A pōwhiri is a formal ceremonial welcome, where the essential elements are the: 

  • Karanga (greeting call or incantation).
  • Whaikōrero (formal speeches).
  • Waiata (song) performed at the end of the whaikōrero to support what has been said.
  • Hongi and harirū (shake hands) and hongi (press noses). Kissing on the check is also appropriate.
  • Kai – sharing of food which lifts the tāpu (sacredness) of the pōwhiri.

The word pōwhiri encapsulates two concepts that are important to Māori. According to Waitangi kaumatua (elder) Wiremu Williams, of the Ngā Puhi iwi, pō can be translated as a venture into ‘the unknown’ or a new experience, while whiri is derived from whiriwhiri meaning the act or experience of exchanging information and knowledge.

Te reo Māori is the language used during pōwhiri. The customs of a pōwhiri can vary depending on region and iwi. Massey acknowledges the customs of its mana whenua iwi for each campus.

Pōwhiri origins

The primal atua (gods) Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father) and their children are symbolised in the layout of the marae and its significance during pōwhiri (welcomes).

The marae ātea, the space outside the front of the meeting house, is the domain of Tūmatauenga (or Tū), the god of war. Speeches that take place on the marae ātea are allowed to be forceful, representing the nature of Tū.

When pōwhiri happen in a non-marae space, the ātea is created by setting up chairs for the manuhiri and manu whenua across a space or divide. In this situation the laying out of seating is a critical part of the pōwhiri as the middle space represents the ātea.

Purpose of pōwhiri

Traditionally, the pōwhiri process was a way of seeing whether people were friends or enemies. This rationale still plays out today in the way women enter and sit behind the men as a form of protection.

Pōwhiri etiquette 

  • Arrive early. It is considered impolite to walk in once a pōwhiri is underway.
  • Ensure cell phones are switched off throughout the pōwhiri.
  • Do not walk in front of a speaker or through the space between the manuhiri (guests) and Mana whenua (hosts)
  • Men should lead the group and take the front seats with women behind.

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