The powhiri is the ritual ceremony of encounter.
Traditionally the process served to discover whether the visiting party were friend or foe, and so its origins lay partly in military necessity. As the ceremony progressed, and after friendly intent was established, it became a formal welcoming of guests (manuhiri) by the hosts (tangata whenua or home people). As the ceremony progresses also, the tapu or sacredness surrounding manuhiri is removed, and they become one with the tangata whenua.
It begins with the karanga, the high pitched voices of women from both sides, calling to each other to exchange information to begin to establish intent and the purpose of the visit. It is said that the kaikaranga (callers) between them weave a mat laid upon Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) binding the two sides together, and protecting Her from the men who will verbally, and perhaps physically, joust with each other.
In traditional times a wero or challenge was performed by a warrior or warriors, advancing on the manuhiri to look them over and further establish intent. The wero is sometimes performed today, particularly for the most prestigious manuhiri.
The tangata whenua will perform the haka powhiri, a chant and dance of welcome, during which the manuhiri are symbolically drawn onto the marae (sacred courtyard). The chants often use the symbolism of hauling a waka or canoe onto the shore.
Next is the mihi or exchange of greetings by the orators (usually male) from both sides. Oratory is much prized. An expert will display his knowledge of whakapapa (genealogy and history) and mythology, and his mastery of language, rhetoric and dramatic presentation. During whaikorero (speechmaking) links between the ancestors and the living are made, and genealogical links between tangata whenua and manuhiri are emphasised. The kaupapa or purpose of the occasion will be discussed, and perhaps general present day issues and concerns might be aired.
Each speech is followed by the performance of a waiata (song), or sometimes a haka (dance), by the orator's support group. The quality of the performance is a matter of critical concern, and reflects on the orator, and the orator's party.
At the completion of their speeches the manuhiri will present a koha to the tangata whenua. Today it is usually in the form of money, but in the past it would have been food or valued possessions.
Then the manuhiri move across the marae to hongi with the tangata whenua. The hongi is a gentle pressing of noses, and signifies the mingling together of the sacred breath of life, and the two sides become one.
The powhiri concludes with the sharing of kai or food, called hakari. The food removes the tapu or sacredness from the manuhiri, so that the two sides may complete the coming together. As in all cultures the sharing of food also signifies a binding together.
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