In 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 the marae ātea (often shortened to marae) is the open space in front of the wharenui (meeting house; literally "large building"). Generally the term marae is used to refer to the whole complex including the buildings and the ātea. This area is used for pōwhiri (welcome ceremonies) featuring oratory. Some iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes) do not allow women to perform oratory on their marae though typically women perform a Karanga (call). The wharenui 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. Marae vary in size with some wharenui being a bit bigger than a double garage and some being larger than a typical town hall.
A marae is a meeting place registered as a reserve under the Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 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/nations) hapū (clans) 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 Institute is responsible for the building and restoration of over 40 marae around the country.
Traditional church and educational uses
Most iwi hapū and even many small settlements have their own marae. An example of such a small settlement with its own marae is at Hongoeka Bay Plimmerton the home of the 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 Porirua. 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 Auckland 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. Two detailed secondary-school marae are located in the Waikato at Te Awamutu College and Fairfield College. The latter was designed by a Māori architect with a detailed knowledge of carving and weaving;[who?] its wharenui features an intricately carved revolving pou[further explanation needed] as well as many other striking features. In addition to school activities it is used for weddings.
Tangihanga (funeral rites)
As in pre-European times marae continue to be the location of many ceremonial events including birthdays weddings and anniversaries. The most important event located at marae is the tangihanga. Tangihanga are the means by which the dead are farewelled and the surviving family members supported in Māori society. As indicated by Ka'ai and Higgins "the importance of the tangihanga and its central place in marae custom is reflected in the fact that it takes precedence over any other gathering on the marae". :90