, gang symbols on his cheeks and the word ‘Notorious’ written across his nose. He had a mighty presence, big and tall with his hair tied up high and his eyes hidden by Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. We put our arms on each other’s shoulders and pressed our noses together.
What we had just done was called a hongi. In order to be welcomed into a Maori family, you have to hongi with every member. When you press noses, the symbolism is that you’re sharing the same breath. I had shared my breath with Francis and despite his frightening appearance, he was surprisingly friendly.
I was in this situation because of New Zealand’s Waitangi day, a national holiday on February 6th. It is a day that celebrates the time when the Maori and the British settlers signed a treaty to share the land together. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but conflicts aside, every year in Waitangi, which is just north of Paihia in the North Island, Maoris come in their wakas (think dragonboats) and land on the beach where they perform the haka (a war dance), just like their ancestors did in 1840 when the Treaty was first signed.
I was spending the week before Waitangi Day with the NgaPuhi Maoris to learn about their culture, from practicing the haka to learning to paddle a waka. The reason I was able to take part in this was because of Hone Mihaka. His tour company regularly takes tourists out on the river and he helps to organize the festivities surrounding Waitangi Day each year. This year (2012) was the first time he was letting pakeha (non-Maoris) come with him on the journey and five of us signed up.
In the days leading up to Waitangi Day everyone would wake up early around 7 a.m. and practice the steps to the haka and practice paddling in a waka. Since I had never done this before, I had a huge learning curve. I remember the first day being quite difficult because I couldn’t remember what the commands meant, with many new words such as Hoi Kia Mau! Hoi Kei Runga! Hoi Pehia!
Then after the second or third day of training, it just clicked and I knew the positions for my paddle according to the commands. I was suddenly fluent in all the chants we were singing. One of the elders in the community, Bunny, told me that this is the spirit of the waka.
He said when you’re on the waka, the spirit of working together and everyone chanting creates a strong force. And I believed him, especially since I could barely remember the commands when I was off the waka!
For many Maoris it was their first time participating in Waitangi day festivities. Many of the people there were part of the Mongrel Mob, one of NZ’s most notorious gangs. Francis, who was one of the leaders of the Mongrel Mob, had asked Hone if they could participate in the Waitangi Day experiences.
I remember meeting an 18-year old named Sam, who was part of the Mob. He had a very tough exterior, lots of tattoos, red baggy clothes, and yet at this place he was helping clean up and wash the dishes. He taught me how to throw a rugby ball. I remember being impressed by how committed he was to the haka; he had so much strength and power in his steps.
This was the first time he was able to participate in the Waitangi Day festivities. Every other year he had just been watching on the sidelines and he told me that he was pumped to actually be in the waka this year.
After a few days of practicing, it was Waitangi day. We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get on the wakas as soon as possible. When we got out on the water, the energy was palpable, no one was making silly jokes or getting distracted, everyone was focused. That’s when I realized the importance of this day—it really meant something for the Maori people.
Going in a waka to the beach was a representation of what their ancestors would have done 172 years ago. This day created awareness that their culture is still alive, and it’s here to stay. It was a message to the European settlers to honour the treaty that their ancestors signed.
That’s when I began to understand what a privilege it was for me to be there. When we landed on the beach, there were people everywhere, watching us, with their cameras held in front of their faces, ready to see what we would do. We performed the haka with such power and vigor, that I’m pretty sure we scared a few of the tourists. It was an extremely exhilarating moment.
Hone said this mantra every day: “Where canoes are tethered together, ideas are provoked, dialogue is exchanged and enlightenment shines forth.”
Such a powerful message, and that’s why he lets pakeha come on this journey. If you are a traveling to New Zealand and looking for a real cultural experience, it doesn’t get any more real than this. After a month of doing the regular tourist track in New Zealand, constantly meeting and leaving people I met, it was such a wonderful feeling to be welcomed into this community as if I were family. Despite not sharing a language or a heritage, we were unified through this experience and I can’t wait to spend another Waitangi day with my Maori family.
Graham Shonfield is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.
JUST THE FACTS