What Makes the Man/Woman: Maori Culture and Expression of Heritage

Native to New Zealand, the Polynesian culture of the Maori use a special method of tattooing- known as Ta moko– inscribe their bodies with meaning.  Scarring the skin, ta moko symbols are unique, each curve and repetition representing the individual’s genealogy and heritage, known as whakapapa.  Whakapapa is considered a type of ‘visual language’, a physical representation connecting the individual to their heritage and a commitment to their family, society and culture.

maori tours
Picture from http://www.newzealandtours.travel/aucklandmaoritours/full-day

          For many, the designs extend all over the back, face and down through the arms and legs.  The moko on the face is considered the ultimate expression of commitment, a symbol of one’s dedication to Maori culture, especially in the face of many other cultures, which consider facial tattoos as ‘taboo’ or often a marring of gang cultures of the West.  This could contribute to the reason why many believe the Maori moko looks to be intimidating.


Living Maori

          While the culture has certainly dwindled by disease, imperialism and cultural competition over its history in New Zealand, both men and women still practice ta moko today.  There has even been a notable resurgence of ta moko among the Maori left today- it is practiced as a rite of passage for both genders, accompanied by other rites and rituals throughout the lifetime.  Currently, Maori make up only 15% of New Zealand’s population, with most choosing to live in urban areas (84%).

maori 1970
Photo of Maori Protesters- Most Maori today live New Zealand’s cities

          The Maori continue to fight for indigenous rights in New Zealand, but the bulk of resistance movements occurred throughout the 1970s.  Many view ta moko as a mark of honor in the face of oppression, and the symbols of pride continue among many today, varying from full-bodied designs to more modest expressions of heritage.  No matter the mode, and though Maori culture may be carried by few, the markings on the face or carried in the spirit have proven resilient in the proudest individuals.

maori woman

-Bridget Healy


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