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The story behind ‘marae’

A tradition of nonviolence among the Te Atiawa of New Zealand

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In late 2007, Aroha Dahm came to Keene State College on a Fulbright scholarship to give workshops on the culture of the Maori, in conjunction with an exhibit at the Thorne-Sagendorph Gallery of art from First Peoples throughout the world. Maureen Ahern of the Thorne-Sagendorph introduced us and Aroha gave a program at the Mariposa Museum that fall.

Aroha is a weaver who works with the “harakeke” or flax plant, the traditional fiber used by Maori women for centuries. Harakeke is a member of the agave family, very different from European flax, from which linen is made, but it produces a similar long and strong fiber. She works both with the fiber and with the less processed leaf to create plaited baskets and other pieces that are both modern and traditional.

When I traveled to New Zealand in March, I looked for Aroha online and found only one reference on the website of an organization based in Lower Hutt, somewhere in New Zealand. Lina and I stayed for the better part of a week with friends in Wainuiomata, near Wellington, and I found that the town right over the ridge is Lower Hutt. Three “Dahms” in the phone book yielded nothing, but our hosts took us to their church and there we met Aroha’s relative. That afternoon we were visiting with her in her home!

Aroha invited us to visit her “marae,” or tribal meeting house, on our return from Christchurch. We met her there at 6 p.m. on our last day in Wellington. The marae is named “Arohanui ki te Tangata,” which translates as “Goodwill to All Men.” Aroha, whose name means “love,” told us the story of this place.

In 1904, her 18-year-old grandfather, Ihaia Puketapu, had a vision. God spoke to him and said, “Ko ia e aroha ana ki a au naku tena,” which means “He that loves me is mine.” The vision showed Ihaia a great marae, a meeting house, built at the head of the fish pulled from the sea by Maui in the Maori story of creation. The fish is the North Island, and Wellington is at the head of the fish. Ihaia Puketapu saw not only a structure but a way of life that would include all people: “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men.”

Ihaia was inspired by the teachings of two prophets of the 19th century, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, who led their people in nonviolent resistance to British encroachment on their tribal lands. War between the Maori and the white settlers had claimed many lives and caused much suffering. When the British advanced on a settlement called Parihaka to arrest these two leaders, the people gathered around them and sat in silence. The British did not fire, no lives were lost, but the men were shackled and sentenced to hard labor.

Aroha stressed that nonviolence involves sacrifice. Te Whiti and Tohu were taken away in chains to a “jail” — a cave in a hill — further south, and for many years labored building roads. However, they and their people renounced violence as a response to aggression. Ihaia Puketapu’s dream of a meeting house for all peoples came from the teachings and example of these great leaders.

In 1839, his forebears had sold land to the British representatives of the New Zealand Company, reserving one of every ten 100-acre blocks as Maori land.

Almost a hundred years later, Ihaia Puketapu invoked this agreement when, in 1937, the local government wanted to seize the 100-acre block called Waiwhetu where his people lived. Not only did he succeed in getting the government to back off, but he negotiated a deal under which the government bought the land and built 24 homes on it for the Maori community, beginning in 1945. The government wanted to scatter the houses throughout the larger community, but he insisted that they be grouped together around a reserve lot — the place he had in mind for the marae.

Once the houses were built, a remarkable community effort to raise money for the marae began. Aroha remembers a time when every member of the Maori community voluntarily paid $5 a month into a fund for construction. A house-to-house appeal began in 1956, with tremendous support coming from all across the wider community, from industry and government as well. In 1959 the shell of the building was complete and work began on the “Maori heart” of the marae: the magnificent wood carvings and “tukutuku” (woven reed) wall panels and flax floor mats. In 1960, Ihaia Puketapu saw his dream of 56 years come true. The marae was complete.

Remember that he dreamed of more than a structure; he dreamed of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men.” In the years since, the marae has hosted the Dalai Lama and visitors from all over the world. Representatives of many First Peoples have come to this community to learn about the Maori way of preserving culture and language. Fulbright scholars to New Zealand are greeted at the marae as part of their orientation.

The marae is open to the community for meetings, baptisms, weddings, funerals. Aroha pointed out the health center next door. It serves pakeha (white people) as well as Maori. Ihaia Puketapu’s vision of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community” is alive in these everyday “small” ways, as well as in the famous people who have visited the marae.

I find this story inspiring on many levels. The Maori are known as warriors, and indeed they were. The “haka,” which any cultural performance includes, is a warlike dance performed by both men and women, designed to intimidate opponents and prepare oneself for battle. On some occasions, I was told, two opposing forces performed their “haka” and one was so clearly superior that the opponent conceded the battle. This was probably the exception. Maori raiders in huge war canoes attacked the fortified settlements of other tribes. While there was a honeymoon period between Maori and British settlers in some places, the colonists’ greed for more resources led to warfare.

Given this history, I did not expect to find a tribe committed to nonviolence. And yet that is exactly what we did find. The tribe’s history has brought it attention all over the world. Aroha said this in turn has opened other doors, such as her Fulbright scholarship, thanks to which we met in 2007 and again in 2014. Thanks to which you are reading this story!

Ihaia Puketapu, the visionary, Aroha’s grandfather, is buried in front of the marae. He spent his working life as a laborer. He was not highly educated in the state schools, but he knew his people’s traditions. He was not wealthy in a material sense but he carried the treasure of his culture. Puketapu nurtured a vision for years, keeping it alive inside himself until he was ready to share it with others. The skepticism of many and the obstacles of “the real world” did not deter him. He is an inspiring example of what a person with vision and faith can accomplish.

David Blair of Harrisville is the cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough. He writes about his travels and life the Philippines.

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