I am Māori, I am Modern

Building an Urban Marae for Gang Members, Wanderers and the Displaced

Pare Sannyasi is continuing the work her dad started in Wellington 40 years ago.

by Kahu Kutia; photos by Chevron Hassett
26 April 2018, 2:32am

This story is part of VICE NZ’s ongoing series on how Māoritanga is being adapted to thrive in 2018. To read more stories about young Māori breaking new ground and creating a world that is both unconventional and drawing on traditional values, go here.

The people of Tapu Te Ranga Marae in Island Bay, Wellington have a whakatauki for their marae: Ko te tangata i hanga i te whare, engari ko te tuara o te whare i hanga i te tangata—Those that build the house are also built by the house.

Aged by the years, by the earthquakes of Ruaimoko, and thousands of feet that walk through, Tapu Te Ranga is a marae that is constantly being built. For Parehinetai (Pare) Sannyasi and her whānau, the marae is home all year round. The whānau care for the marae and through this pay homage to the gang members, wanderers and disenfranchised peoples who found self-identity and a community within its ever-expanding walls. Unlike most marae around New Zealand, which generally have a single storey symmetrical meeting house, Tapu Te Ranga is 11 stories tall and cascades cartoon-like down a hillside.

The idea for Tapu Te Ranga came to Pare’s dad, Bruce Stewart in the early 70s.

“My dad did heaps of things in his life, and a lot of them are in the marae,” 24-year-old Pare old VICE. “His trophy hunting, his diving and all that stuff. But all the things that he was doing in life made him eventually go to jail.”

When Pare’s dad was in jail—already in his 40s—he was still disconnected from his culture. Jail was the first time he had seen so many Māori who were comfortable with their Māoritanga. Enamoured with the ways these men held himself, Bruce went in search of more knowledge at the library. The only Māori book he could find was an issue of the Department of Maori Affairs journal Te Ao Hou, and an article by Cliff Whiting. It read something along the lines of:

“My marae is my everything. My marae is my home. It’s my kindergarten through to my university, my art gallery, my museum. My māra kai. The place that I was born and the place that I would be buried.”

It was an idea that eventually led to the creation of Tapu Te Ranga. Before that, Matua Bruce spent most of his time in Pigeon Park, next to Manners Street in Central Wellington. It was a hub of disenfranchised Māori men who had move to the city for greater opportunity, while being cut off from home by their whānau.

“There was a system put in place in this country that drove young Māori out of their homes, out of their iwi lands, because they made it so there were no jobs there. So if they wanted to provide for their whanau they had to go to the big cities.”

They were stranded in the city. Bruce began teaching some of the young boys carpentry from his Newtown shed. Around this time two of the boys got caught late one night with a racist slur from a Pākehā man. The slur resulted in the boys beating the man to death.

The Wellington public and the media were quick to attribute the violence to a serious gang problem within the region. “The boys in the shed were really confused hearing "gang problem" just because someone had died," says Pare. "They had lost a brother almost every day, but there wasn’t a gang problem".

Sir Michael Fowler, mayor of Wellington at the time, came to Bruce’s shed to discuss what the city could do. On Christmas Eve, he brought a loaf of bread and a pound of butter, and over kai they talked about how this situation could be improved.

“People felt there wasn’t a place in the whole of Wellington where people felt comfortable being Māori."

“People felt there wasn’t a place in the whole of Wellington where people felt comfortable being Māori. There wasn’t a street they could walk down where they didn’t have to look at the ground.”

“My dad went out in search of some land, and the sisters of the Home of Compassion who are our next door neighbours were selling land. They had 52 acres and they sold us 50 and kept two. And I’m not sure why they sold the land to my dad cause I wouldn’t have. Because he had a $25 deposit for 50 acres of land but he was also flanked by gang members when they were signing the contracts.”

I asked Pare why the marae was 11 stories tall. I have seen some beautiful marae in my time, but none have passed a single story. Walking through Tapu Te Ranga is like walking into Harry Potter. It is the greatest childhood tree hut you could ever imagine, and then 10 times more bizarre and beautiful than that. She said that at some point, it had originally been planned as a conventional marae. With a wharenui, wharekai, and toilet block.

They said that they just kept going, they built until they felt healed enough to walk away. And it ended up being 11 levels high. And obviously it’s not finished, it’s still going.

The story is in the building. On the front of the building, long panels of red and blue frame the windows. I heard once that this was because rival gang members were in competition to see how they could get the most of their colour on the building. I asked who the purple panels were done by. “The hippies”, she says.

They were displaced Māori and travellers, and nomads, and people who were at absolute breaking point. Tapu Te Ranga was built out of necessity.

Tapu Te Ranga isn’t iwi affiliated, because it was built by people who weren’t from Wellington.

“They needed a place where they could get married and have their children’s birthdays and then be buried. Because they could no longer do that at home.”

Today, Tapu Te Ranga follows along a similar kaupapa—be a self-sustaining community and welcome those who need a home. In a single year they will see thousands of people through its walls, all of whom can take lessons from the many rooms in the marae. However much like the people who occupy it, Tapu Te Ranga Marae is always being built. Wellington is prone to earthquakes, and currently corners of the marae stand unoccupied while they are repaired to meet regulation standards. Pare and her whānau are leading a campaign to raise the substantial sum needed for Tapu Te Ranga's restoration and upkeep.

Design-wise, the marae is an incredible space, especially given the fact that Bruce Stewart and many of his friends were not qualified in the art of building a house. At opposite ends of the marae, feminine and masculine energy have their own spaces to hold Tapu Te Ranga in balance. There’s the wharekai. The whare where children’s art is kept. Pare holds the whakapapa of those closest to the marae. Kirihika is the whare where most guests will sleep during their stay. Pare tells me that as a design plan for one of the rooms, Bruce gave his sons a piece of paper with two inverted triangles on it. From that symbol they designed a whole room.

The wharekai is filled with memorabilia left there by guests to the marae. “Most of the time you’re in the wharekai, you’ll be sitting across from a stranger. So it’s important to have things on the wall that create conversation, whether it be controversial, or funny, or really interesting. That’s what our wharekai is about. It’s about having those awesome pieces that make people want to talk about it.”

The marae itself is built from 99 percent recycled materials. Pare will assure you that that isn’t because it is trendy, but because that was the only thing people could get their hands on at the time. Currently they are working on adding tiny homes to the lot, and have just secured two pigs to add to their growing collection of animals within the community. I ask her what it would mean for the marae to be completely self-sustainable.

“A lot of people when they hear self-sustainable they think ‘oh cool, we’ll do a vege patch’. But health is being able to take care of your own health, your own people’s health. With your own resources. It’s a part of being self-sustainable. And we have got a long way to go, but that is our goal.”

Follow Kahu Kutia on Twitter and see more photos by Chev Hassett here.

Read more in this series:
Kassie Hartendorp is Rewriting the Narrative on Being Queer and Māori
Artist Kauri Hawkins is Bitingly Honest About Māori and Pākehā Today