Almost all of our high-end clients receive a Maori welcome at some point in their trip around New Zealand. And almost all of them have no idea before they come here what it entails. And again, almost all of them point to it as one of the highlights of their time in New Zealand.
So, what is it, why should people do it and why does it have such impact? I'll try and answer those questions here. For those of you who are better informed than I - please add your comments. My understanding may be imperfect.
The "Maori welcome", known as a powhiri (poor-firi) has developed over many many years. It is a formal procedure followed when strangers appear on your territory. Maori are phenomenal at close combat and historically had no ranged weapons. This means any time you are within arms reach of a trained warrior, that warrior can do you serious injury. In pre-European times, Maori would raid each others settlements and this welcome evolved from procedures followed to safeguard your territory from these combat prodigies.
So when you spot a group of strangers in the distance, you alert the tribe by blowing a horn. Everyone gathers, ladies behind, protected by menfolk up-front. You send out a warrior to greet the visitors. This warrior advances fiercely, showing his prowess, showing you what you will have to deal with if you are here to cause trouble. He usually has a taiaha (pointed quarterstaff - a Maori warrior with one of these famously defeated a Japanese samurai with a centuries old sword - the sword was broken) which whirls around. He stares at you, intimidates you, and checks out who has come. He places a token, usually a branch, on the ground and if you pick it up it indicates you may be coming in peace. Bending down to pick it up, you put yourself and your neck at his mercy. It is important at this stage never to look away from his eyes - looking away means you don't think much of his prowess (unwise), smiling means you are laughing at his prowess (very unwise). Then he goes back and reports on numbers, strength etc.
Incidentally, you are led by your own chief who must be male (no sexism here - as the birthplace of the future, females are far too precious to risk) and take this all on the chin. The harder your chief is (glaring back), the more respect you are giving the warriors.
A second warrior comes out (for important people), and a third (for visiting chiefs). Often the taiaha comes whirling around and misses your nose by a few inches. We had one client mention that it was more intimidating than testifying before Congress.
After this examination the ladies start singing - lovely haunting singing. They are talking to the spirits asking them to clear a path and let you come in peace. Incidentally, while the warriors were 'welcoming' you, you may have noticed their eyes were a little glazed. They were in touch with their ancestors, checking out your ancestors at the same time as they were just missing your head.
You move forward, and the two groups stand opposite each other. Prayers are offered by the locals, thanking the gods for seeing you safely here, acknowledging the various spirits, ancestors and occasions special to that group and that place. These are then reinforced with a song. Maori love singing and sing beautifully.
It's then your turn and you can get up and say anything from 'thank you' through to a full-on speech about your family, where you have come from, how much you appreciate the fierce and totally real welcome, and whatever is important to you on that day. If you can follow it up with a song, you will see warm smiles on the other side.
Then it's the hongi. Commonly known as the touching of noses and famously used in Avatar, this is actually the sharing of breath, the coming together as one people. You press foreheads, touch noses and breath deeply - sharing breath. As often with Maori ceremonies, this is happening simultaneously on a spiritual plane and their third eye (in the forehead) is scoping out your third eye.
After this, everything relaxes and it's time to eat, chat, share. We often have talented carvers, taiaha masters, weavers and work in with Maori chefs to provide Maori delicacies such as titi (muttonbird, a seabird), smoked eel, fresh game, traditional greens, shellfish etc.
But that's the essence of a real Maori welcome. They are always personal, welcoming you as an individual and provide a spiritual welcome to New Zealand at the same time as introducing you to Maori culture. Our welcomers, like all our guides, are warm, gentle, respectful, fun and totally expert. And we do these only for one group at a time - you are being welcomed, just you, not you and half a cruise ship.
Our clients leave these days invigorated, enlightened, impressed and very much at ease in our country.