Tikanga tips

Some pointers on Māori customary practices or behaviours as they apply to teaching and learning at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Generally speaking, tikanga are Māori customary practices or behaviours. The concept is derived from the Māori word ‘tika’ which means ‘right’ or ‘correct’ so, in Māori terms, to act in accordance with tikanga is to behave in a way that is culturally proper or appropriate.

Most people prefer not to act in ways that are offensive to others, so this list has been compiled in an effort to increase awareness of Māori culture and to help avoid confusion or uncomfortable moments when people may be unsure of what to do.

The basic principles underpinning the tikanga noted below are common throughout New Zealand. However, different iwi (tribes), hapū (sub tribes) and marae (Māori community meeting places) may have their own variations. The guidelines below relate to practices endorsed by Te Kawa a Māui, the School of Māori Studies, and modelled at the University’s Te Herenga Waka Marae, and are relevant for any university campus or event.


Avoid touching another person’s head, unless invited. Māori people regard the head as very tapu (sacred).


Avoid sitting directly on pillows or cushions. They can however be used to prop up your back.


Avoid putting hats on food tables. Why? This is linked to the idea that heads are tapu so anything that relates to heads, like pillows or hats, should also be treated carefully. (see ‘Food’ below).


Avoid passing food over anybody’s head. Why? There are many Māori rituals and practices relating to food. In a teaching and learning context, it is common for Māori to share food as a means of welcoming people, celebrating success, or building rapport. However, another important function of food is to remove tapu so it needs to be handled carefully around things that are considered to be tapu.

Tables and bags

Avoid sitting on tables, particularly tables with food on them or those likely to have food on them at any point. Avoid putting bags on tables. Instead place them on the floor or a chair. Why? Putting your bottom or carry bag on the table is perceived to be unhygienic. Not sitting on tables is also linked to Māori beliefs about the tapu nature of bodily wastes and the need to keep them separate from food.


Avoid entering and crossing a room while someone in authority is addressing an audience. To avoid offence, either wait quietly by the door until there is a break in the dialogue or, when that is not appropriate, enter as discretely as possible. Try not to walk directly in front of the speaker or, if you can not avoid it, crouch down as you pass as a sign of respect. Why? Traditionally Māori society is very hierarchical and crossing in front of a more ‘senior’ person is considered rude.


Avoid stepping over people, even in crowded teaching spaces when you are over people trying to find a suitable seat. Ask the person to draw their legs in first, or find another route. Why? From a Māori cultural perspective, it is considered offensive for a woman to step over a man.