A marae (in New Zealand Māori, Cook Islands Maori, Tahitian) malaʻe (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 Island "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.
What is a Marae in New Zealand
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 weddings and 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.
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, in a few 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.