If you want to understand New Zealand’s culture, then you have to understand Maori culture, and in order to do that, it is important to know what a Marae and a wharenui are.
According to the Maori Dictionary (that you can consult here: www.maoridictionary.co.nz), a wharenui is the main building of a marae, that would traditionally belong to a hapu (sub tribe) or whanau (family). To me this makes perfect sense because I have been sufficiently exposed to Maori culture that all of those words and explanations make sense.
But perhaps for a first-timer it is not as easy to understand. Traditionally, Maori tribes have deveoped a way of social interaction where the issues that affect the community are discussed in a communal way. Such discussions-and reflections-would take place in a Marae. This area would then have a main building, as mentioned above, called a wharenui.
|Marae inside the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa) in Wellignton|
Both the Marae and the wharenui are places where formal gatherings take place, and the atendees can either reflect, discuss, grieve, rejoice, pray, etc. However, the most important traits of this spaces is that they are tapu (sacred), and for that reason certain rules must be followed. Perhaps the first rule of conduct in a Marae that would strike you as a foreigner is that you must take off your shoes when you enter and remain barefoot for the length of your stay inside the building.
Another important characteristic of these communal areas is that they are employed to celebrate Maori culture and language, especially, since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, when English rule settled in New Zealand permanently. Perhaps the latter is the main reason why Maraes and wharenuis hold such a value for the Maori communities nowadays.
Since the colonization of New Zealand, Maori society has had to change, and hence, the use of the communal spaces has changed as well. As of today, a Marae does not have to belong to a specific tribe, sub tribe or family, but it ca be a part of an education centre or a tertiary institution.
|Back wall of the wharenui at Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand.|
Nevertheless, that does not mean that the location and edification of a Marae or wharenui are taken lightly, since the construction of this building involves the traditional Maori arts of carving and weaving. Also, the carvings made in this place have a meaning. Each and every single one of them. That meaning can be related to the tribe’s whakapapa (genealogy), the tribe’s legends and ancestry or even New Zealand’s history.
|Pole in a Marae representing the Maroi Batallion that participated in WWII|
|Pole representing the arrival of chirstianity to Aotearoa New Zealand in a Marae|
Without a doubt, walking into a Marae is a deep experience that New Zealand travelers and explorers can’t miss, but if I could give you one tip about how to make this the best experience possible, it would be to stay away from the turistic Maori attractions, where the traveler is given a prefabricated idea of what Maori culture is. Instead, try to look for a Marae where you can ask questions to the locals and where the profound characteristics of it can be explained to you in detail.
The relation between Maori society and New Zealand as a country as well as with other social groups is complex, but worth trying to understand. Don’t miss the chance!