Visiting the Marae

My social media feeds may portray weekend tramping adventures, but, just so you’re not fooled, I’m still a full-time grad student. My Master of Teaching and Learning coursework at the University of Canterbury started three weeks ago, and I love that facet of life here too.

I’ve got just as much of an academic-prone mind as I do a mountain soul, and it feels really good to be back in a learning environment. My 22 other classmates and I come from a variety of professional, geographic, and generational backgrounds, but we’re all bright and have landed in this course because we are passionate about helping young people.

All young people.

Which is what is especially awesome about this program. It has a strong emphasis on diverse learning and inclusive education, particularly toward Māori students. Up to a few weeks ago, I was pretty ignorant about all things Māori – a term referring broadly to the many indigenous tribes who already inhabited New Zealand prior to its colonization in the early 1800s.

Like most people groups, the Māori have been marginalized since imperialism’s greedy hands reached this Pacific shore. However, the Brits considered them to be of a higher “civilized” standard than natives they encountered in other parts of the world. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, is a document which acknowledges the Māori as the owners of their land and gave them the same rights as British subjects; in exchange, the crown took on governmental control. This document was and continues to be very controversial because the Māori and English translations differ substantially (“government” and “full sovereignty” sure don’t mean the same thing).

Assimilating to pākehā (white man) ways, Māori once came close to losing their heritage, traditions, and language. Fortunately, there has been a cultural revitalization in the last few decades, and much has been preserved.

As future educators that need to be knowledgeable and supportive of our students’ backgrounds, all this Māori history means field trips for us. A few days ago, we visited the Rehua Marae. A marae is the communal meeting ground for a tribe, and there is one smack dab in the middle of Christchurch! While cars zoom right on by, an easily-missed driveway reveals a small pocket of peace in a bustling city.


Schmo-Joe can’t just walk on to a marae. A pōwhiri (pronounced po-feer-(d)ree) must be performed for anyone who has never been to the grounds before. It’s a pretty intense ritual of encounter that was once used to determine whether visitors were friends or foes. Now it’s done to welcome new visitors and to maintain cultural traditions. I’ve only been in New Zealand three weeks, and I’ve already been a part of five pōwhiris.

They’re really cool, but with eight official steps, they also take a while. You have to stand outside the grounds, and a woman calls a song of welcome. Another woman with your group answers, and you start slowly walking forward. The locals standing on the steps sing an intimidating, powerful song and dance (haka). (The next day we were on the flip side welcoming others on. I lost my voice a little from scream-chant-singing so loud).

Eventually you take off your shoes and are led inside, where the locals stand on one side and the new visitors on the other. Over the course of anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours, the two groups exchange welcomes, speeches, singing, gifts, and hongis.

Not our group, but this is the look and feel of what happens

Lemme elaborate on those for a moment.

Welcome and Speeches

The whole pōwhiri is spoken almost entirely in Te Reo Māori. E.g. I can’t understand anything beyond Kia Ora (which means welcome/hello/nice job/thank you) Lots of smiling on my part.

This is also when Mihimihis are exchanged, which lists out a person’s lineage and identity. People have memorized their genealogy pretty far back, so this also can go on a while. The purpose is to find connections between the two groups or speakers.

Confession: It’s kind of easy to zone out when you don’t know what’s being said.


Māori people love to sing. Lots. I really like this tradition; for me, it’s a combination of memories of camp songs and worship. There’s something about singing that brings people together. We have been learning a new waiata each week in class. My favorite so far is Tutira mai nga iwi.

The lyrics in English go like this:

Line up together, people
All of us, all of us.
Stand in rows, people
All of us, all of us.
Seek after knowledge
and love of others – everybody!
Think as one,
Act as one.
All of us, all of us.


It’s standard to bring $5 each as a token of gratitude for the hosts’ hospitality. And what graciousness! Especially through kai. We’ll get to that in a second.

Nose/Forehead Ritual of Encounter

The Māori version of a handshake. Everyone stands in a line, and one by one, you press your forehead and nose gently against the person you meet. If you’ve never done it, it sounds kind of weird, but I like it. It breaks down barriers. Since the head is holy, it also shows a lot of respect toward a stranger.



This is an oft-used word that has infiltrated kiwi speech (“Hey wanna go grab some kai?”). We were fed well. The ceremony is pretty serious, and as you sit in each other’s presence, it almost seems like a mingling of souls. Kai is always at the end to bring closure to the pōwhiri, lighten the mood, and interact with the guests and hosts.

We were only there for 24 hours, but there was a LOT of kai. Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. We never spent more than three hours of the day away from the dining hall. It was always blessed, and it gave good time for strangers to get to know each other. Māori people take hospitality very seriously, and it’s most evident in their delicious food.


For me, a lot of our time on the marae felt like a church youth group retreat – people coming together, learning new things, singing, sleeping on mats. For being in a completely different context, it was uncannily familiar. I guess it should be, though, because Maori don’t forget about the spirit – of an individual, of God, of community. Lots of people commented on how peaceful, calm, and happy the space was. You could feel it.

Because the most powerful group tends to take charge and establish norms, the pākehā way has usually been seen as “right” in New Zealand. But before I begin teaching them, Māori people are teaching me a lot. I don’t know their language, and the time-efficient part of me still thinks it is a bit redundant to hold a pōwhiri every time a stranger enters the grounds. They understand community and respect and what it means to look out for each other, though. They are open and welcoming. Whanau, family, is one of the most important parts of their culture. Whanau isn’t just one’s nuclear family. Whanau whanau means the extended family, and the word reaches even further to refer to the whole community. As visitors, we became part of the whanau at the marae.

With an unfamiliar people group, there is an inevitable hint of an “us versus them” dichotomy. Visiting the marae helped break that down for me. As one of my classmates poignantly observed, our new family first included us. Now, we can actively strive to be inclusive teachers, making our class a whanau of its own.

Signing off as the Māori say,

Aroha ki te tangata
Love to all mankind



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