Chapter 8. Maori Meeting-Houses in and Over Time

Toon van Meijl

The landscape of New Zealand is remarkably European in character. Its folding surface is dyed with the verdant leaf of pastureland. Meadows are often marked out by hedgerows so typical of England. The grazing pastoral animals were all introduced from the northern hemisphere less than 200 years ago. Only the omnipresent Maori marae (ceremonial centres) remind travellers from overseas that they are, in fact, exploring a country in the South Pacific.

Marae are distinguished from ordinary localities scattered over the countryside by a meeting-house used by Maori people for various ceremonies and community assembly. Meeting-houses are the most outstanding indigenous feature of the landscape in New Zealand. As such they are often thought to antedate the advent of James Cook in 1769. However, there is no evidence to support this popular belief widely held among both Maori and Pakeha, the overall term for non-Maori.[1] Neither Cook nor any other explorers of New Zealand in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century reported the existence of houses of a size significantly larger than average and belonging to the surrounding community at large. Moreover, the sometimes elaborately carved meeting-houses of the twentieth century bear little resemblance to the pre-European dwellings excavated by archaeologists.

In this paper I first describe contemporary meeting-houses, how and why they are built, and the symbolism that is embodied in their construction. Subsequently, I reflect upon standard anthropological analyses of the spatial orientation of meeting-houses, before analysing the temporal dimensions involved in the use of the house. I explain how various notions of time collapse into a conception of timelessness during ceremonies performed in the house. Furthermore, I argue that the sense of timelessness evoked during ceremonial gatherings must not be extended to the construction of meeting-houses themselves. To put it simply, the symbolism of meeting-houses may involve timelessness in some respects, yet the houses themselves have been and are subject to historical changes. An account of the development of meeting-houses over time is presented in the penultimate section, and I conclude with some notes on ongoing development in the future. I argue that in spite of the dramatic transformations of meeting-houses and their importance, they continue as the focal point of many Maori communities in both rural and urban areas.

The Marae

Before I examine the fascinating symbolism of meeting-houses, I must first explain the concept of marae. Nowadays the term marae evokes two related meanings. In the first place, marae is used to denote an open space, a clearing or plaza in front of a meeting-house, reserved and used for Maori assembly, particularly ceremonies of welcome. This narrow meaning of the term marae is often distinguished as marae aatea or marae ‘proper’ (see Figure 1). In the second place, the concept of marae is used in the broader sense for the combination of the marae proper, the courtyard, with a set of communal buildings which normally include a meeting-house, a dining hall and some showers and toilets (Metge 1976:227). Marae are often regarded as the final sanctuary of Maori culture (Walker 1977).

Figure 1. A view of the marae proper and the meeting-house Taane-i-ti-Pupuke at Waahi Pa, Huntly

 8.1. Figure 1. A view of the marae proper and the meeting-house Taane-i-ti-Pupuke at Waahi Pa, Huntly

In the 1980s only 10 per cent of the Maori population was based in rural communities. As a consequence marae are few and far between in the isolated villages scattered over the countryside. Generally marae are surrounded by only a couple of houses. Wherever they live, Maori people now occupy ordinary family houses of European design, each with its own modern conveniences. As a result, the marae is no longer used regularly as an extension to the private dwellings. Instead, marae are used only for ceremonial gatherings on occasions of life crises or especially to entertain guests. Under these circumstances the houses, that in pre-European days seem to have belonged to chiefs and their extended family only, have been enlarged and their ornamentation has often been refined as well. In addition, marae have been provided with a kitchen and a dining hall, with lavatories and shower facilities, all able to cope with large numbers of visitors.

Meeting-houses and marae are seen as ‘going together’ in more than one way (Metge 1976:230). Visiting orators commence their ceremonial speeches by greeting them both: Te whare e tuu nei, teena koe; te marae e takoto nei, teena koe (House standing here, I greet you; marae lying here, I greet you). Not only spatially, but also functionally, the meeting-house and the marae proper are complementary (Metge 1976:230). The marae is used for speech-making and welcoming guests during the daytime and in dry weather; the meeting-house is used to accommodate guests and for speech-making after dusk or on rainy days.

The complementary relationship between marae and meeting-house is often expressed by analogy with the gods of war and peace. Traditionally, so it was said, the marae was the area of Tuu-matauenga, the god and father of war, whereas the meeting-house was associated with Rongo-ma-tane, the ancestor of the kuumara (sweet potato) and the god of all other cultivated food as well as the god of peace:

Ko Tuu a waho; ko Rongo a roto

Tuu outside, Rongo inside (Metge 1976:231).

A contemporary rephrasing of the old saying I noted was voiced by a kaumaatua (respected elder), who explained to a group of young people that

the marae is the area of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The meeting-house, on the other hand, is the realm of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven.

The elder intended to indicate that disputes are expressed and settled in the marae during the exchange of ceremonial speeches, while the conversation in the meeting-house after the welcoming of guests is not supposed to be about contentious issues. However, practice often proves otherwise.

[1] In its quest for a distinctive national image the New Zealand population as a whole eagerly embraces Maori art and craft (Mead 1976).