Wednesday, December 25, 2013


This is a brief overview of the physical and spiritual structure of the marae, the meeting ground of the Maori people. Hopefully it will help explain the importance of the marae to Maori, the customs and rituals surrounding it, and the significance of features like the wharenui. In modern society a marae’s role is largely governed by its location. In rural areas the marae retains its traditional role as the centre of all village life and the hub of tribal activity. It continues to provide both shelter for the people and a platform from which to guide them. In pre-European society most marae had one main fire, which was kept alive 24-7. It was known as the ahi-ka-roa (long burning fire) and it signified the on-going life of that marae. It was never extinguished as the living flame represented the mana of the tribe. The families who maintain the fires through successive generations were recognised as keepers of the ahi-ka-roa and as such keepers of the mana whenua. Today we no longer keep the fires burning 24-7 but the responsibility for keeping the marae alive still falls to the people, the whanau of that marae.
Marae illustration by Warren Pohatu
In urban areas the marae is but one of many community focal points and has very little impact or influence over tribal initiatives. Urban marae simply accommodate the people and house a host of independent kaupapa. Often the people involved with that marae are not the tangata whenua. The sense of belonging, ownership and whanaungatanga is much harder to define. The influx of Maori into urban settings has seen a mass detachment from the usual whakapapa based tribal groupings. Its led to a large percentage of Maori living away from their tribal lands. This, in turn, impacts on the theory, the importance and the relevance of the ahi-ka-roa in an urban setting.
Another modern adaptation sees many forums in many different locations afforded a temporary ‘marae’ status for the purpose of servicing our customs and our culture. Powhiri (welcome ceremony) and mihi (acknowledgements) take place in a wide range of environments from school halls to sports clubrooms to corporate castles. For the duration of that function, that location assumes the spirituality of a marae and allows us to engage the associated customs and/or traditions.

Warren Pohatu (Ngai Tamanuhiri)

Te Poho-o-Tamanuhiri , Muriwai, Te Tairawhiti
The marae is undoubtedly the focal point of any Maori community. Consisting of communal buildings on tribally owned land, the marae serves as both a public plaza and a gathering place for the iwi (tribe). Here the iwi can host their hui (meetings), discuss tribal issues, welcome manuhiri (visitors) and host important functions such as tangihanga (funerals) to farewell friends and family. During these official occasions the marae is controlled by tribal protocol, with rules and regulations applying to both the tangata whenua (hosts) and manuhiri (visitors). It is important for hosts and visitors to understand their respective roles during a powhiri (welcome) or at tangihanga. Protocols differ from marae to marae; if you are unsure, it is OK to ask. Basically the marae cannot exist without the people. The marae symbolises the land and the people symbolise the life. The people need the land to live and the land needs the people to be alive. That is the true relationship between a marae and its people.

Tangata whenua
The hosts on a marae are known as the tangata whenua (people of the land). It is their marae: they decide how things work there and they will always defend their right to do so. After all it represents one of their tipuna. The tangata whenua are responsible for welcoming their visitors, making them comfortable, feeding them and ensuring they all have a place to sleep. As part of the welcome the tangata whenua issue a wero (challenge) to determine whether the visitors are friendly or not. Having completed that and confirming the peaceful motives of their visitors, the tangata whenua move to the right side of the building. There they begin their speeches of welcome, usually with a karakia (prayer). Each speech is usually concluded by a waiata (song). The tangata whenua keep the marae alive and are often referred to as the keepers of the fire (te ahi-ka-roa). In ancient tribal society the cooking fires were maintained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and thus the term ahi-ka-roa (long burning fires) became associated with the life of a marae. It represented occupation, ownership and an on-going association with the land.

Kawa and tikanga
Kawa and tikanga refer to the protocol and rules of a marae. In very general terms, the kawa of a marae refers to the religious protocol, or to a protocol as defined by the important tribal gods. Tikanga, on the other hand, refers to the rules imposed by man — related to dress, schedule of ceremonies, timing of events and location. As man evolves so does the tikanga and there are several examples of this evolution. Today it is widely accepted that kaikorero (speakers) must wear long trousers yet it is obvious that this tikanga is a fairly recent adaptation. There are many variations in kawa and tikanga from marae to marae. For example, not all marae allow visitors to arrive during the hours of darkness. It is the host tribe’s prerogative to detail the kawa and tikanga of their marae — that is their way, and it is not appropriate for any iwi to impose its kawa on another tribe’s marae. It’s also inappropriate for other cultures to impose their social doctrine upon Maori protocol. Having said that, Maori culture has definitely compromised itself to ensure its survival and maintain some relevance within the ever-changing modern world.


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