Maori leaders present Helen Clark to the UN in traditional ceremony

Apr 28, 2009

New York — The halls of the United Nations echoed with singing and chanting today during the colorful and lively traditional Maori ceremony to welcome UNDP Administrator Helen Clark.  The event, called a powhiri (pronounced “poor-fee-ree”), began with the thunderous sounding of a conch shell and a Maori warrior’s dance, and ended with Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and her Maori delegation pressing noses with senior UN officials in a “hongi.”
“Today I am truly humbled to be formally presented here to the UN and to UNDP by senior Maori leaders who have travelled to New York for this occasion,” said Helen Clark.

The powhiri is a traditional Maori ceremony which takes place when manuhiri, or visitors, and tangata whenua, or people of the land, meet and is a dynamic part of public life in New Zealand today.  In this ceremony, Helen Clark and her delegation of Maori leaders represented the visitors and UNDP staff represented the people of the land.   The ceremony entrusted Helen Clark to UNDP and marked her transition from being a representative of New Zealand to a representative of UNDP.

Te Arikinui Kingi Tuheitia, the Maori King and Paramount Chief, led the Maori delegation, dressed in traditional garb, in presenting Clark to her new UN family.  UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro and UNDP Associate Administrator Ad Melkert represented the UN at the event, each giving remarks partially in their native language of Kiswahili and Dutch respectively, as is customary during these ceremonies. 
“Helen Clark comes to us with a career of achievement behind her and now heads an organization that is dedicated to helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. This is an immense challenge,” said UN Deputy Secretary-General Migiro. “As we say in Kiswahili: “Ngoma imepata mwenyewe”—the drum has met its match! Helen, I have great confidence that you will play this drum well.”

“At the top of my priorities now will sharpening our focus on poverty reduction and the MDGs. With my background of working for economic and social justice, nothing is more important to me,” added Miss Clark.

The word powhiri encapsulates two concepts.  The word po can be translated as a venture into the unknown or a new experience, while whiri refers to the experience of exchanging information and knowledge. It is a gradual process of the manuhiri and the tangata whenua coming together, through exchanging calls, chants, martial arts, songs, speeches and food.  
Each speaker received a song of support led by the Maoris and New Zealanders in the crowd.  Cultural support was provided by New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders in the UN and Kahurangi, the Maori performing arts group based in New York.

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