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Daily life in Māori communities – te noho a te hapori

by Mark Derby

Life in Māori villages revolved around acquiring food for the community, whether by growing crops, hunting or gathering. The arrival of Europeans – explorers, whalers, missionaries and, later, settlers – led to enormous changes in how Māori lived and worked.

Daily life in traditional communities

Ma wai e moe te tane
Mangere ki te mahi-kai?
Who will marry a man
Too lazy to till the ground for food?

This proverb, and many others like it, indicate that the search for food was the primary activity for Māori before the 19th century. Whether by growing, gathering or hunting, the acquisition of food dominated daily life from the time of the first arrivals around the 13th century. As a result, for nearly all Māori the day began early, before the sun was fully risen.

Prayers at sunrise

In certain tribes and at certain periods, the first regular activity of the day was to worship the rising sun. John Savage, a surgeon who visited the Bay of Islands in 1805, observed that during their dawn prayers the local people spread their arms and bowed their heads ‘with the appearance of much joy in their countenances, accompanied with a degree of elegant and reverential solemnity.’1 At this time they also sang a song, described as cheerful and harmonious.

Traditional months

Māori traditionally divided the year into months named for the main activities carried out in each period. Some tribes had names for only 10 months. The 10th, Poutū-te-rangi, corresponded to February–March. The following two months had no special activities associated with them so they were counted as one. Ample seasonal produce meant this time could be spent visiting, feasting, in recreation and sleeping.

Communal work

Then followed several hours of work in communal gardens, fishing or gathering shellfish and other seafood. Hunters pursued moa (while these giant flightless birds lasted), other birds and seals. The first meal of the day was usually consumed mid-morning, at about 10 or 11 o’clock by European measurement. The work then continued, often carried out by whole groups together, with special songs to direct the rhythm of shared tasks such as digging.

Community roles

Most chiefs were expected to work alongside their people, and they often proved the most expert and energetic. A few specialised in occupations such carving, tattooing or making feather cloaks. Children also worked alongside their families, learning adult tasks by imitation. Even very old people helped with light tasks such as plaiting and mending fishing nets, or shaping greenstone tools and ornaments.

A meal of fern root

A French naval officer watched fern root being eaten in the Bay of Islands in 1771. ‘They need quite a long time to eat a lot of it and so they spend a long time over their meals, which they usually take in common … It is most amusing to see fifteen or so of them gathered together, men, women and children, vying with one another in putting pieces of this root on the fire, beating it over and over again and chewing it with gusto.’2

Preparing for evening

As the sun began to sink, the workers laid down their tools and returned to their home village. Fresh water, bundles of firewood and prepared food were carried to the cooking fires by women and slaves – never by free men. The chief would distribute a haul of fresh fish, game or produce to his entire village, to ensure fair shares. Earth ovens and open fires were lit to cook the evening meal, and this part of the day was therefore named ahiahi, or ‘many fires’.

After eating

The rest of the evening was spent in games or conversation between people of all ages. Even at four or five years old, a chief’s son might sit among people of rank on the marae, paying close attention to what was said. In some areas an evening prayer was offered to the setting sun, and the song sung at this time was mournful. People typically retired to sleep once darkness fell. Apart from certain hunting or fishing activities, working at night was not encouraged since evil spirits were believed to be active after dark.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Maori and Europeans, 17731815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 335. Back
    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 16421772. Auckland: Viking, 1991, p. 410. Back

Changes in daily life after European arrival

European imports

The introduction in the late 18th century of European plants such as potatoes, animals such as pigs, and technology including iron tools and muskets, altered Māori people’s patterns of daily life dramatically and permanently.

Changing work patterns

To supply ships’ crews, and later missions and settlers, Māori turned to extractive industries such as flax preparation and timber milling, and to growing potatoes for trade. These activities were often carried out by work gangs drawn from several settlements, and disrupted the older seasonal and local patterns of subsistence production.

New forms of warfare

One of the greatest incentives to produce goods for sale to Europeans was to acquire muskets. These brought further disruption to long-established patterns of life. Warfare had been a central feature of Māori society for centuries, especially as population pressure on natural resources increased. However, war parties had been limited in the food resources they could carry, by the need to provide for their families, and by their hand weapons. Casualties were relatively light and warfare was a seasonal activity, traditionally carried out in winter when there was less need to work at food production.

The potato, especially when tended with steel tools, provided substantial crops of portable food, so war parties could mount expeditions lasting many months at a time. The death toll from these grew as the number of muskets increased. New and stronger (fortified villages) were built as protection against raiders, and this activity also disrupted traditional daily routines.

Missionary influence

Although Māori were slow to convert to Christianity, as they did so they abandoned the practice of morning and evening worship in place of a Sabbath service. Missionaries also taught literacy, and reading became a highly popular activity in villages at the end of the day’s work. Many children were encouraged to attend mission schools where they were introduced to a routine of rote learning, physical discipline and indoor activity.

Unchanging childhood

Anthropologist Pat Hōhepa grew up in the rural Hokianga community of Waimā, and conducted fieldwork there in the early 1960s. He found that some aspects of life had changed little from decades earlier. ‘The fresh-water river is the special haunt of the younger children – for swimming, eeling, throwing stones etc. Added pleasure is to be found in the hills and forests, adventuring, hunting goats, foraging, as well as catching freshwater crayfish and brook trout.’1

Returning to traditional patterns

In the aftermath of the wars between government forces and some Māori tribes in the mid-to-late 1800s, Māori communities in close contact with European settlements increasingly adopted a daily routine based on wage working. However, tribes that had suffered defeat and land confiscations during the wars returned to some of the customs of earlier times. The Pai Mārire religion reintroduced the practice of morning and evening prayers to the sun. Children in these communities seldom attended mission schools and were once again taught mainly by practical example. Although traditional clothing was only worn on ceremonial occasions, and European implements such as axes, spades and camp ovens replaced handcrafted possessions, the daily way of life in remote communities was distinctively Māori.

Rural community life

In 1900, 98% of Māori continued to live in small and scattered rural communities. The people of the coastal village of Paritū on the Coromandel Peninsula, for example, raised introduced fruit, vegetables and animals but also fished communally for their own subsistence. Collective work in gardens had been replaced by casual labour in gumfields, timber mills and mines, on private farms and in public-works gangs. Although children attended school and there was some access to European medical services, tohunga were also active. Many people practised both Christian and Māori religious activities. The focus of community life was the marae – the setting for oratory, hospitality, land debates, haka and song. Tangihanga were the most culturally distinctive of all marae activities.

Dairy-farming communities

During the early 20th century Māori increasingly adopted European patterns of life such as a midday meal. In the small dairy-farming settlement of Waimā in south Hokianga, work followed the same seasonal pattern as on neighbouring European farms. Very few young people entered secondary education. In their free evenings they went to the local picture theatres, youth clubs and dances. Games of tennis, hockey, basketball and rugby were popular on Saturdays.

Wage-working meant that less time was spent on communal activities such as marae maintenance than in the past. However, Māori generally lived close to their extended family, marae and urupā (family burial place).

    • P. W. Hōhepa, A Maori community in Northland. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1970, p. 87–88 (originally published in 1964). Back

Daily life in modern Māori communities

Impact of urbanisation

The mass migration of Māori to the cities in the years after the Second World War transformed the patterns of Māori life at least as profoundly as the European-introduced changes of the previous century. This extremely rapid process of urbanisation brought Māori and non-Māori communities into close proximity, often for the first time. Māori were generally expected to adjust their patterns of life to those of the larger and more dominant culture.

Pattern of wage-earning

The primary reason Māori moved to cities was to take up waged work in expanding industries such as freezing works. This made it almost impossible to sustain traditional customs of collective work and communal living. Instead, for many Māori wage-earners a routine developed of eight-hour shifts, overtime and pay-night beer parties.

Life in Murupara

A 1953 study of daily life in the milling town of Murupara found that ‘When the day’s work is over, there is not much a man can do … A screening at the local picture theatre takes place only twice a week. At weekends there are sports … trips to town or to the beach for seafood, horse races … and chances to hunt and fish … Long leisurely discussions, held wherever people meet, are the most frequent leisure activity … At weekends these groups tend to become drinking sessions or parties.’1

New ways of life

Although large numbers of state houses were built to house the exploding Māori workforce, their design did not take account of Māori culture, such as living in extended families. Overcrowding and friction with non-Māori neighbours sometimes resulted. At weekends and holidays long return journeys were made to depopulated home communities, or to the coast to harvest delicacies not available in city shops.

Impact on communities

Tribal leaders who stayed in their traditional communities found that the shrinking population of able-bodied residents made it much harder to organise collective activities such as marae working bees. Their authority within their communities suffered as a result. Māori living in cities were generally separated from their tribal homelands and lived and worked alongside Māori from many other tribes, so that tribal identity and customs were much harder to maintain. Many Māori did not adjust easily to these sharp changes in their way of life. Some fell into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, imprisonment and mental illness. For some, pan-tribal Māori gangs replaced tribal identities.

Rebuilding patterns of life

From the 1960s institutions such as urban pan-tribal marae and kōhanga reo (Māori-language preschools) arose to help Māori build new communities within a predominantly non-Māori society. These communities were headed by leaders who were typically younger and better educated than those in more traditional communities. They pressed for innovations such as tangi leave from employment to enable Māori in the paid workforce to uphold the most important aspects of their customary way of life.

Pōwhiri and rāhui

In the 21st century the overwhelming majority of Māori live alongside non-Māori and there is little difference in their patterns of daily life. However, certain aspects of Māori life dating from pre-European times, such as the rituals of pōwhiri (welcome) before important occasions, are still maintained. Traditional cultural forms such as tattooing and the use of Māori weaponry and musical instruments have been revived, and increasingly adopted by non-Māori as well.

A wide variety of sacred and significant sites now have tapu imposed them out of respect for Māori custom. In waterways where a drowning occurs, whether of a Māori or a non-Māori, a rāhui, or traditional prohibition on fishing, may be imposed. In these ways, traces of pre-European patterns of daily life are retained and re-invented for a changing society.

    • James E. Ritchie, The making of a Maori: a case study of a changing community. Wellington: Reed, 1963, p. 79–80. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Daily life in Māori communities – te noho a te hapori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 March 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013