What is a marae?

A marae is not just a physical place—a grassy outdoor yard set aside as sacred ground for a meeting house, or in the Museum’s case, an exhibit gallery devoted to the same purpose.

A marae in New Zealand is also a liminal space where the past and the present meet, a place where people both honor their forebears and also look to the future.

In Maori terms, a marae is a turangawaewae, a “place to stand,” where people may stand proud, speak, and be heard knowing that they will be received with respect and open-mindedness even by those present who may violently disagree with what they say.

In sum, a marae is a place where people may encounter one another, explore their differences, and perhaps discover their commonalities.

It is paradoxical that Chicago has a Maori meeting house and a sacred marae, but lacks a resident Maori community to look after both.  To be sure, Chicago receives its share of Maori visitors, and occasional Maori residents.  But there is no local Maori community in the city in the sense of a group of people all sharing a common identify, heritage, and purpose. 

As we see it, however, this want is also a challenge and an opportunity.

Because we cannot simply ask local Maori residents to look after this wharenui and marae for us and for their families back in New Zealand, we must create new ways to keep this Pacific treasure “warm”—as they say in New Zealand. 

By default, if not by choice, therefore, it is up to Chicago to keep Ruatepupuke alive to its heritage and promise in partnership with the people of Tokomaru Bay even if we here are not Maori by descent or upbringing.

Ada Haig and Ben Pewhairangi at the rededication of Ruatepipuke II at Field Museum in 1993

Both of these elders at Tokomaru Bay are now no longer with us (© 1993, The Field Museum)