Carving a Māori Future
"Can you call our guests? Can you bring who needs to come to us?"
New Zealand has raised its travel profile ever since the Hobbits made their way to Mordor and reached screens worldwide. With jaw-dropping landscapes, pristine nature, adventure at every corner and engaging cultures, New Zealand attracts travellers from all over the world. However, despite the recent growth of the country’s travel industry, these mysterious Oceanic islands remain a niche destination.
That is all the better for travellers like us, who are always on the lookout for off-the-beaten-path opportunities to explore and discover authentic and engaging experiences.
I recently travelled to New Zealand where I met Delani Brown. He made a deep impression in me and, through his insights, I discovered how to truly get under the skin of New Zealand, and turn my trip into a meaningful, transformative experience.
When I met Delani, he reminded me of the power of art, and its relation to nature. Art, through interpretation and symbolism, makes nature accessible. Furthermore, in so doing, it opens up the realm of the spirit, where the natural world can pluck at the strings of our soul, with ever more meaningful, heartfelt chords.
Delani Brown is a master in the art of Whakairo, Māori wood carving. He has made a name for himself through his powerful interpretation of Māori stories and traditions, which speak through his works. Not figurative works of art ― in the Western sense ― his carvings are religious acts in themselves and they carry a universal message that, as I would find out, holds the key to being in nature, and experiencing New Zealand, so to speak, hand-in-heart.
Delani is an impressive character. He has the build of the Māori warrior, his bulging arm muscles are a testimony to his craft: here’s a man that can shape a 2-ton piece of wood with his hands! His solemn Māori semblance pierces you with honest looks, he is utterly unpretentious. A master artist, he opens his mouth to speak, and from it comes a deep, syncopated voice:
“How’s it, brother?” he says sincerely. Those were not the words I was expecting. I am disarmed for a moment, so I begin the interview nonchalantly, if a bit blunt.
How did you get into carving?
“Carving wasn’t really something that I moved towards as a child. It’s something that came back to me after I’d gotten through all of the young stuff. Being young, being mischievous, y’know, getting all the young-stuff out. And so the elders of the tribe sort of grabbed me and took me away to teach me.”
How did that come about?
“Our ancestral house was getting moved and the elders put out a call 'cause they wanted people from the home tribe to be a part of that process… of the carving.
“So I put my hand up. But then I found out that that they had to do two-hour prayers at sunrise and I started to back off. I thought ‘Nah, this is too deep for me!’”
Delani chuckles pleasurably. Little did he know that he was setting out on a journey of discovery: of himself and his culture, of the land he calls home.
“When they turned up they pretty much just told me to get in the van. They said ‘Grab your bag,’ and I thought ‘Oh! We must be going for a little trip somewhere.’ They didn’t ask ‘Do you want to come and stay with us for a year or two?’ They just said ‘Grab your bag, jump in.’ So I left my tribal lands and ended up in their lands… ¡to carve!”
Do you think they saw something special in you, a hidden potential? Or were you just too much trouble?
I think they see things that we can’t. Sometimes you have to trick a person into a good thing. I didn’t plan on becoming a carver. But what I didn’t realise is that my grandfather was a carver. My mother never told me. Carving is in our genes, it’s in our soul.
Do you think the elders were aware of your family history when they took you?
“I think so, yeah! The elders of the tribe deal with genealogy, or what we call Whakapapa. For example, that’s why, in traditional times, marriages were arranged. You could ensure that your daughter or your granddaughter, or your grandson, would go to a good lineage. Because one of the main mechanisms to know who a person is, is from their past.”
In Māori culture, Whakapapa is not only how humans are related to each other, but how we are ultimately related to mountains, the sea, and the land.
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And does carving play a role in Whakapapa?
“Yes. Since we didn’t have a written language, carving, Whakairo, was our means of recording information. Our language Te Reo, which means ‘the language’, was intonation based and was passed from human to human, from person to person rather than written in books. We had to really learn how to use the mind and how to listen. Whakairo gave us a form of manifested beauty that helped us to record it and then present it in a figurative form for future generations to not only grasp a story or a tale but to also grab a physical vision.”
What is the significance of Whakairo to your people?
“A definition of Whakairo that I was given by my ancestors is found by breaking the word into its components. Whaka, when we break it down, means to do or act upon. Iro describes the movement of flesh or wood-eating insects. When you put an insect to a piece of wood, and it gouges out all of this wood, by subtracting things you’re actually adding to something that’s there. Rakau, our word for timber, wood or tree, is a compound too! Ra means light and Ka describes energy, while U describes embedded energy. It’s about light and the power of light and light embedded. Rakau gives us a resource to be able to manifest our thoughts and leave it here for future generations to come, through Whakairo.
What is your experience of this phenomenon?
“Through carving and the act of tapping, using your left and your right hands ― your left holds the chisel, the right holds the Toki that then can mix with the chisel. So you’re using a masculine and a feminine, or a left and a right energy, and uniting them. You also have your heart beating and you start to centre yourself in going into being. This is what I find through carving: I started to go into being. When you go into being… you go into ‘being who you be’, your essential self. Not a superficial self which thinks of everything outside and looks at everything outside, you start to go inwards.”
Did this state come naturally to you at first?
“It was a bit of challenge but it was powerful because I found that carving is not just wood carving, it’s actually a ceremony. While carving, I was also taught to sit in prayer. It’s like an incantation and through the power of words, through these words, I was able to call upon my ancestors… who aren’t very far, they’re inside!”
Do you share some of these concepts with your guests?
“To understand Māori culture, a lot of what I share with our guests is first our concept of Source. In Māori thought, everything is one. There’s no separation. Our mind will separate things as we perceive and have a perspective. That’s what I found important and that’s what I’ve managed to share with them. We have a concept of the Source, Io, and it’s interesting because I understand in your culture, the word for God, or Source, is Dio. We might have a different name, we might visualise it differently, but I think we all come from the same teapot. Perhaps Source gave us all a different cup of tea, a different environment to live in. I think the challenge that source has left us is, can we respect and appreciate one another’s differences? I think many of our guests get that. Even though they may be brought up in various beliefs and religions, at the end of the day, when you talk from Source, and you’re connected with Source, Source shines a strong light.”
Even if the concept of Io has become controversial among academic anthropologists, there is no doubt that Māori religion is based on the belief of connectedness and unity. The emphasis of Whakapapa (genealogy) is a reflection of that conception.
Do your guests often connect with Source?
“I think we all do, we as well as the guests. It’s a two-way experience. They may have tears because something’s touched them but they also touch us. Just them having that type of emotion and feeling towards something we’re doing, or toward us, or toward what we’re presenting, or the land we’re standing upon, up in the forest.
“Something touches them, it goes around in a cycle. It’s not just them feeling it, we’re feeling it too! When we do our ceremonies with our guests, we have to call upon our ancestors. Sometimes our ancestors will come through to do our work, especially when there’s a third party involved.
What do you mean?
“As a descendant, I can call upon my ancestors for certain things. When I call them up because someone else is involved and I’m thinking of them, then a whole ‘nother stream of information and blessings comes through. We don’t even call it tourism, because we would find ourselves in the whole space of New Zealand tourism and we’re not like that. We are just ourselves, and we just share time and space with the guests. It unfolds as it goes.
“Each guest is different, we don’t know whether they have expectations or not, so we don’t have expectations. That’s one of the things I found. I try to practise to have no expectations, no attachment and no judgement. I think that helps our guests too. A lot of them have experienced this, and they remember things from their culture and their past, just by the way we are and what we do! It’s just a thing of remembering. But that’s easily blocked and covered by the busy world and business. I don’t call what we do business, I call it is-ness because all we’re doing is being who we is! Not trying to be busy, being busy is not healthy. Being busy is noisy.”
Do you find your guests have a particular disposition or openness to what you do?
“For example, we take our guests to a Titiraupenga. It’s an ancient mountain, the geological centre point of the North Island. It has a centre energy, it is one of the most important types of places. For us, to even share or do experiences up there with guests, we have to ask the mountain and the mountain has to give us the right signs and blessings. And all we ask of the mountain is: ‘Can you call our guests? Can you bring who needs to come to us?’”
I become aware that I am stepping on sacred ground, that the Māori have a communion and a dialogue with the land. Also, I realise that I have not come here by chance, that in a way, I had already been called upon to come. I begin to glimpse the key to New Zealand.
How do your guests usually react to the experience?
“Some want a carving because they can’t take us home. We’ve had clients say ‘Can you come to America? We’ll sort out the plane tickets, we need you right now because of the president.’ They’re so worried about their president that they can’t get over it.
“When they can’t take us home, they want to take something back that reminds them of the day… it’s quite mind-blowing for them. When they come off the mountain, they’re usually just like us: overwhelmed. Though you can’t put things into words.”
Can you put things into carving?
“When it comes to making a connection with carving, I open up the door through incantation and my ancestors show me a vision of what to carve for someone. When I get a carving commission I ask: ‘Well if the carving could talk what would it say?’ That is what I have to look towards so that every time they see the carving, it will remind them of a specific message. If they find it hard they usually go: ‘I’ll just leave it up to you, hey?’ Yeah, that’s ducking out of it.
“When I ask my ancestors to support me with the message, my ancestors can then talk with their ancestors because sometimes the guests can’t hear them. They’re busy and their ancestors are right there talking with them! Except they can’t hear… So sometimes I ask my ancestors because, after the welcoming ceremony we become one people.”
Tell me more about the welcoming ceremony.
“Our welcoming ceremony is called the Powhiri. We go through a specific birthing process and then we have an informal sharing of words. Then comes the Hongi.”
The Hongi is a traditional Māori meeting, where the greeters press their noses against each other.
“The Hongi is a double acknowledgement of the person: the first one is for the guest, the second one is for their ancestors that live inside of them. There’s two sorts of welcoming and gathering going on. There’s the physical world, and there’s the spiritual world. Because every ancestor that came before me made me: that makes me them.”
Do you think there is a re-appreciation, or a renaissance of sorts in Māori culture, connected with the current interest in spirituality?
“I think we’re at the beginning of the greatest part of it, we’re in a prime position. Spirituality will never go out of fashion because it’s not man-made. A lot of what some people might be hung up on was man-made. Eventually, man-made structures fall over and it’s already falling over.
“We’re in great times, culturally, from a Māori perspective. We’re only getting to stand up, slowly. They say that Māori is the youngest people on the planet. So they say because we were the last ones to find land, we went to the farthest frontier. Y’know, our people… we were the last ones to be colonised. We had the last Māori wars just over a hundred years ago.
“Sometimes, when you’re a young culture it’s a good thing because you’re still in your infancy. People go: ‘Yeah but y’know, all the other cultures are ancient!’ Well, sometimes when you’re ancient you’re more corrupted, ‘cause you’ve had thousands of years of being tampered with by men. But since we’re so young and in our infancy, it’s a good position, like a baby in the womb, still in waters that are pure.
“In our culture, in the traditional times, everyone had a role to play. Nowadays, the traditions that were taken on are just making us and our children ill. We’re topping every bad health statistic that there is in the world and it’s because we’ve adopted another person’s way of thinking and their way of being. We want to be like them, we’re chasing them, we want to beat them at what they brought. That’s madness.”
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You work with Māori youth to pass on your knowledge, does that alleviate that situation?
“Are you an artist, bro?”
I remain silent, quite unable to make up my mind. He takes my reticence as an affirmation.
“Like our guest that come, they’re masters at something, and when you are good at something, one of the best things you can do is pass it on. Let it go. It can become a weight sometimes, when you have so much, whether it’s knowledge, information, wisdom. If you don’t let some of it go then your cup stays full and no new stuff can come in. One of the most important things I do is look for someone to give everything to. One little line can swing them off into a different direction, greater than where they are. That’s awesome!”
Do you think this transformative effect also has an influence on guests, people outside of your culture, that might feel a bit astray?
“Our welcoming ceremony it’s exactly a birthing. It’s called the Powhiri. Pow means darkness. Hiri, derives from the word Hiri Hiri that signifies a transition: from dark into light. The Powhiri as a whole brings them from their world into our world, respectfully, gracefully, with appreciation, the highest appreciation to each guest.
“They are coming through a royal welcome ceremony from our people. They are treated like royals, spiritually, physically, and mentally. For them to come our way, they want to know how this Island that we live on ticks, and what certain things mean. They want to know how we feel, they want to know who we are and that’s a huge thing to try and have in one day. It’s actually something that should be longer. But we understand that when people come, they want to be going through a separate thing each day.
“Many guests though, they don’t wanna leave. ‘How can we keep in touch because we didn’t know it was going to be like this!’ They got something that they didn’t know that they were coming to get. The Hobbiton stuff and all of that, I’ve never been there. I’ve never been to Hobbit-town or anything like that. I hope that’s good fun for them. Because it’s one of the promoted things in our country, by the tourism world and by the movie world. But when they come to us, they get an avatar more real. Because it’s a pretty simple thing being yourself.”
I wonder if it is such a simple thing, being ourselves, burdened with prejudices and preconceptions as we are. Delani moves with naturality and grows quiet for a while. Our conversation would drift to the intricacies of Whakairo, writing and art. In the following days, I would experience the Powhiri and visit Māori sacred places. Later, I would travel to the South Island, to experience the very best that the New Zealand outdoors can offer. Delani’s words would remain with me throughout my journey. From dark into light, from myself into nature.
How to get there:
Most international flights to New Zealand land in Auckland. From there you can rent a car and drive to Taupo, in the centre of the North Island.
What to do there:
New Zealand is all about being in nature. The South Island really excels in this regard but you'd be mistaken to think there's nothing to do in the North Island. Lake Taupo is a wonder in itself and New Zealand's largest lake. But to truly bare the soul of New Zealand, you have to experience a Powhiri and a Kai Waho, a Māori culinary experience.
We at Blueflower organise Powhiri experiences in Mount Titiraupenga, a sacred Māori site. You can visit our New Zealand portal for a wealth of trips and inspiration.