MaraeOur marae need attention, protection, words and warmth, writes Māmari Stephens in this essay from The Journal of Urgent Writing 2017.


The kuia and I trade calls, our voices wreathed in the morning mist. The house before me, rooted in the earth, pushes up against the grey sky, creating space for us. The group advances with me. We pause. I remember my mum — two years passed.
Her throaty chuckle echoes in my mind. Tears fall, again. We move on across the marae ātea.

The last of the calls fade into the air, and we shuffle into the house to find our place, our seats, trying not to be seen but still wanting to see. We negotiate parking spaces; we sit. We watch our breath floating on the air, we listen to the heat pump on the back wall straining to warm the winter void between carvings, weavings, people.

They sit, in the darkened corner, the four of them. An old, lean man with a piece of paper in his hands; a younger, slightly rounder man, both on the front bench. On the back bench sits the silver-haired kuia, smiling at no one in particular. The blonde girl perches off to the side. Knees pointing to the direction she really wants to take, as if she has been press-ganged into these cultural duties — while she was on her way to work, to her mate’s place, to anywhere but here. Yet here she is.

Facing them, we sit. Our single speaker holds his smartphone in a tight grip; the words to his whaikōrero glaring from its tiny screen. Like me, he’s been practising in the car on the way up. Women sitting around me hold pieces of paper, creases bisecting the words to our single waiata. In this pōwhiri it seems okay not to know things off by heart. No shame, but also little quarter given. What must be done must still be done, depletions and dwindlings be damned.

Tikanga, the Correct Way to Behave, carried us along in our willing conformity. Above all, the house holding us within it cannot be left to speak for itself.

Each kaikōrero stands and speaks as they must. As we all need them to. They pay just the right deference to God and gods, to land, to water, to sky, to us and to all our dead. Words ebb and flow between us, some of them in English. When the time comes, we join to harirū, to “how-do-you-do”. Our 25 souls to their four. Us and our heavy footsteps on their marae and in their whare. Within the hour the four leave us, and we fill up their space with noise, chatter and our business.

In the two warmth-filled days I spent there it was hard to shake off the sense of foreboding I felt when I looked around me. It felt as if this place were under a shadow, ever-lengthening across our landscapes, falling over many of our marae.

More than 770 traditional marae complexes like this one, usually incorporating a wharenui or whare rūnanga (meeting house) and marae ātea (ritual space outside the house), are embedded across Aotearoa, at least 743 of them in the North Island. Dozens more pan-tribal complexes have grown in cities.

These documented structures don’t tell the full story of our marae-claimed lands. Many of the traditional complexes are likely to be still unknown to researchers, given that there are more than 1300 marae reserves registered under Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these often tiny built spaces are increasingly vulnerable to demographic change. As kaikōrero and kaikaranga in remoter areas decline in numbers, some paepae, or speaker’s benches, simply empty. In some places, too, the karanga is no longer heard.

We have known about this danger for a long time. My awareness of the lengthening shadow has been further provoked in recent weeks by a worrying series of events. A month or so after I returned from the marae hui, Bruce Stewart died at his beloved Tapu Te Ranga marae in Island Bay, Wellington. An extraordinary man with a vision to match, Bruce left his people to remain as kaitiaki of an urban marae, hewn by hand out of recycled and scavenged materials, dug into the hillside.

Haere ki ōu mātua tipuna.
Haere, haere,
okioki ai . . .

That marae is also vulnerable, as a result of a fraught relationship with the Wellington City Council and with some in the community. Building-compliance demands hang heavy on this idiosyncratic, 10-storey structure, described by council spokesman Richard MacLean as a ‘death-trap’. Parts of the complex have been closed up and barricaded off from use.

Almost a year before Bruce’s death, his son Hirini acknowledged the shadow lying over their marae:

It’s the proverb he always told us — those who build the house are built by the house. And so all those people will come down with the house, if it comes down.

Well. We all have much to lose if our houses come down. The marae complex, no matter how plain, enables the iwi, hapū or urban collective to have a point of foundation in the world, by affirming the links of the people with ancestors, land, guardians and waters. The spaces of the marae ātea and the whare rūnanga make us cross thresholds: between the worlds of the living and the dead; between descendants and ancestors; between this world and other worlds. If such places can survive demolition, that is. For the very earth within which marae are embedded has been shifting and seething.

Rū ana te whenua.Whati ana te moana . . .

From 1 July 2017, every wharenui or whare rūnanga has been counted as a “building” under the newly amended Building Act 2004, unless it can show that it is a “building used wholly or primarily for residential purposes”. Arguably, most marae whare are not usually wholly or primarily places of residence, so will likely have no exemption under the amended legislation.

Exemption from what, you ask?

Local councils will need to determine whether such “buildings”, including marae complexes, are earthquake-prone. If they are, the councils will issue notices requiring seismic work to be done by a deadline of the council’s choosing. Given that at least 70 per cent of existing marae structures are estimated to be over 50 years old, the number of marae needing work done could be large indeed.

In brutal summary, marae deemed earthquake-prone will need to be upgraded or replaced, or face demolition. While marae complexes must be safe for all people, the potential financial, spiritual and emotional costs are likely to be huge, if not insurmountable, for poorer Māori communities.

In early 2016, the MP for Te Tai Tonga, Rino Tirikatene, unsuccessfully sought an exemption for marae under the Act, and tried to draw parliament’s attention to such complexes being more than mere buildings:

[In] te ao Māori a wharenui is more than just a building. It is representative of our tūpuna. If we look at all the various parts of a marae, they are the parts of the body of our tūpuna, so there is more than just a bare-boned, inanimate-type object that we are referring to in this legislation. I think that is what this legislation fails to do — it fails to address the extra spiritual meaning that is applied to buildings.

Other events have also prompted me to sense the shadow over our marae and their futures. During 2016 and 2017 there has been unprecedented coverage of the role of marae complexes as the providers of welfare and emergency assistance to anyone in need. Such media stars have included Takahanga marae, which helped people after the 2016 earthquakes in Kaikoura, and Rautahi marae in Kawerau, which opened its doors to flood victims after the April 2017 Edgecumbe floods, among others.

There were Te Puea and Manurewa marae, housing the homeless in 2016 and 2017 as an emergency extension of government services in response to the housing crisis in Auckland. Marae complexes have become, more publicly at least, centres of emergency welfare. These activities push the marae beyond their usual functions.

In something of a cruel irony, the new building laws may stretch further, to these marae, too. Councils will identify and prioritise “buildings” likely to be used for emergency accommodation. Such buildings are more likely to be assessed earlier. If they are found to be earthquake-prone, such marae will be required to have the remedial work done more rapidly. Marae such as those I have just named could well be “rewarded” for opening their doors to those in emergency need by being subjected to even greater scrutiny and earthquake compliance requirements than other buildings.

There was generous public praise of the marae which helped their communities in times of need. But praise is a fickle creature. During the same short passage of weeks in which Bruce Stewart passed and the new legislation was enacted, Awataha marae in Northcote, Auckland, became the focus of an unprecedented political attack. The attack showed not only how Māori institutions and people can easily become political pawns, but also how marae can end up out of sync with their own communities.

In the run-up to the 2017 general election, the Labour Party established a scheme to attract young people from overseas to buy return tickets to New Zealand, so that they could participate for three months in an internship scheme that would give them valuable electioneering experience.

The scheme got too big for its boots, and the decision to house the interns at Awataha, an urban marae not designed for housing such a large number over such a long period of time, caused an outcry. Marama Fox, Māori Party co-leader, compared the interns to “slaves”. Some media described the marae itself, and the temporary sleeping structures it put up, as “slum accommodation” and dubbed it “the sweatshop marae”.

Although subsequent reports downplayed the culpability of the marae, mud sticks — and filth sticks even longer. Awataha marae faced reputational ruin over a situation for which they were largely not responsible. It is a well-known axiom among Māori that any marae that abuses visitors will lose its own mana and become dusty from its own neglect:

Tangata takahi manuhiri, he marae puehu.

In fact, Awataha had already been the target of street protest weeks before the internship story broke. Some Māori, represented by Te Raki Paewhenua Māori Committee, felt excluded from the marae, which was designed to be used as an urban foundation point for local Māori communities.

They claimed that the marae was instead hiring itself out to other groups, severely limiting the use of the marae for tangihanga and other cultural celebrations and commemorations of local Māori.

While it is anyone’s guess how this long-simmering stoush will end, it is certainly true that a marae cannot, and perhaps should not, stand if the home people don’t support it.

The threat of disconnection between people and a marae leads me to yet another June 2017 event that forms part of the shadow in my mind’s eye.

This time, the story occurs in Greystanes, Sydney, Australia. Three organisations — Ngā Uri o Rāhiri Inc, Te Aranganui and the Sydney Marae Appeal — had the dream of establishing a marae complex on leased land at the Hyland Road Reserve in Greystanes. Like all attempts to realise dreams, it took a lot of time, energy and fundraising — and then, at the last hurdle, the local authority, the Cumberland Council, rejected the proposal, seemingly without a backward glance. In the sometimes cruel and bloodless language of power that erases years of hard work, it was simply:

Moved and declared carried by the Administrator that Council:
1. Abandon the current process relating to the proposed leasing of the subject land.

The main reasons given were (broadly speaking):

  • lack of sufficient cultural connection between the immediate area and the local Māori population
  • issues of due diligence
  • questions about the amalgamated groups’ ability to fund the project.

Those backing the project disagreed. For now, at least, that dream sleeps.

This was not the only marae project in Australia. There’s one in Melbourne, one in Western Australia, and probably others in the pipeline, too. It is hardly surprising, in a way, that such plans are afoot. From 2006 to 2011 the number of those recorded in the Australian Census as having Māori ancestry grew 38.2 per cent, from 92,912 to 128,434. Historian Paul Hamer reckons that Māori in Australia now comprise at least 18 per cent of all Māori.

Tā Mason Durie reckons that this kind of development was bound to happen. As he points out, there are already overseas marae. I presume that he is referring to places like Hinemihi in London, and the highly successful Aotearoa village at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu in Hawai’i. It’s just the next step in what Tā Mason calls “sustaining the Māori Estate”.

Marae have been constructed in overseas countries where significant Māori communities now reside and as global travel increases, it is likely that overseas marae will be part of a world-wide network of marae, some based around hapū, others around communities of interest, and others still around global travellers who seek to retain a cultural anchor in an otherwise assimilating environment. — Ngā Tini Whetū: Navigating Māori futures

And certainly Māori have spread overseas. For example, Māori have had a couple of centuries of deep connection with Parramatta in New South Wales. In 1811, while staying with Reverend Samuel Marsden, Ruatara established a small farm near the banks of the Parramatta River (originally the territory of the Burramattagal clan of the Darug people).

Marsden, having purchased the land, used the area to set up (briefly) a Māori seminary, supported by other Northern Māori rangatira such as Kāwiti Tiitua and Hongi Hika. This area is known still as Rangihou. Tūpuna are reportedly buried there, and if there were to be a place with a strong claim for a marae, quite possibly this is it. Accordingly, those trying to establish the marae at Graystanes sought to show connection between that project and those historical roots at Rangihou, a mere 8 kilometres away.

And, surely, setting up a marae complex deep in overseas soil can make sense, right? Maybe. Except… it doesn’t quite feel right. In particular, I wonder about the cost to the indigenous peoples of Australia of Māori creating such permanent foundation points in that country.

I was astonished to find no mention in the Greystanes proposal’s heritage report of the original Darug peoples of the area. While the proposal had the oral support of David Williams (of the Holroyd City Council Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Consultative Committee), a Bundjalung man from a different tribal area to the north-east of the Darug in New South Wales, there were no publicly available accounts of other Darug support for the proposal.

This absence of a Darug voice troubled me. I know that my own knowledge is imperfect: perhaps those conversations never took place, perhaps they did. Regardless, the notion that marae complexes should be embedded in Australian soil disturbs me. When we dig into that soil to create places or points of belonging, no matter how well we think we have consulted with indigenous peoples, that soil is not ours and will never be ours.

When I raised a similar issue recently, one woman responded by saying, “Māori migrated to Aotearoa and built our marae there… never were we trees to plant ourselves in one spot. A marae is more than just the land it stands on.”

That’s true. And we know from the settlement process that long-standing claims and cross-claims to land and mana whenua are still being quarrelled over today. But I don’t think that history allows Māori or any other people to ignore and therefore to denigrate the peoples belonging to other lands that we would like to live on.

This doesn’t mean we can’t be Māori on that soil. How can we not be? We should guard and protect and develop our cultural expressions, even in little ways. But perhaps we should be careful to resist the tempting call to entitlement. Like birds drawn and fooled by the hunter, we might just end up in the pot.

E kore e rongo, he manu ka pakia pepetia.

The shadow that has troubled me over the past several weeks won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Some of our marae are cold, and some of our houses have been left to speak for themselves. More will now struggle under the threat of earthquakes and the financial, spiritual and emotional burden of compliance, and the changes to tikanga such compliance might require. Urban marae are increasingly agents for social change and yet also pawns in political point-scoring, and some run the risk of moving beyond the reach of their own whānau.

And sometimes our people overseas are caught in the no-man’s land between needing to be Māori, and needing to belong to overseas places, but being ever the manuhiri on the soil of others whom we should not supplant.

For many of us the carved gate, the barely glimpsed tekoteko or the peeling paint on the side of what looks like a shed barely warrant another glance. Perhaps the very word “marae” conjures up fond memories of a school visit in decades gone by. Perhaps these places only exist for us in the abstract, in the absence of an invitation across that threshold. For others of us, marae might re-ignite fears, memories of felt exclusion.

Regardless of our connections or otherwise, this marae-studded geocultural dimension of New Zealand society needs attention, protection, words and warmth. Like the language, marae may not survive as we currently know them, unless more of us tread them, sleep in them, call on them, fall in love in them, declaim and weep for them, and maybe even stump up our readies for them.

And thus, just maybe, we can push the shadow back.


This essay is extracted from The Journal of Urgent Writing 2017 edited by Simon Wilson, and published by Massey University Press, 2017 (RRP $39.99).

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