The marae is the hub of a Māori community, the place where people gather in times of joy and celebration, and times of stress and sadness. It generally has a wharenui (meeting house), a wharekai (dining room with attached kitchen) and a shower and toilet block. In older marae this is often a building separate from the others. In more modern marae it is attached to the meeting house.
The main buildings are mostly named for ancestors of the various whānau and hapū who belong to the marae. The wharenui is the place where those affiliated to the marae come to hold meetings, celebrations and wānanga (classes). It is also the place to which the people bring their deceased, so that the tūpāpaku (dead person) may lie within the embrace of their ancestors for the duration of the tangihanga.
Marae are set on land that is communally held. It may be land given by an ancestor – or several ancestors – for the purpose of a marae, or it may be land that was already in Māori title and was separated out from a larger block. The land is a Māori reservation, governed by section 338 of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993.
Any Māori freehold land or any general land may be set apart for a village site, marae, meeting place or various other community uses, upon application by the owners of the land, and the recommendation of the Māori Land Court.
Each marae has trustees, elected by the people who belong to that marae. The number of trustees is decided by the people, but their role is governed by regulations in section 338A of the act. These regulations cover:
- the terms the trustees may be appointed for
- the circumstances in which they cease to hold office, and may be removed
- the powers, authorities and discretions that may be exercised by the trustees, and the manner in which they may exercise them
- the conditions with which the trustees must comply.
A marae may have a constitution or charter that sets out the rules and understandings around how the marae is operated. The charter may include:
- a pepeha or short statement of the importance of the marae to its people
- the names of the hapū that are affiliated to the marae (there may be several)
- who the beneficiaries of the marae are (mostly those who are related to the named hapū, but sometimes also their spouses, whāngai and adopted children)
- what financial, accounting and health and safety requirements must be met
- how the trustees are elected, by whom, their responsibilities and terms of office and the duties of office holders such as treasurer, secretary and chairperson.
Marae management education
In 2012 the National Diploma of Māori Business and Management included a unit standard in marae management. To achieve this unit students had to explain the contemporary functions of the marae and the roles of its trustees and other personnel, and research a case study.
Authority of the Māori Land Court
Although it is the marae beneficiaries who appoint trustees, every nominated trustee must be formally approved by the Māori Land Court. The court may recommend that a new trustee attend a workshop on duties and responsibilities.
Being a marae trustee is a considerable responsibility. The marae complex is a large community asset. The land may cover a hectare or more, and together with the buildings, even a modest marae in a rural area may be valued at over $1 million. The trustees have the ultimate responsibility for all marae matters. However, it is the community members who support the marae and are related to it by whakapapa who ensure it continues.
Although a marae may have hundreds, even thousands, of beneficiaries, many of whom live quite far afield, it is often the small community that lives closest that keeps the marae alive.