Day 7 & 8 – The outdoors

The Bay of Plenty is spectacular. Amazingly still mostly undeveloped. No highrises, low one-storey unpretentious houses, Caribbean-blue water, golden sand beaches and graceful sailboats crossing the harbours.

We head out in a boat to see the Bay and hopefully see dolphins. Rules around dolphin watching are strict: limit your time, only watch a pod once, and no swimming with pods who have babies. Yes, you can swim with wild dolphins but luckily the pods we see have babies.

Floppy, our on-board guide, is on the hunt for a mother grieving for her stillborn dolphin baby. There has been a report of the grieving mother holding the baby at the surface much like the recent death of a baby orca back home where that mother held the baby up for something like 17 days. Floppy wants to find her just long enough to be able to identify her.

We find a pod, Floppy tells us who is who and we watch them fish and play before our time us up and we head in to a beach to swim. Graeme, the skipper, pulls in close to a beach and people jump off the back of the boat.

On the way back in someone radios in a sighting of the grieving mother and the dead baby. We head to the spot and find her. Floppy identifies her and we back away to leave her to mourn.

We had read about sand boarding down giant sand dunes at 90 Mile Beach. Having snowboarding champion and coach of the Vancouver Island First Nations snowboarding team Steve Reclama with us, it was a natural activity to try.

We drove the vans down onto the beach and parked them but that was only because there was no where else to park them and it was at low tide. We hiked 40 minutes further down the beach to find the dunes. 90 Mile Beach isn’t really 90 miles. The story is that it took three days to ride a horse to the end. Estimating 30 miles a day, they called it 90 miles. It’s actually 88 miles, they hadn’t calculated it would be slower because of the sand. You can drive on 90 mile beach, and believe it or not, it is officially a highway although they recommend 4wheel drives only and to do it at low tide and leave yourself an hour each side.

90 Mile Beach highway complete with speed limit sign.

What we hadn’t counted on was the steepness of the dunes and the hot sand–a foot deep of heat. But we had a few brave souls who climbed and climbed and and climbed despite the hot sun and hot sand had slow rides down to the beach ploughing hot sand up their shorts as they went. The youth enjoyed it but probably wouldn’t choose to do it again.

Day 5 & 6 – Of Hobbits, Maori and totem poles

Today was tourist day. We drove out to Hobbiton, the film site where The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were filmed. A tourist trap but I have to admit, it was worth it.

The natural scenery was beautiful in a I-want-to-live-in-this-fairy-tale place and the film set was tastefully done. You are driven into the property on buses while watching snippets of the movie. The scenery is rolling hills dotted with cows and sheep. On a hill ridge three horses are silhouetted–how do they get the horses to do that?

We disembark the bus and follow a track where, just last year, 600,000 trod, yet it looks just like any path in a wood. The track takes us past hobbit house fronts, hobbit laundry lines, gardens and under a fake giant tree–whose only clue that it’s leaves were made in Taiwan are its stiff unyielding to the wind branches. They created a special paint, which includes vinegar and lichens, which protects the wood and adds lichens but not the local lichens which would slowly degrade the wood fences.

Air New Zealand has all the associated movies on-board so I plan to watch a few.

Our next stop was Te Puai (more here) located right next to a Marae. The contains geysers, mud ponds, a wood carving school, a weaving school, craft art gallery and a restaurant.

It was the schools which interested us. They only take three Marae students each, each year for three years. The hope is that the graduates will return home and pass their knowledge on. Much of the tourism profits from visiting the site goes to pay the full cost scholarships for the students.

The Maori from the Marae use the pools and warm river to swim in but only after 5pm when tourists have left and aren’t tempted to walk across the boiling mud and thin mineral crusts covering the boiling water, to join them.

We are treated to another Powaini at a recreated Marae on-site, followed by a haki and poi dances. Of course, members of the audience were invited up to dance and poi. Many of our youth jumped at the chance with knowledge of the movements already under their belts.

The next day is a driving day, we are headed to Waitangi, 6 hours north. Chris discovers that their is a totem pole at the north end of Auckland, two minutes off our route. It has an intriguing story. A hundred years ago, three Maori came on a ship from New Zealand and landed on Vancouver Island. They married three Hesquiaht women and took them back with them. Tim Paul a Hesquiaht carver is related to the descendants and carved this pole to commemorate them.

The pole points south overlooking one of the highways. It is protected by four Maori guardian poles. Four of our youth are Hesquiaht. They have been diligently practicing a song a gifted to them by two of the boys’ father. A cousin of the brothers will become a hereditary chief when he turns 21. They bring their drums and form a circle. Ruby turns to one shy youth standing next to her ‘You’re Hesquiaht, aren’t you”? “Yes” he replied and went to stand by his totem. They drummed and sang. Two of these youth had a hard time speaking in public when we started. You couldn’t tell that now.

The other evening while we walked in a park I saw a couple of the youth practicing with a drum. Another youth was quietly singing. One of the brothers was firm when he said ” If you are going to sing, you have to be strong. This is how my father taught me and I am teaching you.’

Day 3 & 4–Marae

We are near Rotorua (two lakes), four hrs south of Auckland. It is geyser, hot springs country with pockets of steam shooting up through a garden fence, between houses, behind a gas station, and pockets of air smelling of sulphur. The landscape has changed from rolling hills, tall trees with abundant evergreen foliage interspersed with fields. It is high summer but the fields are green. Now there are more hills more trees and more tree ferns which give it sometimes an exotic feel and sometimes a weird feeling as if two different worlds collided.

This Marae is on a lake. Far across the lake are some lights but we are twenty minutes northeast of Rotorua in the boonies. No internet, not even in cell range.

The front of the wharenui

The main building in the Marae is the elaborately carved wharenui. It is said to represent a body. Looking at the front at the top is a tekoteko (carved figure) representing a head and two arms are outstretched downwards, one to each side welcoming visitors. Five fingers are carved on each end. Inside, the centre beam is the backbone with the rafters being the ribs, so you sit inside a spiritual being protected from danger. The spiritual being is usually an ancestor of the tribe, often the ancestor who brought their canoe to the shores of New Zealand hundreds of years ago. Along the walls are more carvings representing other ancestors and between then woven panels representing stories and myths proving a genealogy of the tribe. The back wall often holds pictures of ancestors.


n front of the meeting house is an open space (Marae âtea) where visitors are greeted in Põwhiri fashion to remove their tapu (sacredness) and become one with the people of the Marae. The eating hall is next door and is known as the wharehai (house of food).

We start the day with Ange and Nezrah who are from this Marae. They teach us how to make a traditional Poi Toa, Poi meaning ball on a string and Toa meaning strong or strength. It is used to strengthen your arms and wrists so you can handle Maori weapons.

Maori language is strong here although admittedly we are with the Maori so you would expect some Maori kangi. They use Maori words interchanged with English all the time without even realizing it. ‘Waka’ means canoe and you never hear the word canoe, only ‘Waka’ when talking about canoeing so you pick up some words without even trying.

The poi song and a poi.

We learn a Poi song and swing our poi’s around, up, down, forward and backward. The song is in Maori and we sing ‘I swing my poi up, down’ etc, in Maori so our actions reinforce learning those words.

We head out onto the lake in a Waka Rua (two hull canoe). Martin races in outrigger canoe singles and in a 12 man Waka. Two young women are helping. Both are world champions in their class. They teach us paddle strokes. The youth love it. We start planning on how to paddle more when we get home.

We discuss indigenous language between ourselves and with the Maori. They have a common language which helps. 40 years ago they started reviving the language with ‘nests’–childcare centres where grandmothers took care of the babies and only spoke Maori. Parents could help and by so doing learned the language. As the babies aged, schools and immersion classes started up. Then college and university classes started teaching in Maori. The university class started with one father who spoke Maori and his three sons as students. All those babies are now 40 and their language world has changed.

How do you do that in Canada, especially in BC where there are just under 200 First Nation languages. Maori is easy to pronounce if you know the vowels A as in Army, E as in Egg, I as in Igloo, O as in Ornament, and U as in mOO. Hul’qumi’num is much harder, it isn’t just about vowels but new sounds formed in your throat, between your teeth, on the top of your mouth and the combinations of many of those new sounds like ‘hwunitum’ (white man) or hul’qumi’num.

How can a culture survive without its language? The last fluent Snuneymuxw speaker has passed away. Others speak it but lack fluency. Some families like Gary Manson’s are trying to bring it back by not only teaching the language but using it while doing everyday chores ‘thixqum xwouwcsum tu tl’elhem’ (please pass the salt).

But how can an urban school, say Tsawalk school (Nuu-chah-nuth word for a worldview that brings the physical and spiritual world’s together into one) which is situated on Snuneymuxw Coast Salish territory but who have more west coast students keep a language going? Whose language? Maybe we learn to use many words, many languages like waka (Maori), snuwulth (hul’qumi’num), c’apac (nuu’chah’nulth) and xwakwana (Kwai waka wak)–all mean canoe).

The Munu (blood child) canoe and family.

Day 2 – Marae Piritahi

The view from Janine’s house

Day two was filled with culture. Janine, a Maori, is cooking for us and we discovered she us a fashion designer. Back in the 1980’s she went to fashion design school but realized she would never get to design unless she started her own business. So she did. The Onera Art Gallery just opened a new show which she curated and a few of her things are in it as well as are Maikara’s kete baskets so we walked into town, visited the gallery and then Janine’s house and studio. The house sleeps 12 and she hosts visitors (usually young people) from all over the world. In the last five years she has hosted over 300 Argentinians. The view from her house is incredible.

talking to a friend back home to get the words for a song

This afternoon the youth who are leading one of our songs during protocols wanted to practice. We formed a large circle and some of the woman organized how we would dance. It was heartwarming to watch the youth work out how to signal the start of the drumming or when the dancers were to come out. Older youth offered tips like ‘raise your drum to signal the dancers ‘. They worked it out themselves.

Songs are owned and we can only use them if we have permission. We practiced another song which we were allowed to sing but couldn’t remember the words. This is not a problem for the youth. One brought up a video of a group singing it. One phoned a group counsellor back in Nanaimo to get the name of the song composer and another phoned her partner for the words. Someone else hooked up a Bluetooth speaker so we could listen to the recordings.

The entrance path

While we were practicing, next to the entrance path, five young people walked in. Janine came out from the kitchen to explain the Marae was not open and that you had to be invited in. This is not just a rule to be obeyed, there is a good reason. After, Jan, another Maori on the governing board, explained that this was important and done for their protection. That is why they have the protocol. It opens the spiritual door. Without that, it is spiritually dangerous for them to enter the grounds. This is similar to some First Nation big houses. I remember being in a big house during an event. There the floor is sacred–you cannot cross from one side to the other going through the floor, you have to go around. There was a song and people were welcome to go onto the floor to dance. I noticed a young pregnant woman dancing. At the end of the dance a man in the stands stood up and said ‘ We have work to do. There was a pregnant woman dancing.’ There was discussion and the man turned to the woman and explained ‘Don’t be upset. This is not about you. We have to protect your baby.’ It was decided that they would do the necessary work to protect the baby after the event was over.

Later, we noticed a chain across the entrance. Jan told us that recently tour buses were coming to look and they had to put up the chain. Coincidentally, that morning a friend sent me a NYTimes article A Tourist Family’s Bad Behavior Has New Zealand Rethinking Its Welcome Mat. It is an interesting read you can find it here.

Maikara explaining how to cut the flax they are standing in front of.

We spent more time with Maikara who showed us how to harvest New Zealand flax for weaving and for spinning into thread and yarn. Flax is to Maori as cedar is to West Coast First Nations.
The first step is to say a prayer of respect to the plant plant telling it what your intentions are , what you are going to use the plant for. This is the same as First Nations approach to cedar. To harvest you cut long and at an angle so rain goes outsidethe plant and the plant doesn’t rot.
This particular plant species is used for skirts as it produces a soft fibre.

Maikara has a chin tattoo known as a moko kauae. It is stunning. Here’s an article that explains it’s importance. click here

Day one – Kia Piritahi

Māori are the tangata whenua (people of the land) of Aotearoa New Zealand. They have meeting places called marae. It consists of a field in front of a sacred building and another building next to it. The field is where visitors are greeted. The sacred house performs a similar functions as a big house or longhouse (albeit smaller)–a place for cultural/spiritual activities. The ancestors spirits are there. The other building is a hall with kitchen and is used to feed you and bring you back into the current reality after being in the spiritual house….at least all this is my limited naive understanding.

We arrived at Marae Piritahi at a prearranged time. We parked and waited in a shelter at the entrance to the grounds. One of our hosts Jan greeted us and went over the pōwhiri–a formal Māori welcome.

A few minutes later we were invited in by their traditional protocol. A man blew on a conch-type shell a few times, then a woman sang us in…da kona ta Tata da…I paraphrase but it had a very ratatat beat. At the same time one hand was held out vibrating. And we were waved forward.

The path leading up to the Marae

This was considered a spiritual opening of a door allowing us in. We then were allowed into the building to sit while they sang a welcome song and a Maori speech from a male elder. Then it was our turn to have a male give a speech, we sing, then individually introduce ourselves and our ancestors. And then the hongi where we press our forheads and noses together and breath together. That confirms we are peaceful.

Sleeping mats spread out between the gods, navigators, ancestors, and and chiefs

We place mattresses in the spiritual house. The north side has carvings representing navigators, the south chiefs and the west had the ancestors. I sleep under Kiwa a god that is associated with the Pacific Ocean. It is also the name of one of three original native explorers and settlers of Aotearoa.

View from the Marae

Maikara, a cultural knowledge teacher spends the night with us. She has a moko kauae tattoo on her chin (here’s what it’s all about). She talks about the narrative, sacred Stones, and does us musical instruments. We have been up for more than 24hrs. We are so tired we can’t figure out how long so soon fall asleep under the protection of the ancestors and the gods.

The Journey Begins

A good journey takes you back to where you started from but now with new eyesight.


22people. 11 youth, 11 adults. Off to New Zealand for a Maori cultural tour.

2hrs at Nanaimo airport, 13 minute flight. 2 hours in YVR, 14 hour flight. Watched Whale Rider on the plane. Great movie based on Maori culture. The youth also recommended We were once Warriors and Hunt for Wilderpeople (on Netflix).

I am going to do a bit of a different blog, focusing on culture, both Maori and First Nations and some issues I am learning about.

Today I learned a little about youth under care by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. One of the adults told me about a youth who was 15 and taken out of foster care and put in his own apartment. so the foster care must have been pretty bad to remove him from there. Think about this for a moment…, a 15 year-old with no parents, no adult to provide guidance on life, no one other than a social worker who visited once a month.

He didn’t know how to manage money so his social worker cashed his monthly payment cheque for him and each month gave him cash. The woman telling me this worked at a bank. When she met the youth she offered to teach him money management. The social worker threatened her saying what she was doing was illegal. But she knew it wasn’t and soon she and the youth discovered the social worker was siphoning $125 a month. She asked the youth what he wanted to do about it–report it to the Ministry? “Why?” he said “the system won’t do anything.” But from then on he cashed his own cheques.

The social worker was eventually caught but in another town. I looked it up and found an article about this. You can read it here.

I asked another adult to tell me about the kids-in-care program and he quickly corrected me. No. That is making it sound warm and fuzzy. It is not. Imagine a child being taken away from their parents, probably their community, put in a foster care home. Some homes are doing this for love and some for love of money.

We have two youth with us who are under Ministry care. One is in a group home with three others. One doesn’t get along with the house manager and has a rough time there. At that home the fridge and the food cupboards have locks on them. One punishment is having the power to your room turned off. It doesn’t sound like a home. One who is 19 and who has ‘aged out’ meaning given $1500 and is now on his own. No support, no guidance, no one giving him life skills.