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:
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:
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.
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.
The everyday running of the marae can be allocated to a marae committee, distinct from the marae trustees. Where this arrangement exists, the marae committee is the first point of contact for booking the marae and making all the arrangements for a hui. In some marae the trustees and the committee would be likely to be the same people, so it makes sense to have only one body that manages everything.
The chairperson ensures that regular meetings are called and advertised, and that any meeting is properly conducted. Everyone who attends has a right to air their views, and generally any issue is discussed until consensus is reached. If necessary, there may be a vote cast at the meeting to decide on a course of action (for example, where a number of parties have tendered for a job on the marae, and the community is divided over who should receive the contract).
The secretary’s job is vital. Duties include writing and placing advertisements in the newspaper or on the marae website, keeping the minutes of meetings, keeping the booking diary for the marae, receiving and replying to correspondence, updating the marae charter, ensuring that when new trustees are elected the relevant Māori Land Court procedures are followed and keeping all marae records.
The treasurer is responsible for making sure that proper accounts are kept for the marae. In some cases the secretary may fulfil this role as well. Where the marae can afford to do so, it is considered good practice to employ a certified accountant who, at regular meetings, provides up-to-date records of all monies received, all outgoings and any investments and liabilities, as well as an annual set of accounts for the annual general meeting.
Māori wardens are volunteers whose powers are determined by the Māori Community Development Act 1962. In 2012 Gloria Hughes, the president of the Māori Wardens’ Association, described these powers as archaic. She said the act had not kept pace with what wardens actually do in the community today, including truancy monitoring, public patrols, security, youth and court work, and patrolling on marae. In 2020 there were about 1,000 Māori wardens.
When a person dies he or she is brought back to their ancestral marae. During tangihanga – or tangi – the marae may be seen at its finest. At what can be very short notice, the hau kāinga (the people who live nearby and keep the marae going) organise and carry out all the tasks necessary to prepare for the arrival of the whānau pani (the bereaved). These tasks include:
Meanwhile, someone buys groceries and organises meat, fish and other food. This is prepared and cooked by the team in the kitchen for the unknown number of people who will arrive, over however many days the tangi lasts.
The kaikaranga (women who call people onto the marae) and kaikōrero (men who make formal speeches on the marae) have to be contacted. Some marae also have Māori wardens on duty during the tangi. The wardens assist in many ways, including showing people where to park, helping those who are unfamiliar with marae protocol and sometimes also fulfilling the role of kaikaranga for the visitors to the marae.
The outgoings for a marae are numerous: electricity; repairs and maintenance such as painting; plumbing expenses; fuel; telephone charges; accountancy fees; advertising and stationery; bank fees; catering expenses; fire extinguishers; pillows and linen; kitchen equipment; replacement of worn or damaged mattresses; petrol and repairs for the lawn mower; and any replacement of or repairs to features of the buildings, including carving, tukutuku panels, kōwhaiwhai patterning and whāriki (mats).
In rural marae there may also be repairs and cleaning of septic tanks, along with water to purchase when high usage or a dry summer has meant the rainwater tanks are low.
A big cost is insurance, which for even a small marae can total several thousand dollars a year.
To cover these expenses, the marae sets a daily charge for hui and meetings. Most marae do not charge for tangi, but the whānau will give a koha (donation). Where church services are held on the marae, they are also generally on a koha basis.
As an example of a marae with various income streams, Iwitea marae near Wairoa receives fees each year from locals who set up maimai (camouflaged shelters) and go duck shooting on the nearby lakes. One Māori incorporation holds their annual general meeting at the marae, and there are two other Māori land incorporations and trusts that rotate between the marae in the area. The marae receives koha from the land administrators, and some whānau may also give an annual koha, or donate regularly to the marae because they live elsewhere and cannot be at home to help.
Marae trustees occasionally call for working bees for maintenance tasks such as painting buildings. This means the marae has to pay only for materials such as paint and brushes and for hire of water-blasters and other equipment.
There is generally still a shortfall that must be met by fundraising activities. These can include raffles and fundraising events such as dinners. If a training provider agrees to a teaching module being held on the marae, this may also provide income. The marae receives fees from the training organisation for providing the venue and facilities, and the tutors may also donate their fees to the marae.
These days some marae are based in non-traditional settings such as hospitals and schools, and are managed innovatively. Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa, the marae at Auckland International Airport, is governed by a board of six trustees, three appointed by the airport and three by Tainui iwi. Day-to-day operations are run by a team supported by the airport and Te Roopu Kaumatua (a group of elders).
Keeping a marae alive and functioning well is a huge task.
In the greater Wairoa district in 2012 there were 35 existing marae and a handful of whānau working to re-establish marae that disappeared in the previous century. In 2006 the total population of Wairoa was around 8,400, of whom around 4,800 were Māori. Not all those Māori were affiliated to or able to devote time to a local marae. It is therefore little wonder that some of those 35 marae were in a state of disrepair or simply unable to afford insurance.
Yet many dedicated people work hard to keep their marae going, often devoting their lives in service of this most essential of Māori institutions.
The marae is the place to which Māori return most often in their times of greatest need, at tangi, even if most of their time is spent elsewhere. It is thanks to the dedication of the hau kāinga (people who live nearby and support the marae) that their ancestral house and marae is still there for them.
Trustees’ duties: Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993. Wellington: Ministry of Justice and Te Puni Kokiri, 2002.