A Place to Stand

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

The marae is a community center and a ceremonial center, a dining area and a performance space, usually consisting of a meeting hall (whare hui), a dining hall, and a grassy courtyard where speeches are delivered (the marae itself). But in today's society, especially, it is much more than just a group of buildings. It is "one major arena left in New Zealand where European culture stands at a disadvantage. Indeed, with the Pakeha world encroaching on all sides, the marae is an enclave of Maoriness where it is the white man's ways which are out of place. In a Pakeha world, the marae is a place where all thing Maori come together.

The marae comes to life during hui, ceremonial gatherings ruled by Maori etiquette, which occur in times of celebration and mourning. During these occasions, the Maori language is used, Maori food is served, and Maori customs are followed. The best example of hui is the funeral ceremony of tangihanga, which may be the best preserved and most important Maori ritual. When the body arrives at the marae, it is greeted by the wailing of old women who will stay with it throughout. Visitors arrive over the course of the first day and are invited onto the marae, where speeches are made by the men in order to send the deceased to the land of the ancestors. After this, the visitors enter the whare mate, the house of death, to hongi, or press noses, with the mourners. Complete freedom of emotion is encouraged and practiced; a common saying at funerals is "The tears that fall,/The mucus that is cast upon the marae/Avenge death." At the end of the day, women lay wreaths and bouquets at the foot of the coffin, to "leave something of themselves behind." The tangi traditionally takes place over the space of three days and nights, with different visitors coming every day. Finally, at the end, though, everyone sits down for a feast of traditional Maori food.

The unwritten rules that govern the tangi are thoroughly Maori, or at the very least, they are held to be. Death is a very powerful unifying factor for the Maori and aroha dictates behavior in more extensive and expressive ways than it does at Pakeha funerals. For instance, speeches often invoke tribal pride as well as kinship ties: "The death of a relation, even one whom I know little, if at all, affects me deeply, just because of relationship... My relation and I are part of the same tree, we share the same ancestry and the claims of that ancestry are very real." Also, such activities as hongi and wailing for the dead are basic elements of the tangi, as they are traditional expressions of aroha. But the tangi is not entirely a sorrowful occasion; true to popular Maori character, people talk, jokes are made, arguments happen, and major issues are discussed and settled. Indeed, the final feast acts as a release of emotion after intense mourning and is always a joyous experience.

It is somewhat ironic, however, that even as one of the most Maori of traditions, the tangi also incorporates one of the most Western of institutions -- the church. Initially, Christianity and indigenous beliefs coexisted, but eventually, Pakeha ways were adopted, however interpreted. The Maori have never had complete faith in Christianity: "The Christian practice... has been adapted to fit easily into the tangihanga or mourning ceremony, without losing its essential message. Many of the ministers of the churches are Maori and services are conducted in the Maori language." Obviously, it was impossible that the marae and hui should remain untouched by Pakeha ways or even the progression of time. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But, as it is the goal of Maoritanga to set forth an image of Maori unity in opposition to the dominant Pakeha culture, the truth is often inconvenient. According to Sinclair, "Such ritual occasions assert that there has been no fragmentation in Maori experience, while providing an arena in which Maori identity can be formulated and sustained."

Yet, Toon Van Meijl claims that the emotional character of the Maori today is not even uniquely Maori, but created in the image of the Pakeha's ideal, in appreciation of the fact that the reality of Pakeha society does not live up its own standards. This means that while aroha and kinship are still central components of Maori identity, their value is achieved in the Pakeha world view rather than in the Maori world view. In essence, Van Meijl's assumption creates a situation in which traditional behavior such as that which is exercised at the marae, is either a genuinely Maori impulse or a Maori gesture, not necessarily false, but guided by Pakeha principles nonetheless.

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