Woodcarving Traditions Run Deep in Maori Culture

While most cultures see woodcarving and carpentry as a hobby or a profession, members of New Zealand’s Maori tribes view these activities as a vital connection to their ancestors and their community. The art of woodworking is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Maori culture.

Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the 18th century, Maori woodcarvers constructed elaborately carved whare whakairo meeting houses to serve as gathering places for their communities. Loaded with intricate koru spirals and lacework decoration, these whare whakairo were directly connected to the forebears of individual tribes, often being named for specific ancestors or deities. Maori artisans also worked on less ambitious projects like waka hui, small wooden treasure boxes that typically contained special jewelry or feathers. They also displayed their Maori woodcarving skills on maripi, ceremonial wooden knives embellished with shark’s teeth. More practical wahaika wooden clubs were used as weapons in close combat. However, a Maori warrior’s most essential weapon was carved out of wood from indigenous evergreens like the New Zealand tea tree. Typically over 5 feet long, the taiaha was the main weapon used in combat between Maori fighters. Maori woodcarvers extended their craftsmanship to the sea. Using the giant trunks of the local kauri tree, Maori shipwrights fashioned large waka taua war canoes with deftly carved prows and sterns. Originally, Maori craftsmen produced their work with tools made from pounamu, a type of jade found only on New Zealand’s South Island.

After the arrival of Europeans, the Maori were introduced to European-style carpentry by British missionaries. New Zealand was declared a British colony in 1841, and colonists began clearing native forests, decreasing the supply of wood that could be used in traditional woodcarving. In the late 1800s, Maori communities began to build larger whare whakairo, adding interior woodwork to traditional designs. Along with other aspects of Maori culture, these long-established skills experienced a resurgence with the Māori Renaissance in the 1980s. Today, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute helps preserve Maori woodworking styles with their Te Wānanga Whakairo National Woodcarving School.