Thursday, August 27, 2009

Waitangi - The Whare Runanga

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are home to two important buildings in national history – the Waitangi Treaty House, where the treaty was signed; and the Whare Runanga, a Maori meeting house. Both are monuments to a nation its people and its ancestors. When I was in Waitangi during my latest ‘around-New Zealand’ trip, I spent half a day at the Waitangi National Reserve, wandering the grounds and buildings with lead guide, Wil Napier (Ngapuhi). Wil was brought up on the reserve (his father was caretaker), so there’s no better person to have as your Waitangi tour guide.
The Waitangi Whare Runanga is a little different to most in that it is a building of national rather than tribal significance and as such, it welcomes people of all tribes and nationalities; and it is one of the few whare runanga that you are allowed to take photographs in. Its foundation stone was laid by Lord Bledisloe on February 6, 1934 and it opened in 1940 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is also unique in that its elaborate interior carvings are a monument to the ancestors of not one iwi (tribe) but to all tribes of New Zealand. The poupou (carved figures) down each side of the interior are arranged in pairs (28 in all), and because the whare runanga is in Ngapuhi territory, the Ngapuhi carvings of their tribal ancestors, Hineamaru and Rahiri take pride of place. The carvings for all tribes were created specifically for this whare runanga under the supervision of master carver, Pine Taiapa of Ngati Porou. Carvings from each iwi tell the ancestral story of each in their own distinctive carving style.

For Maori, the meeting house and marae (literally the grassed area in front) sit at the heart of Maori society and culture. They are a symbol of prestige, a monument to tribal ancestors and much more than a simple architectural statement. Each part of the wharenui (meeting house) symbolises a notable tribal ancestor – the head (koruru) at the top of the roof apex is the head of the ancestor; the ridgepole is his backbone; the bargeboards the arms (with lower ends divided to represent fingers); the interior rafters are the ribs; and the interior is the chest and belly.

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