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Taputapuātea, an ancient marae at Ra'iātea in the Society Islands, restored in 1994.


A marae (in New Zealand Māori, Cook Islands Maori, Tahitian) mala e (in Tongan), malae (in Samoan and Hawaiian), is a sacred place which served both religious and social purposes in pre-Christian Polynesian societies. In all these languages, the word also means "cleared, free of weeds, trees, etc." It generally consists of an area of cleared land roughly rectangular (the marae itself), bordered with stones or wooden posts (called au in Tahitian and Cook Islands Māori) perhaps with terraces (paepae) which were used in olden times for ceremonial purposes; and with a central stone ahu or a'u (sometimes as in the Rapanui culture's ahu on Easter Islandmarker "ahu" becomes a synonym for the whole marae complex).

In some modern Polynesian societies, notably that of the Māori of New Zealand, the marae is still a vital part of everyday life. However, in tropical Polynesia, most marae were destroyed or abandoned with the arrival of Christianity in the 19th Century and some of them have become an attraction for tourists or archaeologists. Nevertheless, the place where the marae were built are still considered as tapu in most islands and nobody would dare build anything on it. In the Cook Islands, a few marae (Arai-te-Tonga, Vaerota, Taputapuātea) are still maintained, and are quickly tidied up before the investiture of a new ariki.

Marae in New Zealand

A marae beneath Taupiri mountain, Waikato district, 19th century
Māori society, the marae is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Māori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or farewelling the dead (tangihanga), can be performed. Like the related institutions of old Polynesia, the marae is a wāhi tapu, a 'sacred place' which carries great cultural meaning.

In Māori usage, marae is technically the enclosed space in front of a wharenui or meeting house (literally "big house"). However, it is generally used to refer to the whole complex, including the buildings and the open space. An unambiguous term for the area in front of the wharenui is marae ātea. This area is used for pōwhiri - welcome ceremonies featuring oratory. Some marae do not allow women to perform oratory there. The meeting house is the locale for important meetings, sleepovers, and craft and other cultural activities. The wharekai (dining hall) is used primarily for communal meals, but other activities may be carried out there. Many of the words associated with marae in tropical Polynesia are retained in the Māori context. For example, the word paepae refers to the bench where the speakers sit; this means it retains its sacred and ceremonial associations. The Marae can have special occasions such as weddings and funerals held in it, a Marae can also differ in size with some being a bit bigger than a double garage and some being as big a town hall or bigger.

Legal status

A marae is a meeting place registered as a reserve under the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act of 1993 ('The Māori Land Act'). Each marae has a group of trustees who are responsible for the operations of the marae. The act governs the regulation of marae as reservations and sets out the responsibilities of the trustees in relation to the beneficiaries. Generally each marae has a charter which the trustees have negotiated with the beneficiaries of the marae. The charter details matters such as:
  • the name of the marae, and a description of it;
  • a list of the beneficiaries: usually iwi (tribes), hapū (sub-tribes) or whānau (families); in some cases, the marae is dedicated to the common good of the people of New Zealand.
  • the methods used to select trustees;
  • general governing principles of the marae;
  • the ways in which the trustees may be held accountable by the beneficiaries, and methods for conflict resolution;
  • principles governing appointment and recognition of committees to administer the marae;
  • procedures for amending the charter, and for ensuring adherence to its principles.


The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute Act, 1963 was passed and the institute built to maintain the tradition of Whakairo. The NZMACI is responsible for the restoration and building of over 40 marae around New Zealandmarker.

Tribal, church, and educational uses

Waipapa marae, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
The grassed area in front of the meeting house is the marae ātea
tribes and subtribes and even many small settlements have their own marae. An example of such a small settlement with its own marae is at Hongoeka Bay, Plimmertonmarker, the home of renowned writer Patricia Grace. Since the second half of the 20th century, Māori in urban areas have been establishing intertribal marae such as Maraeroa in eastern Poriruamarker. For many Māori, the marae is just as important to them as their own homes.

Some New Zealand churches also operate marae of their own, in which all of the functions of a traditional marae are carried out. Churches operating marae include the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches. In recent years, it has become common for educational institutions, including primary and secondary schools, technical colleges, and universities, to build marae for the use of the students and for the teaching of Māori culture. These marae may also serve as a venue for the performance of official ceremonies relating to the school. The marae of the University of Aucklandmarker, for instance, is used for graduation ceremonies of the Māori Department, as well as welcoming ceremonies for new staff of the University as a whole. Its primary function is to serve as a venue for the teaching of whaikōrero (oratory), Māori language and culture, and important ceremonies for distinguished guests of the University.

Rapa Nuimarker/ Easter Island

In the remote southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle elements of the traditional Polynesian marae evolved into the Rapa Nuimarker/Easter Island Ahu & their iconic Moai (giant forms of Polynesian statues).See:

Tahitimarker

During the 1994 restoration of Taputapuātea marae at Ra'iātea by archaeologists from the Tahiti Museum, human bones were discovered under some of the structures; apparently, the remains of sacrifices to Oro.

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