This article comes to you from the Australasian Federation of Family History Organisation's (AFFHO) Congress being held this week in Auckland, New Zealand. The opening ceremonies kicked off yesterday evening at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Launching this kickoff was a traditional Maori powhiri, and I must say that I was very impressed.
The word "powhiri" is new to my vocabulary. As I understand it, a powhiri is a Maori welcoming ceremony. The Maori are the native people of New Zealand. It is interesting that New Zealand is considered to be a "new country," having been settled by Europeans only in the early to mid 1800s. Even the native people are rather latecomers by the standards of "native peoples." The first Maori are believed to have arrived on New Zealand shores only about 900 years ago.
The fierce and often warring Maoris led an interesting life for centuries. They had a very structured social system in which each person had an assigned level within the community. The system had many different levels, all formalized. I rode past a Maori cemetery yesterday, and a Maori tour guide explained that such cemeteries are always built on hillsides where each person is buried at a level on the hill that corresponds to his or her social status in life. The leaders are buried on the top, other aristocrats just below the summit, and others buried along the hillside in descending levels as their stations in life dictated.
The Maoris had no written language until European scholars and their descendants first created a Maori alphabet in the 1800s. However, the Maoris have a long tradition of oral history, with the elders passing on their knowledge from generation to generation. What I found to be interesting is their knowledge of their own genealogies; each young Maori learns his or her genealogy for generations, often going back hundreds of years. Individuals claim descent lines according to their vitality and power, and the greater the success of one’s ancestors in war, magic, oratory, and feasting, the greater the mana (prestige) that the ancestors passed down the line to their descendants.
The Kaumatua (older person) of the family usually has in his possession a wooden Tokotoko stick (walking stick), which he uses as a memory aid while giving the genealogies of the family at meetings. Because the tatai (lineage) is carved into the wood, the older person in the family who has the tokotoko can help with the ancestors’ names one might seek. Keep in mind that no alphabet is used in the tokotoko sticks.
It appears that the Maori method of passing genealogies orally from generation to generation has been more successful than our system of written records!
Nine or ten Maori men and women appeared in native costume at the opening ceremonies. I first suspected that this was going to be some sort of "planned event" to please the tourists, but I soon found that I was wrong. Indeed, there were ceremonies, singing, dancing, and explanations of what was appearing in front of us. It was far more interesting than the typical "tourist event." Besides, I'm not sure many readers have seen a group entering a crowded reception hall to the sound of someone blowing on a conch shell.
NOTE: I think that was a conch shell. I'm not an expert in local shells. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.
The Maori welcoming ceremony does not include handshakes. They do touch foreheads and noses, which makes me think they are distant relatives of the North American Eskimos. The Maori method of welcoming someone is to "share the breath" of the other person.
Once the powhiri finished, various dignitaries made several welcoming comments. All of these events took place in the ultra-modern arena of Auckland War Memorial Museum, an impressive building built on a high hill with magnificent views in all directions. Wine, beer, soft drinks, and hors d'oeuvres were served all evening. I must admit I was saddened when it was time to board the buses and return to our dormitories.
Oh yes, the dormitories. The Australasian Federation of Family History Organisation's 2009 Congress is happening at King's College in Otahuhu, a suburb of Auckland. This is a private boys' school for young men of 13 to 18 years of age. It is a boarding school, and attendees at the Congress had the opportunity to stay in the dormitories. (It is summer in New Zealand, and all the young men apparently have gone home for the season.)
The use of a boarding school's campus has turned out to be an excellent attraction for attendees from out of town. We have comfortable accommodations within a couple hundred yards of all the lecture halls and the dining room, all available at modest prices. I do think my room has the narrowest bed that I have slept in for a long time, however. That didn't seem to be much of a problem last night: I slept soundly.
Following last night's opening ceremony are four days of lectures, workshops, meals, and other offerings. The lectures started this morning with a presentation on "Resources, Research, Results in the 21st Century," delivered by myself. The rest of the days are full of four to five simultaneous offerings all day long. The presenters are from all over New Zealand and Australia, with others from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, and Poland.
I am writing these words in late afternoon of the first full day. This Congress is only about 25% complete at this time but certainly has already proven to be a great session. I suspect that will continue for the next three days.
If you have an interest in this year's conference, you might be interested in a Roots Television videotape that I recorded with Jan Gow, one of the organizers of the Congress. That video was recorded nearly and a half ago, but the predictions that Jan made at the time are now coming true. That video is as relevant today as it was on the day we recorded it. You can see the Roots Television video at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2007/09/video-interview.html.
Dinner this evening will be in the King's College Dining Hall, to be followed by speed genealogy, a humorous presentation by Dan Poffenberger from Salt Lake City about unusual names and facts he has found in the past twenty years, a presentation by Stephen Young (also from Salt Lake City) about the 1881 British census, movies from the New Zealand Film Archive about the different immigrant groups who settled in New Zealand, and an opportunity to explore some of the genealogy "for pay" sites.
Signing off from New Zealand, I'll leave you with one more saying: E Noho Rā.