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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Being Welcome on Marae

The difference between being welcomed onto marae, our Maori meeting places, and being welcome on marae is far more than a few simple letters. Let me deal with the technicalities first:

Being welcomed onto marae is a formal event with strict kawa (protocol) to follow and that kawa differs between individual iwi (tribe) and marae. It is a tapu event and the kawa are there to protect all involved. (Tapu is one of the most complex concepts in tikanga Maori and involves the notion of the "sacred," but also of "spiritual restriction" and "implied prohibition." See here if you're interested in learning more. ) The powhiri (welcome) is a process through which manuhiri (visitors) are brought onto the marae and their tapu removed, making them one with the tangata whenua, or local iwi.

For those unaware of the local kawa, it's essential to consult with the tangata whenua before a visit or to arrive with a party of manuhiri who know the kawa. As in any new culture, you're best to keep quiet, observe and learn, so as not to inadvertantly do or say anything that might put people at risk or cause offense.

Being welcome on marae, in contrast, is being welcome at the family home, another role the marae fills for its tangata whenua. It's more of a "make yourself at home" invite, often issued at the back door.

I, though not yet having been to my home marae, have been fortunate to have been both welcomed and welcome on several South Island marae. As a student at Otago Polytechnic, I was privileged to enjoy a weekend on Takutai o te Titi Marae at Colac Bay with other Whakairo (carving/design) students, learning about local tikanga (customs). As a journalist in Dunedin, I was welcome on Otakou Marae (after some initial hesitance) and enjoyed conversations over a cup of tea and taiaha (spear) practice out back. I was also honored to be welcomed to Otakou formally, both as an Otago University Theatre Studies student and later as a journalist.

This past weekend, I was honored again to become welcome at another stunning marae, Wheke, at Rapaki.  I had met one of the carvers involved while in Lyttelton last month and returned to borrow his caravan at the weekend and to enjoy the peace of his garden and the company of his daughter and himself. I'd gone for a walk and admired the whare whakairo (carved house) from outside the gates but, not knowing the local kawa, didn't want to step through. Then, while going past the back gate, I was invited to join the whanau out back for a drink and took the opportunity to ask if I could enter the whare.

Inside, I was blown away by the design, work and artistry of the carvings, woven tukutuku panels and paintings, and humbled by the welcome I received by the kuia - the older women who hold Maori families together and hold us to account at the same time. Several families were staying on marae after the Feb. 22 quake damaged homes (it was in this community that a boulder the size of a car bounded from Tamatea, the mountain above, and through a house), and I was touched to have an Aunty pat my hand as I sat beside her bed and assure me I could stay there anytime.

I had a fabulous feed, helped with dishes, played with feral youngsters, met many more wonderful people and enjoyed camaraderie and song with them. As one does on marae.

Rapaki has stolen my heart in a very brief time, with the deep sense of magic I feel there, the hospitality and acceptance of its residents and the open-hearted generosity of knowledge I have encountered.


  1. do you have any photos of what you saw? if so, please post!

  2. Seoulgirl,
    In my usual hectic fashion, I left my camera battery charger behind in Dunedin (0500 drop friend at Dunedin airport, head back to bed, get up later than expected and think I'll be late picking her and her sister up at Christchurch airport - so busy that also forgot to eat!)
    BUT, if it's pics of the marae you'd like to see, check out the second link. Those of the whare whakairo don't do it justice but I plan to return and ask permission to take more, or to have a professional photog do so