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The Pōwhiri [i] (Process)



Pōwhiri joins two words pō and whiri to align separate concepts and describe the pō-whiri process as disseminating and sharing knowledge between two separate entities largely unknown to each other, Tangata Whenua[ii] as hosts and Manuwhiri as guests or travelers.


Operation parameters

Pōwhiri enacts a process of unravelling kanohi ki te kanohi face to face sharing of knowledge between these two entities through meaningful engagement.



The Pōwhiri ceremony itself sets down terms of engagement called Kawa. The principals of Kawa are immutable as guiding principles, very much like values set down by any organisation or entity.


Kawa draws its authority from invested land rights mana whenua and the currency of occupation termed as Ahi kā. Literally Burning fires as a dynamic metaphor to signify ongoing occupation or in loose terms, Settler’s rights determined by the incumbent Tangata Whenua.



Once again, the people who possess settler’s rights are referred to as the Tangata Whenua, people of the land. Historically there may have for one reason or another been changes in occupants over time through the usual means of shifting fortunes or allegiances depending on the events exclusive to that area. Each geographical location across the country will be inhabited by Tangata Whenua who have set their terms of engagement via the practice of Kawa.


Some areas can at times be shared by more than one iwi, the Central Wellington Area for example is occupied by Te Āti Awa tribe of Taranaki as Tangata Whenua, while further north from Porirua to the Kāpiti Coast, the Ngāti Toa Rangatira iwi are regarded as the Tangata Whenua. Once again, occupation rights are determined by the tradition of Ahi Kā. The kawa of these two iwi for example, are quite distinct from each other.



The translation of Kawa into operational policy and procedure is carried out by Tikanga. Tika means true, correct or honourable. Tikanga is the application of these truth principles according to appropriate etiquette and protocols as set down by local Kawa. As mentioned previously, Kawa is immutable while tikanga is determined by the currency of the time and environment which can evolve. E.g. The removal of shoes when entering the meeting house. Put plainly, classical Māori had no footwear as such to remove!



A key element specific to the interaction between Tangata Whenua and Manuwhiri during the Pōwhiri process is primarily the recognition of two differing entities, undergoing a traditional ceremony of engagement that will eventually end in an accord whereby these differences are aligned so they become in essence, the same.


Waewae tapu

Waewae tapu refers to the sacred or special status of visitors as people whose feet being tapu or sacred, provide a metaphor to specify their special differences. These differences incur a prohibition in terms of their ability to engage that requires the Pōwhiri process to occur so that they can then be released from this special condition of tapu. The post Pōwhiri status is referred to as being noa, or to be released from tapu so that the previous and associated prohibitions are no longer applicable. Put simply, strangers are now welcomed as friends.


Key Roles

There are gender specific roles that draw their authority from spiritual deities and the religious beliefs as set down by ancient Māori.



The art of Karanga, where women call guests formally onto the Marae is a mana wahine domain, one where women open the Pōwhiri proceedings through the mana[iii]  invested through the goddess of death, Hine-nui-Te-Pō. Her story is a tragic saga of disharmony derived through her incestuous relationship with her father, (Tāne Atua, God of humanity) that clearly delineates the gender specific roles of mana tāne and mana wāhine.

Through karanga, women open the portal to the spirit worlds to engage the benign presence of predecessors from both hosts and visitors to watch over and in a sense bless the occasion.

The key point to note, is that it is the mana wāhine, the authority and power invested in women that is essential to open any Pōwhiri process. Women provide the spiritual platform for the men to carry out the operational and physical ceremonial rites. That is why they lead the procession onto the marae.



The art of whaikōrero, oratory is largely (though not exclusively[iv]) the domain of men. These two roles, karanga and whaikōrero run concurrently and interdependently. Each oration or whaikōrero is completed with a waiata, a song performed by both men and women to complement each other and to complete each oratory component.


There are different whaikōrero protocols depending on the Kawa of each tribal region[v], a deeper investigation into the art form is needed to understand the finer points that distinguish each practice and the characteristics pertaining to each iwi, tribe.



The gifting of koha provides a transactional exchange of equity from the Manuwhiri guests to compensate for the economic and resourcing disrupt caused to the Tangata Whenua in hosting the Manuwhiri. Traditionally there were exchanges of fine foods and items of value, pounamu greenstone, tools, weapons, ornate garments to mention a few. Sometimes koha could take the form of arranged marriages to seal tribal allegiances and whakapapa or family ties, however that is another more complexed study in itself. Suffice to say that in current times, koha takes a more fiscal form of exchange in cash value terms. The size of the koha is determined by the giver and remains to this day an anomaly in the modern context, especially when agencies like Inland Revenue become involved as they try to define an abstract cultural practice into a technical and finite rationale. It is best to take guidance from the kaumātua and kuia - knowledgeable elders who are the main protagonists during the Pōwhiri process.


Hōngi, Rūru[vi]

The Hōngi and Rūru practices accommodate both traditional and modern ideologies and practices to complete the formal part of the Pōwhiri. There is much about the hongi that needs further explanation, exposure and practice. Essentially, when individuals from Manuwhiri and Tangata Whenua press noses, they share the breath of life and also, align the meeting of their respective ancestors in the spiritual realm. There is a deeper context in relation to this custom that further research will provide. For practical needs of the day, follow the example of those who know what they’re doing. Above all, try not to bang heads or spectacles!


Hākari (Feast)

In Te Ao Māori terms, the Hākari or feast is absolutely essential as the consummation and completion of the Pōwhiri ritual. Kai or food is considered by Māori to be profane or noa. As mentioned earlier, the condition of noa is the key component that breaks the tapu status of visitors to release them from the prohibitions accorded to Manuwhiri or strangers. As with many cultures, the sharing of food and breaking of bread eliminates the last bastion of reservation and signals the beginning of a friendship, set down in mutual trust. From this point, collaborations and other potential alliances can be made, political, business or otherwise with which to progress the relationship. The hākari is crucial to the completion of the Pōwhiri process.


The inner workings of Tangata Whenua as Hosts.


Te Amorangi ki mua, te hāpai ō ki muri  

Spiritual leadership takes precedence, physical and operational needs follow

Life is synergy, find balance, flourish


This whakataukī or proverb, underpins the traditional roles on the marae in taking care of the ceremonial aspects of the engagement. Once that’s done, the catering needs of the visitors are taken care of by the ringawera. (Literally hot hands of the workers.)

Amorangi literally means the conduit to the heavens, kaumātua who link karakia prayers, whakapapa genealogies, historical knowledge and so on are referred to as the amorangi of the iwi, tribe. The hāpai ō, is an abbreviation of hāpai support and ōranga - well-being or health, in this case catering for guests.


In effect guests are fed spiritually and physically to have all their needs met. On the night following the pōwhiri, they will hear more about the topic of the day and the history of the people and their tūpuna whare, in the actual meeting house. Then, they will all sleep together in the same meeting house.


When they leave there is a semi-formal Poroporoaki ceremony or farewell that is less formal and a lot-briefer than the pōwhiri where manuwhiri guests are sent off with speeches from both sides and often, waiata, songs of appreciation are interspersed with these farewells in a less formal way.



This brief insight to the Pōwhiri process is by no means comprehensive and is meant only to provide a guideline for those new to Te Ao Māori[vii] customs and traditions.


  1. pō = night as a metaphor for unknowing

  2. whiri or whiriwhiri = disseminate

  3. People of the land

  4. Authority

  5. Ngāti Porou and other Eastern Seaboard tribes of Te Ika a Māui, the North Island have varied tikanga practices pertaining to whaikōrero where women command the speaking platform.

  6. Tau – utu-utu or tū atu, tū mai and Pāeke are the two major distinctive Kawa forms.

  7. Hōngī – the pressing together of noses, Rūru, the shaking of hands.

  8. The Māori World View.

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