A Maori marae experience

A synopsis of the experience from a visitor's perspective. Bruce recently visited and we were thrilled to receive this wonderful account of his visit.

What is the most important part of a paddle? Is it the blade? Or the haft? Or is it the handle?  Or is it the sum of its parts in the hands of a skilled sailor?

This analogy to the humble paddle in the hands of skilled sailors guiding a great waka (canoe) across the vast ocean is the most fitting way to describe my experience at Mataatua, Te Mānuka Tūtahi.  From the moment that I entered the main foyer and passed through the Forest of Knowledge, I was aware of the connection of past and present at this utterly unique attraction.  The forest of panels that line both sides of the passageway, not only invite the visitor into the main atrium, but also explain some of the history and symbolism of what it means to be invited onto a marae (communal living space).  Walking through this forest one becomes aware that this is more than the story of a building, but is also the story of a people who have given one of their sacred treasures to the world.

This welcome to the visitor is part of the story of Mataatua, the house that came home.

Once through the panels, the first part of your introduction to this attraction is being shown into the screening room where a ten minute video gives one a comprehensive history of this house of unity that was built to be fit for Queen Victoria, but came to be taken away from New Zealand, but also how it returned. But the story doesn’t end there.  In the same way that a house begins with a dream and a vision, but over time becomes a reality, this story is about how there was a vision that became a reality. It is about the triumph of the spirit of a people and it is about a reality that is a gift to the people of the world, a house, a home, a carved meeting house or wharenui called Mataatua.

As one passes through the forest of panels at the entrance to the visitor centre one is shown what it means to be invited into a wharenui.  The building is so much more than a house to Ngāti Awa (the local people).  It is where they live as a people.  In a time where inter-tribal warfare was rife a rich tradition grew up around the process of being invited onto the marae (traditionally the palisade fenced grounds upon which the house stands). 

In a time when all fighting was up close and personal, it was necessary to ritualise the peaceful approach by which visitors were invited firstly through the gates of the palisade, and then into the house itself. 

Perhaps the closest way to describe what it means to be invited into a wharenui is to say that it in some ways a womb from which all of the members of the tribe are born into the world.  To be invited into a wharenui is therefore to be invited into the living body of the tribe that has invited you in.  For this reason, if no other, entering a wharenui is a process that is also an act that asks of the visitor to show deep respect for the hour that you have been accorded.

After watching the video presentation on the history of how the house made a series of journeys, from Whakatāne, to Sydney, to Melbourne, to London, to Dunedin, to Otago, and finally rebuilt back in Whakatāne. One is taken to the entrance to the marae where one enters through the traditionally carved entrance gateway.  This portal is a symbolic reminder that you are being invited as a guest into a fortified area sacred to the tribe.  Here my guide explained the carvings on the panels to either side of me as well as the statues mounted above the portal.  From there we proceeded onto the marae itself and made our approach to the house.

Here the protocols of peace or pōhiri begins with a slow walk up the path towards the wharenui.  As one gets closer, a challenge (wero) is issued by an armed warrior to make sure that the visitor entering the marae is doing so with good intentions.  On passing the challenge, next, on approaching the wharenui a woman calls out a greeting which begins the exchange of formalities (karanga) before one may enter the wharenui.  Remember the cultural significance of this return to the womb and you will understand why you are asked to remove your shoes at the door before being taken inside where a male taught in the traditions of oratory will greet you in Te Reo Māori (Māori language) with the English translation.  Every speech is concluded with a waiata (chant or song) to denote the current speaker has completed his performance.  Once the formal welcome concludes each visitor must exchange the breath of life with the home people.  In a culture which prized various forms of clubs (mere) and adzes as weapons the sharing of the breath of life is as up close and personal as peace can be.  If you haven’t done this before it is worth noting that one touches one’s nose against that of your host, your eyes are closed and you breathe out gently through your nose, literally sharing the breath of life.

From here you are asked to participate in a ruruku lead by a chanting warrior one is taken around Mataatua, from panel to panel, to touch the representations of the ancestors who are remembered in carved relief on the walls.  This to me as a Western visitor was a remarkable part because here were people who I had only just met inviting me to connect with their ancestors, ancestors who are still alive to them, and it was inspiring to see the way in which past and present are alive through the magic of a building.

The experience is made up of pockets of information representing the past, the present and the future.  HIKO; Legends Carved in Light is a light show like no other in the world.  Light show does not do this experience justice because the backdrop for the light is as important as the light itself.  This is a shadow play against the panels of the wharenui that represent the carved ancestors of this tribe.  You are seated in looking at the wall and a perfectly co-ordinated show begins, telling the visitor of the mythology and symbolism of their experience.

At its conclusion it is thought the ancestors themselves have come to life and shared their stories with you. In our modern times, marked as they are by so much food being wasted on a daily basis, we have all but forgotten a time where food was scarce and the invitation to share food was a mark of friendship and respect, yet here, at Mataatua, they haven’t forgotten.  The old ways are preserved and both friendship and respect are courteously extended to every single visitor.

Visiting the Mataatua Wharenui is a cultural experience like no other because this is not about cheap, plastic thrills.  This is about being invited into a house that was created to unite a people at a time of devastation.  A house the Government sought good enough to showcase NZ Maori Art that went to Australia and the United Kingdom to show the world that from a land that had no metal, that an osteodontokeratic (bone-tooth-horn) culture could give the world a way to be one with the past and the present, to be one with the earth and for a while, in this special house, be one with a building that was not so much a house that went walkabout, but was, in its own way an ambassador for Māori culture.

Now as this remarkable building begins its journey into the 21st century and beyond, it is clear to every visitor that like a paddle guiding a waka through the waves, there are many hands working both visibly and behind the scenes to not only make this an extremely worthwhile visitor experience, but also to guide this unique visitor experience into the future.

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