The book’s setting and major themes all have to do with the Maori people. The stories, genealogies, locations and motifs discussed in the book are nearly all derived from the Maori culture. Thus, understanding the Maori helps significantly in appreciating Kahu’s story.
The Maori are the native inhabitants of New Zealand, having arrived there sometime in the 13th century CE. The traditional founding stories say that settlers came over by canoe from Hawaiki, a home island located somewhere in Polynesia. For several centuries, the Maori remained in New Zealand without much contact with the wider world. Thus they developed a unique culture. However, in the 17th century, with the European trend of exploration and colonialism, European settlers came into contact with the Maori. Compared to the rest of the world, though, New Zealand remained relatively untouched by European colonists for a long period of time. However, one important idea for the purposes of this book is that there were occasional European whaling and sealing expeditions near the Maori land, and some Maori people would accompany the Europeans and learn hunting techniques.
In the 18th century, inter-tribal warfare as well as an increase in the number of European settlers had a devastating impact on the Maori population. New weapons and new diseases were introduced, with tragic results. By the end of the 18th century, the Maori people made up only about 10% of the population of New Zealand. In the 19th century, a new worry was that the Maori culture and people would simply disappear or be assimilated into European culture. While there was not complete assimilation, the 20th century did witness growing urbanization of the Maori people, as many left their rural villages and towns in search of employment in the big cities. This too did significant harm to the preservation of Maori culture. Recently, though, the Maori culture has experienced a revivalist movement, and there seems to be a wider acceptance of Maori cultural expression across New Zealand.