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When New Zealanders set out on overseas adventures, they take a piece of their homeland with them in the form of Maori symbols. Writer Helen Cordery explains their meaning.
Text by: Helen Cordery
Country: New Zealand

alk into any bar or tourist attraction in the world and you will easily spot the Kiwis. The desire to leave our homeland has become something of a ritual for us, so much so that the words “overseas expedition”, or OE, have become part of the general lexicon. Growing up in isolation at the end of the world, it has become the norm to leave on long trips overseas to the nations we hear about every day in the media.

However, the majority of New Zealanders find a way to keep connected to their homeland. Some of the most common ways today include carrying a piece of New Zealand as necklace pendants or marking their bodies with sacred symbols unique to Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.

Carving has always been a revered and vital component of Maori heritage because of its oral history; pieces were intended to carry stories through generations. Stone, shell and bone necklaces can be worn by both men and women, are always received (not bought) and must be worn regularly on the skin to absorb body oil. When this happens, the carving is said to be blending with the wearer, and therefore working its spiritual properties. Bone will turn a honey -gold colour.

Bone carvings were traditionally cut from whale bone. Today, some carvings use the remains of whales beached ashore, but they are typically made with cattle bone. The more commonly worn pendant is made of New Zealand greenstone, a type of jade known locally as pounamu, and it can be found only in the South Island. This sacred stone was originally used for tools, adornments (usually in the form of a tiki), weapons, or to indicate status or peace. Today helicopters remove raw boulders from riverbeds, and carvers work the rocks with diamond- tipped tools. Cherysse Tane, a New Zealander belonging to a long line of Maori carvers, adds that “the darker the poumanu, the closer it is to the ‘heart’ of the stone. [It must then be] blessed because it is so sacred”.

Of the shapes, one of the most recognized is the koru, which is based upon the opening fern frond, an abundant tree type whose image is synonymous with the islands. This carving is often given to those who are beginning a new life phase, such as newborns or newlyweds, because it signifies harmony and new life. Another is the tiki, which can be seen across Polynesia and is said to represent the first human being who came down from the stars. Maori legends say that he created woman from his image, and as such, many people believe that he signifies fertility and is usually worn for good luck.

The sea plays a significant role in Maori culture, thanks to its offering of kaimoana, or seafood, which once formed a vital component of the traditional indigenous diet. New Zealand itself was regarded as a rich bounty, caught and raised to the surface by a young fisherman named Maui in local mythology. Whales, dolphins and other sea creatures are often carved into meeting spaces and signify anything from wisdom to safety.

The manaia is a twisting shape that is part bird, part man and part fish, and is thought to represent the balance between air, land and sea. Its presence protects the wearer from evil and draws its power from existing partially in the supernatural world. Similarly, the fishhook (hei matau) is a common symbol that is said to capture good luck and energy, and gives safe travel over water, accounting for its popularity among OE travellers.

The simple hanging teardrop roimata is known as the comfort stone, because it offers reassurance, independence, and strength. Hine Brown, from Northland, believes it was her roimata stone that saved her life when she was struggling against depression. After years of being relegated to the house, one day her friend gave her a pendant.

“It was dark and flecked with pale green, and so heavy and cold when I put it on. Soon it grew warm and a month later I felt lighter,” she said. “Not long after I was off medication and back to work. Now it’s a part of me and I never take it off.”

Roimata is similar in shape to the toki, another symbol that represents the traditional working tool of the Maori, the adze. The toki is the same implement that the Maori god Tane used to pull apart the sky and the earth in the traditional creation myth, and the symbol is believed to be infused with strength and power.

Tattoos, too

The demand for tattoos has grown, and no form is more popular than the traditional art of ta moko. Singers Rihanna and Robbie Williams are among the many visitors to New Zealand who have chosen ta moko-inspired designs. However, like the pendants, Maori tattoos signify much more than artistry. It is a form of communication that reveals a person’s genealogy. Unlike a tattoo, ta moko refers to the scarring of the skin in order to reflect a person’s family history, whakapapa, a concept any visitor to New Zealand will hear when visiting Maori sites due to the inherent importance of the whanau, or family.

Traditionally deep cuts were made into the skin, which were then tapped with ink using chisels made of shark bone. A further method saw chisels inserted into the skin and struck with a mallet. Ink from burnt wood, caterpillars infected with a certain fungus and burnt kauri tree gum with animal fat was used. Common areas of the body that were marked included the buttocks and the face, the latter of which is regarded as a strong statement of Maori identity, and is considered an honour to receive.

The form of artwork most commonly tattooed upon tourists is called kirituhi. This denotes moko-inspired designs that are suitable for non-Maori, but still incorporate many of the traditional elements. Needles are used for both kirituhi and ta moko, and often follow an interview to ascertain that the recipient is worthy of being tattooed. Symbols include the same used in the making of pendants (mentioned above), as well as bands and lines that connote anything from fish scales to whale teeth, and characteristics such as courage and strength.

Different regions also have different associated symbols; for example, Northland is depicted as a stingray due to its proximity to the coastline. Daniel King explains that “it has immense meaning to me as it represents so many things. It portrays my family, my heritage and my bloodline but also it represents the place my heart truly calls home: Northland. To me, it isn’t simply a tattoo; it’s what has always been under my skin that has been made visible through the talent of an artist and storyteller.”

His tattoo was the result of around 15 hours of work by internationally acclaimed artist Paitangi Ostick, who can be found working from her open garage in front of the Pacific Ocean in Waitangi. Paitangi works hard to create beautiful, meaningful designs around her client’s stories and genealogies. In Daniel’s tattoo, a stingray can be clearly seen alongside the Maltese Cross, a symbol of his mother’s ancestral nation, Malta, merging beneath a pattern meant to symbolise the joining of bloodlines, while the eyes of the manaias depict various family members.

This is not to say that all New Zealanders who travel overseas get ta moko tattoos or wear pounamu stones, but many do. We grow up hanging off the end of the world, giving rise to a staunch pride in all of the things that make us kiwi. We might leave for a year or two or twenty, but our hearts will always have their roots beneath the ever-present rainclouds that keep our islands so green. We wear our symbols of New Zealand with pride because they are what makes us unique, and remind us of our friends, family and culture far away. While many of us may not be of Maori descent, we are all New Zealanders, and there is no better way to acknowledge that than to carry a piece of ancient rock worn down by rushing river water around our necks, or by looking in the mirror and seeing our family reflected in the swirling patterns of the ta moko.

Where to Buy: Many souvenir stores sell carvings but unless these come from reputable sellers, they are unlikely to be real. The website boneart lists authenticated establishments.

Classes: Learn about traditional Maori beliefs during bone-carving courses nominated by Lonely Planet at carvingbone Ta Moko

Where to Go: Visit acclaimed artist Paitangi Ostick in the heart of New Zealand’s historical Bay of Islands, home to the birthplace of the Treaty of Waitangi.


Kiwis'’ connections to home

New Zealanders, or Kiwis as they are also known, love to travel overseas for a year or two or twenty. But they never forget where they come from and they always return home. Today it is normal for Kiwis to travel to the countries they hear about in the media.

However, when New Zealanders travel they find a way to keep connected to their homeland. Some of the most common ways to stay connected include carrying a piece of New Zealand as a necklace pendant or a tattoo on their bodies with sacred symbols that are unique to Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.

Most pendants are carved from stone, shell, or bone and can be worn by both men or women. These carvings are an important part of Maori heritage and they tell a story. You should not buy your pendant, but rather it should be a gift. Also, it must be worn regularly on the skin to absorb body oil to blend with the wearer.

The most common carvings are the koru, which resembles an opening fern frond; the tiki, which represents the first human being who came from the stars; the kaimana or seafood; the maiana, a twisting shape that is part bird, part man, and part fish; the roimata, which means teardrop; and the toki, which is an adze, the traditional tool of the Maori.

The tattoos are made in the traditional style of ta moko, which scars the skin with a design to reflect the person'′s family history.

Not all New Zealanders who travel overseas get ta moko tattoos or wear traditional carvings as pendants, but many do. It is a way for them to remember their homeland and show the pride they feel for being from New Zealand.



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Kiwis’ connections to home



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