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Who Are the Maori?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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The Maori are the aboriginal tribe that inhabits New Zealand. They are thought to have emigrated from the Polynesian Islands to New Zealand in the 500-year period between 800-1300 CE. There is significant evidence that these people share many common words with Polynesian languages, as well as retain certain cultural values.

The Maori are one of the more successful groups of aboriginal tribes in terms of surviving colonization. Their cultural traditions have withstood incursion by European nations, though many have intermarried with Europeans.

This does not mean that the Maori have not had troubles regarding European colonists. Some lands were confiscated by the British during the Maori Land Wars in the 1860s. The population declined shortly after this period and many began to predict that the Maori people would soon become only a distant memory to New Zealand land.

Fortunately, this prediction did not come to pass, and the culture rose again. The 20th century brought greater respect for the Maori culture and people. The many who volunteered to aid Britain in the struggle of WWII heightened this respect in the British Empire.

Since the 1960s, some previous confiscation of land has been given back to the Maori. Concerns about the decline in the original language have led to schools taught solely in Maori so that it remains a vital part of the culture.

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While remaining true to cultural ideals and origins, the Maori have also embraced modern societal structures, which is possibly why they've remained successful. They form a significant political power in New Zealand, have influenced school curriculum, and since 2004 have owned their own television network. There have also actively participated in the UK government structure and hold several seats in New Zealand’s parliament.

Others have come to respect the Maori way of life through a variety of studies and films. Studies of the group go back as far as the 17th century, but the previous life of warring tribes has settled into a more modern way of life that remains in keeping with cultural values. Despite cultural survival, however, they remain the poorest people, as a group, in the population of New Zealand.

Several films have documented aspects of Maori culture. One of the most recent and possibly most critically acclaimed of these is Whale Rider, which portrays a young girl’s ascension to tribal leadership through the difficult maze separating Maori culture from that of European culture. The film, released in 2003, won critical acclaim and numerous awards. It has been celebrated by the people who participated in the filming, as an accurate account of the separate pull between maintaining cultural values and being a vital part of the European world.

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