Pōwhiri

Right, I promised you a description of Tuesday’s pōwhiri.  It was due to start at 9.30, but we were instructed to be there at least 15 minutes early, because once the pōwhiri gets started, it’s incredibly rude to interrupt it, so basically, if you’re late, you miss out (and as missing the pōwhiri would have meant we hadn’t been invited onto the marae, that would have meant missing out on the entire day).  So we were nice and early!
As I mentioned in a reply to Yetzirah’s comment about taking photos, the whare (meeting house) isn’t one of those elaborately carved ones you may have seen pictures of.  For various historical reasons, carved meeting houses are a lot less common in the South Island, especially around Canterbury – most of them just look like the kind of community hall you’d find in any small country town, but with a large open space in front.  The one at Tuahiwi is very modern looking – it was only built a couple of years ago, to replace a much older building.  There’s a couple of photos of it in this Press article about its opening, along with a bit of history of the marae.
We and the other people on the course (I think there were about 50 of us in all) gathered in the carpark, where we were met by a representative of the marae.  She introduced us to the two fluent Te Reo speakers, one male and one female, who would be doing all the talking for us during the pōwhiri (a very good thing, seeing as none of us knew more than a few words!).  They were both from another hapū, meaning that technically they were manuhiri (visitors) like us, even though of course they were well known to the marae.  She talked us through what the procedure would be, and then went back to the whare, and we waited for the signal to begin.
Roles for men and women in a pōwhiri are very strictly defined.  There’s some variation from iwi to iwi, but basically women are in charge of the first part, calling you on to the marae, and then men do all the talking once you’re actually there.  So the first voice to be heard was a woman from the tangata whenua (the people of the land, ie our hosts) calling out a karanga.  A karanga is an incredibly haunting sound – it’s kind of a mix between a chant and a song (I tried finding a recording of one for you, but my Google-fu has failed me, sorry.  The best I could find is this documentary – there’s an example at about 1:50), acknowledging the ancestors on both sides and making connections between the tangata whenua and manuhiri.  The women in our group gathered closely behind our kaikaranga, with the men behind us, and she responded with her own karanga as we walked slowly forward.  This call and response happened three times, until we were at the entrance to the whare.
Normally you take off your shoes to enter a meeting house (because it’s a sacred space, embodying an ancestor, so tracking dirt in on your shoes is like rubbing mud in the ancestor’s mouth), but interestingly enough, at Tuahiwi you can leave your shoes on, as long as you wipe your feet carefully.  Apparently part of the reason for this departure from tradition is that during the earthquakes they had to evacuate the building so often, and it got too dangerous to have everyone either having to stop in the entrance to put their shoes back on, or run outside in bare feet, so they made the practical decision to allow shoes in the whare.
Inside the whare were several rows of chairs facing each other on either side of the entrance.  We sat on the manuhiri side, now with the men in the front row and the women behind.  On the opposite side sat the tangata whenua, just a handful of people (basically the marae staff plus a couple of elders – it was a weekday, after all), and again with only the men in the front row of chairs.  Now it was the men’s turn to give speeches – long oratories in fluent Te Reo (this is something that you would have been lucky to hear 30 years ago, when it looked like the Māori language was dying out, and marae struggled to find enough speakers for pōwhiri, but now more and more young Māori are learning Te Reo and able to speak on the marae).
I don’t speak Te Reo at all, but like most New Zealanders, I know quite a few words that have become part of everyday NZ English, so I could recognise enough words to make a rough guess at what the speakers were saying (it helps that I knew they’d be covering similar ground to the womens’ karanga – acknowledging ancestors and connecting the two groups).  But it was great anyway, just to hear Te Reo spoken so fluently and confidently by relatively young speakers (the men who spoke on both sides would have been in their twenties – I don’t know many men of that age who could speak that confidently in English!).
After each speech, the rest of the group on that side would stand up and sing a waiata.  Usually it’s one of the senior women who picks the waiata (announcing it by just starting singing), and it can be another chance for the women to have a say, in a part of the ceremony when women aren’t supposed to speak.  By choosing a waiata with lyrics that either enhance or detract from the message of the speech, she can effectively say whether or not she agrees with it 🙂  Of course, with a group like ours, who chances are wouldn’t know the words to any waiata someone started singing, we’d instead been told in advance what we’d be singing, and given the words.  But in theory it’s supposed to be spontaneous.
After the speeches, the tangata whenua lined up and we filed past them, greeting each person in turn with a handshake and hongi (what’s often wrongly referred to as “rubbing noses” – it’s actually just pressing your noses together lightly, the point being to share breath).  Then, the formal part of the ceremony over, we moved through into another building for morning tea.  The morning tea (or sharing any kind of meal) is actually a really important part of a pōwhiri, because by eating food you remove the tapu (sacredness – it comes from the same root as “taboo”) of the pōwhiri.  If you didn’t eat after it, you’d still be tapu, so be incredibly constrained in what you were able to do.
So that’s what a pōwhiri is like (well, at least what it’s like at that marae – every iwi does things slightly differently, plus there are differences depending on what the purpose of the visit is, but the basic structure is roughly the same).  Hope the description was interesting to the non NZers among you (and hopefully the NZers weren’t too bored by it!).

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