Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My First Powhiri

My reason for returning to Hastings before heading south, apart from seeing Shani again and catching up, was to attend my first powhiri. A powhiri is a traditional ceremony that can be performed in many different contexts. In this one, I was invited by Shani to a powhiri celebrating the beginning of the university session at EIT (Eastern Institute of Technology). As I may have mentioned, Shani is studying Maori Policy in Te Reo Maori (in the Maori language). Much of the study she's told me about is learning more detail about her people's past traditions and concepts of government etc...

I was thrilled when Shani invited me to this ceremony. I had wanted to experience something authentic and not "touristy". There is something to say for the touristic experiences. They show you what the locals think are important in impressing the audience and in showing the most inspiring aspects of their culture, and it provides you with a rough base on what things used to be like. I was happy to have seen the ceremonial stuff in Rotorua, but I was even more excited to see the real stuff...what is being done today; how the Modern-day Maori embraces his or her history and puts forth the spirit in a world that has become so technologically oriented.

So here's my little journey. I now belong to a Marae. The name is Te Ara o Tawhaki (The Path of Tawhaki). The picture above shows my marae.

To explain how this is, you have to know that when you have never come onto a marae, there is a process that must be respected. Traditionally, though I believe that different Iwi (tribal groups) might have slightly different ways of proceeding, there will be one woman or a group of women on the marae grounds that will sing to you. In this case, they started the ceremony with the blowing of the conch and then the women sang. Basically what they are singing is a karanga, a welcome to the visitors onto their marae. As they sing, the visitors start walking through the threshold of the marae grounds.

From the visitors' perspective, one woman is chosen to represent us and responds in song, thanking the hosts for inviting us on the grounds. Women always enter the marae first because their song opens up the spiritual pathways. The men follow.

Then, in this case and because it is a school, the students did a haka for us.

Below: the woman welcoming us again after our representative thanked her, followed by a haka

Once inside the grounds, the men sit in front of the women. They are the protectors of the women (who are the bringers of life and the strongest link to the spiritual world) and they also do the speaking during the meeting or "hui".

After all the talks, the visitors approach the hosts and we hongi or kiss, it's up to the host to determine what will be done. I was really nervous because I didn't know what to do when, especially because I was to find out that everyone had their own system! I did a hongi with most of the men and kissed the cheek of most of the women.

The hongi (which is basically joining the foreheads and noses and the breathing in of each other's breath) can be done in many ways, I was to find out. Some people closed their eyes, some looked at me until our noses touched (making me cross-eyed), some wrinkled their noses as they approached me (with a smile, it was quite cute, actually). It was so varied, but it was always, the holding out of the right hand for clasping, the other hand holding the right arm as a kind of steadying and then the foreheads touching followed by the noses touching.

I must have hongied at least 20 people. It was really exciting, a bit scary (because I didn't want to screw up), but mostly quietly spiritual. It was beautiful.

People giving each other the hongi or kissing

After the hongi, we were invited into a hall for refreshments. In case you haven't noticed yet, kai(food) is a huge part of the Maori traditional lifestyle and that suits me just fine! All ceremonies are followed by the breaking of bread, so to speak. It's a way of bringing everyone together.

So as we walked into the hall, we were greeted by a song from all the students encouraging us to eat.

They stopped singing and with my plate of food I approached Shani to tell her about my experience and she smiled at me and they all started singing again! It was a really funny thing because I didn't expect it at all. Me and my little faux-pas!

Below: the singing encouraging us to break bread. There's Shani on the far left in the black t-hirt!

You may have noticed that they were saying "Haere Mai" which means welcome.

That's it! After that we ate and chatted and we left. It was a very cool experience. You would have had to be there to get the full effect, I was so afraid of offending that I didn't record or take pictures of nearly as much as I saw or experienced. (I'm gonna need to get over that shyness someday, especially when I've been given the green light to shoot all I want!)

See you next time!


Anonymous said...

What a very interesting ceremony. I which I could have seen it from all the different percpectives. Did you sing? It's interesting b/c the chant like singing very much conjured up the feeling of Hawaiian or Sumoan ceremony/gatherings I've either seen or built in my mind, with the occasional lead voice coming out and almost sounding off a command or change of direction in what's being said. Fasinating really...and even in the welcoming to eat and drink, the dance seemed very familiar for some reason.

L said...

Hey lady,

You're not off track there. Pacific islanders often have similar traditions. They are distant family dating back hundreds of years. The powhiri was very cool. I didn't sing. Didn't know the songs nor what was being said. I was happy to just stand and absorb it all.