As you travel around NZ, you will see many marae complexes. Often marae are owned by a descent group. They are also owned by urban Māori groups, schools, universities and church groups, and they should only be visited by arrangement with the owners. Some marae that may be visited with an invitation include: Koriniti Marae on the Whanganui River Rd; Mataatua in Whakatane; and the marae at Te Papa museum in Wellington.

Marae complexes include a wharenui (meeting house), which often embodies an ancestor. Its ridge is the backbone, the rafters are ribs, and it shelters the descendants. There is a clear space in front of the wharenui, the marae ātea. Sometimes there are other buildings: a wharekai (dining hall); a toilet and shower block; perhaps even classrooms, play equipment and the like.

Hui (gatherings) are held at marae. Issues are discussed, classes conducted, milestones celebrated and the dead farewelled. Te reo Māori (the Māori language) is prominent, and sometimes the only language used.

Visitors sleep in the meeting house if a hui goes on for longer than a day. Mattresses are placed on the floor, someone may bring a guitar, and stories and jokes always go down well as the evening stretches out…

The Powhiri

If you visit a marae as part of an organised group, you’ll be welcomed in a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony).

Outside the marae, there may be a wero (challenge). Using taiaha (quarter-staff) moves, a warrior will approach the visitors and place a baton on the ground for a visitor to pick up, to demonstrate their peaceful intent.

There is a karanga (ceremonial call). A woman from the host group calls to the visitors and a woman from the visitors responds. Their long, high, falling calls begin to overlap and interweave and the visiting group walks on to the marae ātea (meeting house courtyard). It is then time for whaikōrero (speechmaking). The hosts welcome the visitors, the visitors respond. Speeches are capped off by a waiata (song), and the visitors’ speakers present a koha (gift, usually an envelope of cash). The hosts then invite the visitors to hariru (shake hands) and hongi. Visitors and hosts are now united and will share light refreshments or a meal.

The Hongi

To perform the hongi, press forehead and nose together firmly, shake hands, and perhaps offer a greeting such as ‘Kia ora’ or ‘Tēnā koe’. Some prefer one press (for two or three seconds, or longer), others prefer two shorter (press, release, press). Men and women sometimes kiss on one cheek. Some people mistakenly think the hongi is a pressing of noses only (awkward to aim!) or the rubbing of noses (even more awkward).

Tapu

Tapu (spiritual restrictions) and mana (power and prestige) are taken seriously in the Māori world. Sit on chairs or seating provided (never on tables), and walk around people, not over them. The pōwhiri is tapu, and mixing food and tapu is right up there on the offence-o-meter. Do eat and drink when invited to do so by your hosts. You needn’t worry about starvation: an important Māori value is manaakitanga (kindness).

Depending on area, the pōwhiri has gender roles: women karanga (call), men whaikōrero (orate); women lead the way on to the marae, men sit on the paepae (the speakers’ bench at the front). In a modern context, the debate around these roles continues.