The town marae is the center of New Zealand Maori society. It’s a community center, place of worship, event space, and cultural nexus. It’s also a place to welcome visitors and teach them about the history of the Maori people. The most remarkable thing on display, though, is the universal reverence and respect for Maori culture.
The welcoming ceremony is called a powhiri, and visitors are usually required to be formally welcomed via this ritual before entering the marae. Recently, Christina and I were powhiri-ed at Piritahi, the Waiheke Island marae. The ceremony largely consists of oratory in the Maori language; ancestors and relevant current events are recognized. At our powhiri, three New Zealand soldiers that were recently killed in Afghanistan, including the first female kiwi killed-in-action since the Vietnam war, were paid respect.
I know what you’re thinking. “A welcoming ceremony? Gimme a break. It’s probably another trite song-and-dance, paying lip service to a culture in order to get something for yourself.” I can’t deny that I didn’t get a few good meals out of the deal, but the experience was authentic. We spent two full days there, helping feed more than 200 visitors like ourselves. This wasn’t required, but they needed help and we were available.
Throughout my time at the marae, I felt welcome. More than welcome, in fact; I felt as though I was a integral part of the space. We were often asked about our lives, where we were from, what we did back in the United States, and conversation flowed easily. The Maori are not only extremely friendly, they’re gifted in the art of small talk. This made us comfortable.
“Now that you have been welcomed, this is your home,” a Maori woman said to me over tea and cakes. If we had any doubt of that, it was extinguished when it became clear that we were expected to help clean up afterward. Forget trust falls, sometimes a stack of dishes eye-high can be a very effective team-building strategy.
We weren’t alone in helping out though. The kitchen was full of white kiwis that were volunteering for a two-week-long celebration of buddhist culture and the creation of a sand mandala at the marae. It was a fascinating cultural stew. Maori, buddhists, and whites coming together for a mutually beneficial mash-up of traditions. The buddhists had a place to work, the whites had this work of art and dedication to be amazed by, and the Maori had an audience for their traditions.
The creation of the sand mandala is almost absurdly intricate. Over two weeks, grains of colored sand are dropped individually into a ten foot wide design that would, after its completion, be cast off into the sea as nourishment for the earth. Nearly two hundred hours of work would be swept up in a matter of seconds. Over the next few days I’ll be posting a few videos and some photos from the dissolution ceremony.
My experience at the marae brings to vivid life the stark contrast between the relationships of white New Zealanders and Maori versus Americans and the indigenous population of their homeland. Native Americans are an afterthought in U.S. culture. Maori are at the forefront, elbow-to-elbow with their imperialist oppressors. The All Blacks, the uber-popular national rugby team, performs a Maori war dance, a haka, before every game. Granted, it’s effective in communicating terror, but the thought of the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys performing a native dance, even if it were to make their opponents spontaneously wet themselves, is absurd.
Furthermore, there’s a palpable mutual respect between the two cultures. I’ve heard of middle-aged kiwis enrolling in Maori language classes because they feel like its “about time they learned it.” Dozens of place names are authentically Maori, instead of bastardized, anglo-friendly versions of indigenous names. The culture is literally everywhere you turn here. The national aesthetic is three parts Maori to one part European.
I’m not sure where the source of this reverence lies, but it’s fascinating to watch. Stay tuned as I learn more.