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No. 2 (Spring 1952)
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The Story
of the

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‘Korero’, by E. Mervyn Taylor

The marae, buildings such as meeting-houses and halls, with appurtenant amenities, have always been the chief pre-occupation of a Maori community. Until these are provided the community will not seriously take up other problems, and will not freely contribute to funds for these other affairs.’

Sir Apirana Ngata said this during his great speech at Ruakawa Pa, Otaki, shortly before his death.

It is a point pakehas often do not appreciate. They think of Maori progress almost solely as adaptation to pakeha jobs and pakeha environment. This is certainly important, but marae buildings take much money and cannot be completed without a good deal of vigour and energy. The first thing any Maori community will do to show its vigour and energy is to build a fine marae. One can be sure that where there is a marae of a high standard, there is also usually a community which takes a creditable part in the pakeha side of life.

There has been no period during which the Maori left off building meeting-houses. During European times, there certainly were ups and downs, and meeting-houses tended to be built in waves. One such wave was around 1870, when everyone seemed to be building meeting-houses, and after that few were built until the end of the century. After another lull, there was a great upsurge in the nineteen-twenties. This tendency of building meeting-houses in waves may well go back to a period before the coming of the pakeha. The life of a pre-European meeting-house would be about thirty years. After that time it needed rebuilding. When one community decided to rebuild, others would follow out of a spirit of competition, and so a wave would start.

In pakeha times, this first happened around 1870. A great number of famous carvers were working at that time in different tribes: Wero and Te Ngaru amongst the Te Arawa; Tamati Ngakaho (builder of Porourangi); and Hone Tahu, on the East Coast; Hori Pukehika, at Wanganui, and many others. The enthusiasm of the tribes was probably partly due to the leadership of Te Kooti, who was very anxious to see meeting-houses built, and also to the tide of Maori national feeling at the time. Te Kooti was responsible for the big houses at Te Kuiti and Matatua Pa (Ruatahuna), and many others. It is said that many communities used to get their meeting-houses ready when Te Kooti was to visit them. But Te Kooti was very critical, and quick to find fault in meeting-houses; there are several stories of houses in which he refused to sleep. So it was with the famous Takitimu House, in Martinborough. Te Kooti said no one would sleep in it, and that it would remain as a house for spiders. Not long after, a fire destroyed Takitimu, and it is said it had never been used.

Another wave of meeting-house building occurred between 1890 and 1900. At that time a large number of minor carved houses were built in various parts. This upsurge occurred at about the same time as the ‘Young Maori Party’ and perhaps was influenced by it. There was then a definite decline in the quality of the carvings, which did not equal that of Te Kooti's time.

The revival occurred in the 1920's and was associated with the arts and crafts movement of

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that time. The school at Rotorua not only revived the practice of building carved houses, but also built them up to a high standard. Carving came into its own again, but that was not all. Modern European methods were now first applied to Maori community buildings. Walls were made higher, ventilation was improved, steel and concrete were used for the structure. Marae buildings became permanent instead of temporary.

One of the first big projects of the Rotorua school artists was Te Poho o Rawiri, at Gisborne, and later followed the Pomare and Carroll memorial houses, Waitangi, Te Kaha and many others. Te Arawa also continued its tradition of building fine houses. Most, but not all of these houses received Government subsidies of some sort. Since the Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act was passed in 1945, a subsidy of pound for pound became a regular facility. At this time the main wave of carved meeting-houses was once again past, but one major meeting-house renovated under the Act was the Whakato House at Manutuke.


‘A reasonably equipped marae,’ said Sir Apirana at Raukawa Pa, ‘must necessarily include the assembly place as the central feature, and also provide up-to-date amenities such as dining-place, sanitary conveniences and water supply. There must also be some beautification, as that is an important psychological factor. Sports grounds for the youth of the race must also be provided.’

These ideas are of course not traditional, but modern. They are a proof that the Maori is not content to follow the past but has adapted useful pakeha ideas freely in his own tribal life. The building of dining-halls started late last century, but the first ones were earthen-floored affairs, without any ornamentation, intended just to keep the weather out. The Lady Arihia Ngata Memorial Hall, at Waiomatatini, was the first ornamental dining-hall. It was washed away when the Waiomatatini Creek flooded. Many more were built all over the country; the dining-hall became the social hall for dances and every sort of informal gathering. The meeting-house is now mainly a ceremonial and a sleeping hall. The dining-hall gets over the problem of tapu. In many meeting-houses dances and suchlike functions are still not held for fear of violating tapu.

The dining-hall is now the most indispensable building of a marae. Many smaller communities now tend to build their dining-halls before they have meeting-houses. This is an interesting new development.

The Maori Social and Economic Advancement Act has given a tremendous impetus to the building of dining-halls. Many dozens of such halls have been subsidised and built during the last few years, and Maori community life has been given a great new stimulus in this way.

Turangawaewae marae (Ngaruawahia), was the first properly laid out marae on a big scale, followed shortly after by Poho o Rawiri (Gisborne). On such maraes one finds lawns, shrubbery, sports fields, tennis courts and so on. Sanitary facilities are also essential; these had come to many maraes before this time: it had been one of the functions of the Maori councils to have these installed. Whenever new buildings are put up nowadays, the Health Department requires proper sanitary facilities.


Since the Act was passed in 1945 over £100,000 has been paid out in subsidies. In the years 1949 and 1950, especially, the applications came in hard and fast, and many projects were started. There is a slight lull now, which is natural after so much activity. The projects were mostly marae buildings—either new work or renovations—but many other marae improvements were also carried out. Sports grounds are a common item. The Ngati Manawa, Koriniti and Peninsula Committees, amongst others, asked for substantial grants to improve their water supplies. Maori arts and crafts work features sometimes in the subsidies, but far more rarely than one would imagine. The emphasis seems to lie on utility most of the time.

The subsidies under the Act are different in nature from those paid to pakeha local bodies. The great difference is that the Act permits subsidies on revenue earned by committees and executives, whereas a pakeha local body has to apply for subsidies on total projects. This does not mean, of course, that subsidies can be paid for projects of which the government does not know and approve. If that were so, the pakeha local bodies would have something to complain about.


One of the great differences between pakeha and Maori local body work lies in the way it is done. A county or borough lets a contract for a job, and gets it done all at once. A tribal executive or committee, calls on everybody to help in the work; materials are bought, and the work proceeds as men and materials become available. It is a slower method, but a very much cheaper one. If one sees the fine community buildings in sometimes quite small Maori communities one must reflect that such

(Continued on page 56)

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Some of the main carvings of Tamatekapua, famous meeting-house of Ruatahuna. First built in Te Kooti's days (1870), this meeting-house was renovated recently, but the old carvings have been kept.

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The opening of Raukawa meeting-house at Otaki (1936).

The Koauau Player

When Hinemoa swam to Mokoia Island, she was guided through the darkness by a slender thread of sound from Tutanekai's flute. Visitors to the Auckland Museum can see the very koauau he is supposed to have played, and as they peer curiously at it, they must wonder how such a small instrument could make enough sound to carry across the water from Mokoia to the mainland. In any case the story goes that Tutanekai was not himself a skilled player, and that he was forced to send his love message to Hinemoa through a deputy.

Playing the koauau was always difficult, and it is now very nearly a lost art. The only person who can still persuade a melody from the little flute, is Mrs Ben Wi Neera, of Takapuwahia Pa, Porirua.

Paeroa Wi Neera belongs to Ngati Toa, and she was born at Poroutawhao, near Levin. There she grew up, learning to strip the flax and make the kono, to help with the crops and the children, doing everything in the old Maori way. That village was particularly proud of her uncle, Ngaherehere, who was known up and down the coast for his skill on the porutu and the koauau. Over the years many children gathered round Ngaherehere to have their first lessons on koauau made from tutu wood. Most of them gave up very easily, but Paeroa persisted until she was promoted to the matai koauau she plays to-day. When Ngaherehere made it for her about sixty years ago, it was just a smooth piece of matai about five inches long, carefully bored out, and with three holes running into it slantwise. Like all koauau it was left open at both ends. Then, a few years ago, Mrs Wi Neera allowed a pakeha to carve it for her in the traditional fashion.

People often are confused about the koauau through its English translation, ‘nose flute’. When Mrs Wi Neera played it for Lady Alice Fergusson at Government House, the newspapers insisted that she used her nostrils instead of her lips to produce the sound. But although the koauau was occasionally played with the nose, this technique was extremely difficult, and according to Sir Peter Buck, it was more usual to play it as Mrs Wi Neera does, by blowing across the upper end.

I asked her whether she had tried to teach any of her family to play her koauau.

‘It is too difficult,’ she said. ‘They try, but they can't make the right sound. Besides, they have ukeleles and guitars, and they can manage without the koauau.’

We made several attempts to hear it that afternoon. The koauau cannot be played on casual demand, like a mouth-organ. It requires a great deal of breath and concentration. The first tentative sounds woke her daughter's baby; the second attempt attracted several eager little boys inside, and the moment to hear it had gone.

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Mrs Wi Neera

I have since heard some recordings Mrs Wi Neera made several years ago. The clear, full tone convinced me that Hinemoa would certainly have been able to hear Tutanekai's message. But I could tell that the hardest thing is to get started: to control the breath sufficiently with the lips for the melody to flow evenly. The koauau must surely be one of the most difficult wind instruments ever made, and I fully sympathise with all the people who have tried to master it and failed.

Mrs Wi Neera has lived at Takapuwahia for fifty-three years. When she first arrived there, life was very different. There were only a few houses round the water's edge, and the old chapel that still stands by the meeting-house was just being built. It was opened with her wedding to Ben Wi Neera, who is a direct descedant of Te Rauparaha.—Beatrice Ashton.