What is a Marae?

What is a Marae?

Marae are places of refuge for our people and provide facilities to enable us to continue with our own way of life within the total structure of our own terms and values”.
The marae is an institution from classical Māori society that has survived the impact of western civilisation. It is central to the concept of Māoritanga and the Māori cultural identity. Māori oratory, language, value and social etiquette are given their fullest expression on the marae at the tang and hui (assemblies).
The marae is the place where values and philosophy are reaffirmed. It is the only institution where the dignity of the tangi can be reserved and the dead farewelled in the appropriate customary fashion. The marae is sacred to the living, and is a memorial to the dead. For this reason, the marae must be entered in a reverent manner.
The marae is socially integrative in the sense that it fosters identity, self-respect, pride and social control. The marae is also integrative in that all people are welcome as guests. It is one institution where the Pakeha can meet the Māori on Māori terms and come to a better understanding of what it means to have a bicultural society.

The Physical Structure

A marae complex comprises:
1. The Marae. The full name for the sacred courtyard in front of the meetinghouse is Te Maraenui-atea-o-Tumatauenga (the larger marae of Tumatuenga, God of War). Going onto the marae means entering into an encounter situation, where challenges are met and issues are debated. All newcomers to the marae must be greeted formally by the tangata whenua (hosts) whether in the warmth of a welcome, in the sadness of a tangi or even in verbal battle on mutual issues. It is the place where people formally come together on a specific occasion for a specific function. It has its procedure and this is referred to below, although it may vary from tribe to tribe.
2. The Meeting House. The marae and the meetinghouse are complementary and together serve as the focal point for community sentiment. The meetinghouse is normally the major central building and, in the main, ornately carved. The meetinghouse has many new names including tipuna whare and wharenui. In nearly all cases it is not only named after an ancestor but it is structured to represent symbolically the ancestor. Thus the tekoteko (carved figure) on the roof top in front represents the ancestor head, the maihi (carved angles from the head down towards the ground) represent the arms, the tahuhu or taahu (the ridge pole down the centre of the building) is seen as the backbone and the heke (rafters) reaching from the tahuhu to the poupou (carved figures around the walls) represent the ribs. The poupou are normally carved ancestors representing other tribes. Poupou then function as identifiers in a feeling of belonging. The uprights, normally two holding up the tahuhu, represent connection between Rangi, the sky father and Papatūānuku, the earth mother. While there are other interpretations it follows appropriately that the meeting houses are named after an ancestor. Thus, on entering the house it can be seen as entering into the bosom of an ancestor. It follows also that the interaction between people on the Marae-atea-o-Tumatuenga can be and should be significantly different from the type of interaction, which is normally encouraged inside the house. It is believed that inside the house of Rongo (the God of Peace) reigns and it is in this atmosphere and under this belief that people are required to interact with one another.
3. The Whare Kai. As the name implies, this is the eating-house, the place where the “inner man” is satisfied. The Whare Kai is a separate, not necessarily as a physical reality but in some cases as a concept or belief. The concept of tapu (sacrosanct) prescribes where food is eaten and where it cannot be eaten and also where drinks can and cannot be drunk. To the Māori, food is noa (a common element) and the opposite of tapu. Whereas the tipuna whare (meeting/ancestral house) is tapu and food cannot therefore be eaten there, the whare kai is free from tapu – the two are at opposite ends of a continuum.
4. Other Buildings and Structures. Many marae have churches situated nearby. This is significant in terms of the acknowledgement of God as an ever-present dimension in the daily lives of people on the marae. Many marae also have an urupa (graveyard) nearby acknowledging the ancestor as a living dimension of life. An ancestor is commemorated within a building – respects are paid to those who have passed on the hono-i-wairua (gathering place of spirits) within a whaikorero (formal speech making) reflecting the belief in the merging of life and death that is significant and meaningful for the Māori. Te hunga ora (living people) are the result of a combination of te hunga mate (the dead) and te hunga ora. References to these concepts are very frequent in whaikorero. On some marae memorials to a significant ancestors or people who died in the Second World War are found to the side of the marae or wharenui and in some cases a flag pole stand majestically at the side of the meeting house. Last, but not least, the ablution block and toilets are placed significantly to the rear of the Wharenui and the Whare Kai.

Huitia te rito o te harakeke
Kei hea te komako e ko?
Ki mai ki ahau he aha te mea nui o tēnei āo.
Maku e ki atu
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

Wrench out the heart of the flax
Where would the bellbird get its sustenance?
If you were to ask me what
is the most important thing in this world
I will answer thus
It is people, it is people, it is people.

The Human Structure

Generally there are two major groups of people on the marae.
1. The Tangata-Whenua – the local people who by genealogy and nowadays by association have turangawaewae (situational identity) to the marae. Their Turangawaewae gives them the right to determine Kawa (procedures) on the marae, and to determine functions, to define roles on the marae and to enjoy giving hospitality to others. It also prescribes their responsibilities and obligations to visitors. They have the basic task of preparing for visitors, ensuring that they are well fed and looked after and generally doing all they can to make the hui a success. They contribute to the food supplies, provide the work force for the kitchen, dining room, meeting house and grounds and welcoming visitors. It is the tangata-whenua who remove the tapu from the visitors to allow them to become one with the tangata whenua. The tangata whenua can be subdivided into sub-groups on the basis of their prescribes roles although it is true that roles can overlap.
a. The Young Children. They have free reign over the marae. They can play anywhere on the marae but when a formal welcome is in progress on the marae it becomes out of bounds. It is normal for children to be seen and hopefully not heard but it does not always work out like that. They are valued members of the marae as indeed everyone is. Children belong to the marae and are important. All adults are parents to these children and it is the responsibility of the closest adults to care for them.
b. The Teenager. Again they have free reign of the marae and they learn by experience. However they are expected to carry stools, set and clear tables, serve meals, pour coffee or tea and generally so manual work to ensure that visitors are looked after. In many ways life on the marae can be viewed as a process of roles, beginning as a small child who has freedom all over the marae and then a general apprenticeship starting at the back until finally, when old, right to the front of the marae as a respected elder.
c. The Adults. The adults, men and women, are the workers in the whare kai. The food has to be ordered and delivered, the fires have to be kept (where appropriate), the meals have to be prepared, cooked and served, the hangi has to be built, set down and cooked, the houses, utensils and furniture have to be maintained, the lawns and gardens clipped and maintained and the ablution block kept clean.
d. The Elders. (Ngā koroua me ngā kuia). It is very difficult to know when an elder is an elder in comparison with an adult. It varies from marae to marae, some are exponents of Māorittanga, others are exponents of Whaikorero. In some districts where there are very few old folk, the younger group of men and women assume the role of elders. In other areas where the number of elders are greater, the old leaders are very old and the younger ones have to wait in the “wings” during a formal welcome – whereas on other marae they could be leading the welcome.

The mana of the elders is expansive. They are revered by the not-so-old because of their wisdom through experience, their wise counsel, their expertise in ngā taonga o ngā tupuna Māori (treasures of the ancestors) and their guidance in all things pertaining to the marae and to life in general.
Their role as implied in the above paragraph is to “front” the marae, welcome the visitors (the women perform the karanga – welcome chant – and sing the waiata which relishes each speech), ensure that the kawa (procedure) is strictly adhered to and generally or specifically pass on their knowledge to the young.
2. The Manuhiri. Visitors comprise the second main division in te marae encounter situation. As visitors they take their lead from the established kawa of the tangata-whenua to avoid offending and to show reciprocally the respect that people have for one another. Recognising the reciprocal nature of the marae encounter and the costs such encounters incur, the manuhiri make their contribution not only in respecting local patterns of behaviour but also in the form of koha (support gift given by the manuhiri to the tangata-whenua).

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Awataha Marae is based on the North Shore in Auckland.  We exist to help people realise their potential and to bring together people of all cultures. Kotahitanga encompasses all we stand for - we invite you to join us.
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58 Akoranga Drive
North Shore City  0627
Ph. (09) 486 5467