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Te kawa o te marae

by Basil Keane

Pōwhiri, the ceremony used to welcome visitors onto the marae, was traditionally a way of finding out whether people were friends or enemies. Different marae have slightly different protocols depending on their iwi or area, but the same formal roles and structure.

Kawa of the marae

The kawa of the marae means the protocols that operate on the marae.

Te kawanga whare or te tā i te kawa: the dawn ceremony

At the opening and dedication of a wharenui (meeting house) or waka (canoe) a ceremony, tā i te kawa, is performed to lift the tapu and dedicate the house or canoe. The literal meaning of tā i te kawa is to hit with a branch of the kawakawa tree. The kawa of the marae is laid down by the local whānau, hapū, or iwi associated with the marae.

Roles on the marae

The roles of kaikaranga (women who call visitors onto the marae, or who call in reply for the visitors) and kaikōrero (speakers) are highly valued. Traditionally the right to be caller or speaker was jealously guarded. In general a kaikaranga was an elder and she would be the tuakana (senior) of her family. For the kaikōrero (orators), who are generally male, the same was true. In many iwi a son would not speak while his father was present and younger brothers would defer to their older brothers.

Order of speeches

The order in which speakers deliver their whaikōrero (speeches) depends on the kawa of the local area. There are, broadly speaking, two types of kawa for speaking order on marae.

In pāeke (also known as harakeke or taiāwhiao) all the speakers from the tangata whenua (hosts) speak first, and are followed by all the speakers from the manuhiri (visitors). This means that the number of speakers on each side can vary.

In tau utuutu (also known as tū mai, tū atu, whakawhiti or tauhokohoko) the speakers alternate. A speaker from the tangata whenua side speaks first and is then followed by a speaker from the manuhiri. The tangata whenua speaker is the final speaker. The tribes that follow this kawa are largely descended from tribes that arrived on the Te Arawa canoe (Te Arawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa) or the Tainui canoe (Waikato, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa).

Tribal variations

While the order of speeches is largely dictated by pāeke and tau utuutu, there are some tribal variations. Te Āti Awa tribes hongi (press noses briefly) and harirū (shake hands) with visitors as soon as they are welcomed. In Whanganui, while the pāeke style is generally followed, visitors in a party at a tangihanga are expected to speak first. In Northland, at a tangihanga, a speaker will often poroporoaki (bid farewell) to the deceased at the end of the karanga (when visitors are called onto the marae). This can cause consternation when done outside Northland as hosts feel that the speakers are changing local protocol.

Gender roles during the welcome

In most tribal areas women are kaikaranga (callers) while men play the role of kaikōrero (speakers). In some areas, particularly on the East Coast of the North Island, many renowned woman speakers are recalled. Female orators such as Mihi Kōtukutuku and Whaia McClutchie from Ngāti Porou and Niniwa Heremaia from Ngāti Kahungunu spoke on the marae.

Māori language

In traditional times Māori language was the sole medium of communication on the marae. As English has become more common within Māori communities this has put Māori language under threat. The kawa of a large number of marae dictates that speakers may only speak in Māori. A person who speaks in English may be asked to stop speaking.

Pōwhiri process

The pōwhiri (or pōhiri) is a process whereby the host people welcome visitors on the marae. In recent years the pōwhiri process has also been used in other situations, such as welcoming a new employee to a workplace.

The marae usually consists of a wharenui (meeting house) with marae ātea (courtyard) in front, a wharekai (dining hall) and an ablutions block with toilets and showers.

Tangata whenua (hosts)

The tangata whenua are the local people. When they are welcoming a group they are responsible for them. They begin the welcome when the group of visitors has assembled.

Manuhiri (visitors)

The visitors to a marae who have never been there before are known as waewae tapu (sacred feet). Distant visitors are known as manuhiri tūārangi (visitors from afar). When manuhiri have never been to a particular marae before a kaumātua (elder) in the group will often perform a protective karakia or prayer known as a waerea. Usually the group will organise their kaikaranga (caller), their kaikōrero (speakers) and collect koha (the donation) to be given to the tangata whenua. They also usually decide on the order of speakers.

Wero or taki

In modern times a wero or taki (ritual challenge) occurs when a particularly important visitor is being welcomed.

A full challenge involves three challengers, who are warriors. The rākau whakaara (warning baton) is laid down by the first challenger. After it is picked up by the honoured guest the challenger turns and returns to his people. Then the rākau takoto (baton laid down) is laid down by the second challenger, and is picked up by the guest. The third challenger kneels and lays down the rākau whakawaha (baton that clears the way), which is also picked up by the guest. This challenger then leads the party onto the marae.


In many cases, there will be no wero and the pōwhiri will begin with the karanga or call. A kaikaranga (caller) from the tangata whenua will begin to call and she will be responded to by a kaikaranga from the manuhiri.

The manuhiri will move onto the marae and the calling will continue.

Haka pōwhiri

When the manuhiri are being welcomed onto the marae, the host people will sometimes welcome them with a haka pōwhiri (ritual action chant).


Whaikōrero (speeches) are given by both hosts and visitors on the marae.


At the conclusion of each speech the speaker and a number of supporters will sing a waiata (song). Often these are traditional waiata.

Gold coin koha

Most visitors will place their koha money in an envelope. Generally it consists of notes. However, some kaumātua will bring gold coins to place in the envelope so it won’t blow away with a gust of wind.


The koha is a gift by the manuhiri to the tangata whenua. It is usually placed on the ground by the final speaker from the manuhiri. Once the speaker is seated, someone from the tangata whenua will pick it up.

Harirū and hongi

At the conclusion of the formal proceedings the manuhiri will be invited to come and hongi (press noses) and harirū (shake hands) with the tangata whenua. Traditionally, whether male or female, participants would hongi. After European settlement, the kiss was introduced, and instead of a hongi men and women would kiss other women. Many marae now insist on a return to the traditional method where only hongi and harirū occurs.


The pōwhiri will conclude with a hākari (feast), which lifts the tāpu (sacredness) of the pōwhiri.


In the evening, inside the wharenui the mihimihi process will begin. Mihimihi (or mihi) are speeches in which people introduce themselves by sharing their ancestral ties. A karakia led by the tangata whenua will commence proceedings. The mihimihi will begin with the tangata whenua and then move around to the manuhiri. These introductions and speeches are more informal and reflect the fact that inside the house is the domain of Rongo the god of peace.


The conclusion of a hui will be marked by formal farewells known as poroporoaki. It is usual for the manuhiri or visitors to initiate the poroporoaki. This is because it is considered good etiquette to let the visitors leave when they are ready, and impolite for the hosts to tell them to leave. Poroporoaki generally happen in the wharenui at the conclusion of a hākari but are also held inside the wharenui and, more rarely, on the marae ātea.

Mythology and history of marae protocol

Creation traditions

The primal atua (gods) Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father) and their children are symbolised in the layout of the marae and its significance during pōwhiri (welcomes).

The marae ātea, the space outside the front of the meeting house, is the domain of Tūmatauenga (or Tū), the god of war. Speeches that take place on the marae ātea are allowed to be forceful, representing the nature of Tū.

The wharenui (meeting house) is considered to be the domain of Rongo, the god of peace. Speeches that take place within the wharenui are expected to be more conciliatory. Metaphorically, the floor of the wharenui represents Papatūānuku, while the roof represents her husband, Ranginui. Tāne, who separated the two, is metaphorically represented by the building in the phrase, Tāne whakapiripiri (Tāne who draws people together).

Purpose of pōwhiri

Traditionally, the pōwhiri process was an important way of ascertaining whether people were friends or enemies. Visitors may have been planning to attack the village, or hosts might have unwelcome plans for the visitors.

In one famous story Apanui, an East Coast rangatira (chief), was to visit a marae at Rotorua belonging to the rangatira Huri Tu Moana. Apanui sent his pet parrot ahead of him. The parrot noticed that hangi pits had been dug, but there was no food in them. When Apanui's party approached the marae, his parrot flew to the ridgepole of the wharenui and sang a chant warning that they would be attacked and killed at the welcome. So instead Apanui's party attacked Huri Tu Moana and his people.

A missionary welcome

Henry Williams gave an account of a pōwhiri he was involved in during the mid-1830s:

We sat in silence for some time, in the presence of a great throng, while an old lady put forth her miserable strains in a ‘tangi,’ (cry or lamentation), our party concealing their faces in their blankets, responding by an occasional sigh. This lasted about twenty minutes, when Warekaua [Wharekawa] arose and gave us welcome. Having sat down, Raumate, one of our party, said a few words, at the conclusion of which he spoke of the necessity of attending to better things, whereby they might obtain peace and happiness. A second chief of the pa … spoke more particularly to Wharerahi. He expressed some apprehension of Ngapuhi.1

Other speakers followed, including Williams himself and another English missionary, James Hamlin. The account suggests that the pōwhiri process has changed little over time.

Welcome at the Kotahitanga parliament

In the late 1890s the Kotahitanga Māori parliament met at Papawai in Wairarapa. Representatives of many iwi came from around New Zealand, and a large pōwhiri was held. The guests arriving were met a mile from Papawai by the Kotahitanga band, and ‘at half a mile distance from the marae they met with the senior women who were clothed with leaves, and had the Union Jack in their hands’.

When the guests finally entered the marae, they ‘spent an hour confirming the laws of the ancestors, and allowing the elders to shed tears as a sign of affection. Following that we greeted each other, then the young men stood and we saw the excellence of their work with mere and taiaha which flew this way and that and we felt the awe.’2

    • Church Missionary Record 7, no.7 (July 1836), p. 165. Back
    • Te Puke ki Hikurangi, 21 December 1897, p. 3. Back

Basic marae etiquette

All marae have their own kawa (protocols) and tikanga (rules). The best is advice is to ask the local people what their expectations are.

Before the pōwhiri (welcome)

  • Arrive early. It is considered impolite to walk onto a marae once a pōwhiri is underway.
  • Dress formally, particularly for a tangihanga.
  • Introduce yourself to other groups you don't know.
  • Give your koha (monetary gift) to the kaumātua with the envelope.
  • Ensure that your group has a speaker and kaikaranga organised.
  • Ensure cell phones are switched off throughout the pōwhiri.

During the pōwhiri

  • You should not just walk onto a marae; you need to be welcomed on.
  • Women walk on as a group, while men also group together.
  • Do not eat or drink during the welcome.
  • Do not walk in front of a speaker on the marae ātea.
  • Speak in Māori, not English, if giving a speech (unless expressly allowed).
  • Males sit at the front on most marae, though some marae allow both women and men to sit on the front seat.
  • At the conclusion of the welcome you should harirū (shake hands) and hongi (press noses). While on some marae kissing on the cheek is considered appropriate, others prefer that men and women just hongi and harirū.

After the pōwhiri

  • Wash your hands (water will be provided).

In the wharekai (dining room)

  • Manuhiri (visitors) will be called in for food. It is polite to let kaumātua (elders) go first. Often the person calling people in for food will say who should come first.
  • Wait until a karakia (grace) has been said before eating.
  • Do not pass food over a person’s head in the wharekai.
  • Do not sit on tables.

In the wharenui (meeting house)

  • Remove your shoes before going into the wharenui.
  • Check before you put your sleeping bag down. Certain parts of the wharenui are reserved for particular manuhiri and tangata whenua.
  • Do not eat or drink in the wharenui.
  • Do not step over people in the wharenui.
  • Do not sit on pillows.
  • Mattresses and pillows will be provided but you will need to bring your own blankets or sleeping bag.

At a tangihanga

  • Wash your hands after greeting the bereaved family and farewelling the tūpāpaku (dead person).
  • Wash your hands after leaving an urupā (cemetery).

General marae etiquette

  • Some marae do not allow photographs, filming or tape recording without permission.

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Te kawa o te marae', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 September 2013