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Maori Culture - The Marae,
Hui and the associated Protocols

This page explains what a Marae is, the central role it plays in Maori life and the special rituals which have to be gone through before a Pakeha or Maori from another tribe can be accepted as a guest onto the Marae. It covers Hui, meetings on the Marae and gives the background necessary for a visit to a typical Marae.

The Marae

The Marae is absolutely central to the Maori way of life, it is a focal point for groups who share kinship, whanau, hapu, iwi. Here they can meet to discuss and debate, to celebrate, to welcome the living and bid farewell to those that have passed on. There are over one thousand Marae throughout New Zealand in rural areas and in cities. In former times it was the open space and buildings in a settlement or pa (fortified settlement) where the community gathered. Today a Marae is a complex of buildings and open space, with facilities to cater for and accommodate a community and its visitors. You will see many of them as you travel, many surrounded by a typical brown fencing with carvings visible on the gates, fencing and Whare (Meeting House). In many cases they are not occupied continuously, or only by a small number, and are mainly used for hui (meetings) of many forms of the group sharing kinship and their guests.

Maori kawa (customs and procedures) vary from one tribe to another but there were sufficient common elements for Maori people to visit other Marae without problems. This is not the case with a Pakeha visitor where the complex rituals for a first visit (by Maori or Pakeha) are completely alien to their normal experience. The Maori have chosen to maintain the customs developed and nurtured over many generations and it essential for any non-Maori visitor to understand something of the culture, ritual and protocols to avoid personal embarrassment and severe insult to one's hosts.

Despite this a few Marae are opening their doors to give Tourists a "cultural experience" - it was one of these that we went to at Rotorua and found so disappointing because the explanations were severely attenuated and those sections which were part of the current culture and those which were more historic were not made clear. We can now understand many of the intentions and the context of many of the various activities and compromises they made - perhaps it is impossible to bridge so wide a gap in so short a time. Te Papa has taken a great deal of effort to try to provide the cultural bridge and has many excellent boards, flip-book guides and leaflets providing background as well as staff on the ground with real experience. They have created a Marae - Te Marae o Te Papa Tongawera (a place for all of us) as a highlight of their exhibitions. It is not specific to any one tribe, it is a Marae for all peoples throughout Aotearoa and its kawa (customs) reflect that.

The Wharenui (Meeting House) is the focal point of a Marae. It has great spiritual significance, it embodies its peoples past and in shape it represents the human form. Often it bears the name of a famous ancestor. The wharenui at Te Marae is named Te Mono ki Hawaiki (the link back to hawaiki). The wharenui at Te Marae - Te Mono ki Hawaiki is very contemporary and perhaps controversial using modern materials Hawaiki is the name of the ancestral land of origin so providing the links to all people who come to Aotearoa. Each part of a Wharenui is a representation, for example the Roro (entrance to the house through the porch) represents the brain of the ancestor, the Tahuhu (ridge pole) the spine of the ancestor and the heke (rafters) the ribs of the ancestor. The design of Te Mono ki Hawaiki is very contemporary and perhaps controversial using modern materials - the design and carving was carried out by Cliff Whiting the co-chief executive of Te Papa bringing together carvers and craftspeople from iwi and peoples throughout Aotearoa.

Hui

A Hui is a formal gathering at a Marae. Protocols vary between areas of the country and individual Marae and, of course, the formality and purpose of the Hui can be very different. Hui can include marriage celebration and Tangi (funerals) as well as well as ranging from social meetings to those determining policy.

The Pakeha, in particular the tourist is most likely to go to a Hui whose purpose is an introduction to the Maori culture and many of these include a re-enactment of some of the historic challenges. These challenges have played a less practical and more ceremonial role since the days of tribal warfare, which has died out following the work of the missionaries and other changes which have taken place since the time of the Treaty. It is extremely interesting to see the re-enactment of the original challenges and responses and it is easy to see how the Maori were misunderstood during the first contacts by Captain Cook with the almost inevitable result of bloodshed.

The ritual challenges had great symbolic meanings at every stage and gave the time for the intentions of both sides to be assessed prior to getting close enough for discussion or battle to commence - it was far from unknown for visitors to end up as part of the Hangi they thought was being cooked to greet them. If you do observe them as part of a cultural experience you must remember they still have a deep cultural significance and however amusing the posturing and gestures may seem it is in extremely bad taste to laugh, make asides etc and it will give deep offence - it is not a case where the customer is always right.

This stage of challenges is no longer a part of most routine Hui on a Marae and rare in even diplomatic meetings. The remainder of the protocols are likely to take place, perhaps with regional variations, on every Marae when Maori from different Marae arrive and even when Maori from the same Iwi (tribe) who are not regular users visit.

Before starting on the description of the formalities one needs to understand some fundamental differences. Firstly, to the Maori ancestry and age are of much greater importance than professional status - to some more elderly and conservative the male head of family of a female prime minister would have the greater status and right to be heard first. The approach is often more flexible now and doctors, priests and even senior politicians are accorded additional rank over age alone. Within Maori powers of oratory are also recognised and can overcome many of the limitation of age or breeding.

A common point of misunderstanding is in the role and rights of women within the Maori culture. Some roles can only be taken by women and historically many roles were those of the males. Today most Maori women would expect the most senior male member of the family to speak for the family and on their behalf at a Hui but it must be remember that the strength of the family is much greater than typical with Pakeha and the views of all would have been discussed and taken into account. A minority of Maori women may resent this and wish, or even succeed in speaking which will often still cause offence to some tradition elders who will refuse to speak after a younger male or any female has spoken.

There are differences in the way Democracy is implemented in some cases. It is not unknown for the family, extended family or Iwi to all vote the same following family discussions and a Hui and this is not the unwilling removal of the rights of females but can be thought of in a similar way to the block votes in trade unions.

There are many other concepts which are largely alien to Pakeha which really need to be appreciated before Maori protocols and way of life can be understood. A point made frequently by Maori activists is that an essential step to understanding Maori grievances is that the language must be learnt - I think that may well only be one step but a desirable one as all the business of the Marae, the customary rituals and important Hui will be conducted in Maori and it is unlike that there will be any changes in that, nor should there be. In fact the slow erosions of tradition are being reversed with the introduction of total immersion schooling in Maori - the first results are showing that the academic standards being achieved are equal to conventional schooling.

Returning to the original objective which was to cover the rituals, customs and protocols of a visit to a Marae I have decided that I will regard this as a first draft and try to keep it as simple as possible consistent with reasonable accuracy. Where there is any uncertainty I will follow the descriptions in the notes we were allowed to photocopy in the Research Section at Te Papa on which their own boards and welcoming procedures were based. We also have now acquired a number books starting with one bought at Te Papa called "Te Marae, A Guide to Customs & Protocols by Hiwi and Pat Tauroa and published by Reed ISBN 0-7900-0055-5" which gives a very comprehensive coverage of the Marae and understanding of traditional and contemporary Maori life. Much of the remaining information has come from the serious and somewhat academic "Hui, A Study of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings by Anne Salmond, Reed ISBN 07900-0205-1" lent us by Kev and Jenny and one we bought at Wanganui called "...Taku Whare E... My Home My Heart by Morvin T Simon published by the Whanganui Regional Community Polytechnic, no ISBN number" - this is a brief anthology of Marae in the Wanganui and Rangitikei districts with details of the protocols of specific Marae as well as an excellent introduction.

A Typical Visit to a Marae

The Manuhiri (visitors) assemble at the gate to the Marae and each discrete group within the visitors will have a spokesman for that group. They will also have a Kai Karanga (caller) who must be female and will respond to the calls of welcome and reciprocate. In the case of Pakeha visitors the visitor's Kai Karanga may be "lent" by the Marae.

An Elderly woman will let out a call of welcome from the Tangata Whenua (hosts) to the Manuhiri (visitors) assembled at the gate. Her call has several functions including permitting the visitors to move onto the Marae at the same time declaring that area of the Marae to be Tapu (sacred) until formalities are concluded.

The words used in the Karanga (call) cover four main areas:

The visitors own kai whakaatu (caller) will listen carefully and responds to these calls by reciprocating the calls of welcome, acknowledging the deceased of the Tangata Whenua. She needs to have the knowledge to greet the house and Iwi (tribe) of the Marae. She will finally address the purpose of the gathering.

Once these initial rituals are complete the visitors can move onto the Marae and are seated for the next phase - women should not sit in the front row. The seating would conventionally have the Manuhiri facing the Tangata Whenua either side of the meeting house.

The groups now commence the formal speeches by the leading spokesmen of the groups. This ritual always commences with a speech by a local elder. If some areas the Tangata Whenua allow all their speakers to deliver their speeches of welcome before the visiting speakers respond. In other areas the two sides alternate in their speakers.

After each speech the speakers group would provide a Waiata (song) to relish the words. The speeches would cover at least the same four areas as the Kai Karanga. This phase can take many hours.

The final ritual before the formalities are complete and the tapu lifted is for the Tangata Whenua to Hongi with the Manuhiri - this the ceremonial pressing of noses (one press for a first encounter, two for a friend or someone one has met before and three for someone you are very fond of or a close relation).

Once the rituals are complete and the tapu lifted then the Tangata Whenua can proceed with the programme set out for the Hui. This is often preceded by a Hangi (meal steam cooked over heated rocks in a deep pit). In the case of the Cultural encounters for tourists you might expect traditional songs, poi swinging, stick games and Huka.

Further information on Marae protocol, including all the ten stages and a virtual whare can be found at http://www.maori.org.nz/tikanga/index.htm which is part of the major Maori site on the net.

If and when this is read by any Maori, I would be delighted to receive comments, corrections and better expositions, in particular of topics such as Tapu (sacred) and Noa (common) which have no simple equivalent to the Pakeha.

Disclaimer

It is worth making the point that it is difficult to do justice to Maori Culture without being fluent in the language and having been immersed in the culture. There are words and concepts which have no direct translation and are difficult or, arguably, impossible to grasp. For example, in the early days, sovereignty was a concept without any counterpart in the Maori language or culture and the Maori concepts of Tapu and Noa are difficult for many Pakeha to understand even today. If I have inadvertently, or through ignorance, made errors or omissions in any of my sections covering Maori culture, legends and protocol please let me know - any corrections, comments and input will be very welcome.

Introduction | History | Legends | Culture | Marae | Extracts

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Content revised: 21st August, 2007
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