The scene couldn’t have been more grand. Two men dressed in black carrying long carved horns heralded us from the long ramp descending to Floor 3 of Te Papa Museum.  They motioned us to move forward and disappeared around the corner into the airy and elaborate Te Marae hall. We followed, well over a hundred of us, herded by our Maori hosts as we gaped. The meeting house (wharenui) rafters danced with radiantly colored exotic beings that had just banished their father to the sky to liberate us all from darkness.  Reveling in their success, they now reined in the sun to slow it down and give the people full days.


The women in our group took seats in the back row not, as we were told before the ceremony, because we were lesser people or unclean.  We represented the next generation, the future, and historically, if the greeting ceremony between the Home People and the Visitors didn’t go so well, we were closest to the door and could get out of Dodge fast.

The welcoming ceremony customs were all shaped by the potential for people to be warlike, which we might object to, though most certainly we are. Paora Tibble of Te Papa represents the Home People, and recites their whakapapa (roughly, genealogy, but more broadly, origin).  PaoraTibbleCeremony

Paora breathes imagination, and must live in more than three dimensions filled with stories (listen to “Kiore Whispers” as he transforms into a Polynesian rat sailing to the Land of the Long White Cloud).  Later, at a workshop, he will pass around a family mere pounamu, one that has been laid upon the dead.  “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I’ve blessed it so you will be safe.” I’m deeply honored, but uncertain as your usual sinner whether the dead listened to the blessing.

Back at the ceremony, Paora closes his speech and Joe Hariwi, our representative, steps forward.  He tells the Home People we are from Aotearoa, Australia, and far abroad.  We are storytellers and we come to share stories and discuss the telling of each others stories.  We ask them to welcome us.JoesTeMoko

Joe is a compelling representative, with a full face te moko that he acquired in 2008 as a form of “cultural advocacy” despite concerns from coworkers.  He found an authentic te moko artist, who studied patterns from old photographs and paintings, the art having been lost when missionaries banned it as a heathen practice. “We all have moko,” he said.  “It’s your DNA, where you are from, your skills and talents.  Mine is in linear form, on my face.”

Joe is open, honest, and funny, so of course he should be our representative.  Paora accepts us on behalf on the Home People, and then we have to sing.  We have little pieces of paper with the lyrics in Maori, and I find that if 170 people are singing, and some are good, and some know the language, you can fake it and sing along without feeling too tone deaf.

We participate in the hongi, the gracious nod toward another that involves touching nose and forehead and breathing in the essence of the other.  It is so civilized, so dignified, to go through these ceremonies in a year of barroom brawls and snark fests that pretend to be presidential campaigns. I tap only one person’s forehead getting the hang of it (it’s not rugby).

But I am mostly lost to the ceiling of the whenui (meeting hall), with the radiant colors and wild spirits.  I will visit in a quiet time later, and realize that we are all there, the people who gained light from the strength of Tane:  musicians and scientists, prisoners, famers, carpenters, and film makers all stand in the panels beneath the surging gods and dragons.  I want to live there, in a panel, step backward and disappear as a figure forever, the new Home People.