The Maori of Motiti

Proudly embracing a venerable heritage

By Ephemera documentary

Angelo Chiacchio

New Zeland lines (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The Māori are an indigenous people of New Zealand who trace their origins back to eastern Polynesian settlers. They gradually developed their own distinct culture over several centuries of isolated island life. 

With the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century, the Māori adopted many aspects of Western society. They endured land confiscation and their population decreased due to epidemics. Despite a revival of Māori culture and efforts to achieve social justice, a disproportionate number of Māori still face significant economic and social obstacles. They generally have lower life expectancies and incomes compared with other New Zealand ethnic groups.

A coast in New Zeland (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Motiti island

In March 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - on his journey to the world's most fragile places and cultures - visited the small island of Motiti, proudly inhabited by a small sub-tribe of Māori.

Aerial view of Motiti Island (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The small island of Motiti is just a 15-minute flight from the coast of Tauranga.

Aerial view of Motiti marae (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

As the plane lands, a marae becomes visible between two tall trees.  The marae signals a Māori tribe’s presence on this island. 

A wharenui of Motiti (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Te Patuwai song

The Māori have a deep pride in their heritage and a marae is a sacred meeting place where it can be celebrated. 

LIFE Photo Collection

By the late 19th century, it was widely feared that the Māori would cease to exist as a separate group due to the declining population and pressure to assimilate into the growing European population. However, the Māori population stabilized, and began to recover in the 20th century.

Te Patuwai symbolism vs usual Maori (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The island of Motiti is inhabited by the Ngati Awa tribe and the Te Patuwai hapū. Each sub-tribe has a strong identity that is quite different from the Māori of the mainland. These cultural differences are visible in the details from this island marae (left) as compared to a mainland marae from the city of Rotorua (right)

Motiti Island (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Motiti is calm and peaceful. It is a private, self-administered island that is home to less than thirty permanent residents, mostly retirees who love their homeland. 

Portrait of Te Patuwai man (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Almost every member of the Te Patuwai hapū will leave the island at some point in their life. But sooner or later they find their way back home. 
Pat Young spent most of his life on the mainland as a professional rugby player but decided to come back when he was 50 years old.

Portrait of Te Patuwai woman (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Even though Meremaihi works at the University of Whakatane, she has never let go of her connection with Motiti.  She intends to return as soon as she has the chance.  The moko kauae on her chin reflects her pride in her ancestral roots. 

Detail of Te Patuwai moko kauae (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The traditional female chin tattoo is a physical manifestation of the true identity of a Māori woman. In the past, this practice was avoided as it led to discrimination in New Zealand society.  It has since been revitalized by contemporary Māori. 

Meremaihi (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Aerial view of a cimitery in Motiti (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Like so many other members of the Te Patuwai hapū, Meremaihi plans to spend her last days on Motiti. She hopes that her final resting place will be next to her ancestors, looking out over the ocean. 

Graffiti in Motiti Island (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary


The Māori have endured a challenging past by maintaining a respect for their ancestors, their island and their heritage.  Māori culture is now being rediscovered and celebrated as it has not been in many decades.  If younger generations continue to cultivate this resurgence in cultural pride, then more Māori on the mainland may yet find their way back home to Motiti.   

Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Jonathan Baum, Ronna Grace Funtelar, Britzneatz Williams, Meremaihi Williams and all the people of Motiti Island.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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