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On the marae: a personal essay by Talia Marshall

Love gone bad, new love, the Māori way of life, and a Pakeha book about life on the marae: Talia Marshall makes the connections.

February – Kua Mutu

Funny, after such a bright start, how despondent and lonely our love had become, but we tried to repair things by going on a holiday late in the summer. At the end of 10 days we are at a cave at Rarangi, near Blenheim. The cave used to be home to a taniwha who could melt faces with its vicious spit until one of my Rangitāne ō Wairau relatives vanquished it. There is a dead blue penguin in the cave and a burning metallic smell, like the cave is on fire. Can you smell that I say to him but he says he can’t.

I decide he’s oblivious because he is from England and that the burning smell must be the breath of the taniwha. A genuine cosmic happening after living in a motorhome for 10 days with a chemical toilet. I tell him I can smell it and he can’t because I’m from these parts. I am these parts I say just to infuriate him.

When I met him six years ago, we relished the fighting. But now we fight about everything.

We even fight about who has got the fattest like it’s a competition to be the thinnest. We fight about my whakapapa and why that makes me special and him racist.

But we do still agree on one thing. Rum and coke is a better drink than gin and tonic. Why be maudlin when you can be shouty?

Admittedly, the conversations you have when you meet someone and fall in love are very different from the ones you have when you are getting to the end of them. The progression from Best in Show to rabid wolves, each taking out hunks of hair and flesh on the way.

And then there was that dark, smelly, magic cave.

Later in the motorhome we have another stupid argument because I want to use my unemployment as an excuse to become a writer. I say insufferable things about the universe and destiny and he says incomprehensible stuff about money.

He watches a young hippie woman in a housetruck who has come to the rescue of a monkish cyclist. It’s the cyclist I’ve been watching as she seems to possess only a book, coffee percolator and a scrap of canvas that might be a tent. I can tell the hippie girl makes him feel middle-aged, the thing he has been trying not to feel since he turned 40.

But we have become old and uncool and we are staying in a motorhome talking about its storage solutions because to know any more about each other would be unbearable.

*

Easter – Kua Tīmata

Before I meet Isaac a family friend tells me he’d been lifted from his stepfather by CYFs, how they’d gone right up the river to take him away. In my mind he is a little Māori boy standing there in a singlet by the water, I see the orphan nape of his neck. But that story isn’t quite right. He was born on the river but CYFs came later and it was his real father who lost him first.

The friend also tells me Isaac has a bit of a problem with the meth, that it will be good staying there with him. Away from the gear. They get stoned in the lounge and glaze flat smooth stones with retro animal clippings.  Lions, elephants, birds and wolves. Within days Isaac knows where to get all the drugs. People, mostly very young women txt and ring him and drug dealers drive willingly across town to hook him up. Just acid and dope, but still, a waif with no money people seem to want to please. I puzzle at his charms. At how pale he is but still has what my Nana would describe as “Māori features”. He looks barely 19, but he tells me he is 27. I don’t guess he has kids until my friend outs him. Tell her how many kids you have Isaac, he says.  We call him boy for a joke and he digs up tree stumps and chops my friend’s shrubs and ivy viciously back.  He tells me he listens to Bob Marley and Johnny Cash and doesn’t mind a bit of Slim Dusty.

Slim Dusty!? From the sheds.

We’re smoking on the deck and I city-ask Isaac about being a shearer and where he is from. He mentions names, a marae and a Nanny that liked him the best. A pounamu she gave him that he lost down a grate working on a construction site. How he had to go home early that day after telling the boss. Because he lost it twice, the second time through his pocket which made it seem like a supernatural event.

Isaac admits to being a peeler like his brother. I have to ask him what a peeler is. It means shearing over 300 sheep. In a week, I ask hopefully. No, he laughs, a day. Embarrassingly I also ask him if he thinks sheep have personalities and he concedes that they’re all different.  When I probe him about what else he can do he tells me about his dogs. How he was working as a shepherd for a farmer on his wife’s land and she liked to drink with Isaac after work. The farm was going under and the farmer couldn’t even handle his own dogs, he’d spent thousands on them and they ignored him. Isaac had five working dogs and they lay down like snakes for him. Isaac says he came home to the farm one day and all five dogs had been shot by the farmer. Then a few weeks later the farmer’s missus shot herself.

Internally agape, I marvel at the matter-of-fact way he describes these heinous events. A laconic rural trait or just him? How old were you then? 20, he says, 21. I didn’t care about her, he says, meaning the farmer’s wife.

Later he tells me he was climbing out windows when he was eight. So he could drink and smoke dope. That the last time he smoked some crack, it was a gram in eight hours because he didn’t want to fuck around. $750 and a day of speedy shearing. He tells me other stuff about his childhood that is so horrendous the climbing out of windows makes sudden sense beside his beauty. A hustler, I suppose, he has the kind of eyes that have learnt to look sideways for danger. And drink people in. The expectation that life hinges on hours not the future, that minutes dissolve like Berocca and it all depends on how you read people, or ride them, ready for the gleam of someone on the turn.  He says that thing they all seem to say about drugs – how they take the pain away, which I’ve never found to be true.

But I don’t have a history of trauma like Isaac so I tell him on the deck that what happened with his dogs was exactly that, a traumatic, shocking thing. And he shifts then at my clumsy attempt at empathy, and rightly so. What would I know?

So I tell him I’d been busy thinking I was going through the worst break-up in the history of humankind, that my pain was bigger than the sea, but he’d given me some perspective, that the dogs and his other stories made my own grief feel ridiculous and worse, indulgent. I laugh heartily at myself for the first time in a month. And he probably sniffed an opportunity then. A door coming ajar. Because he told me that he never talks about those dogs. Usually.

And of course he knew about my break-up because I’d talked of nothing else since I arrived, when I wasn’t crying and drinking rum and coke on the deck, happy and bereft to be alone. He says that when he is on the piss the people with problems always come to him and tell him their story. That he sees auras. That he likes most people despite the things that have happened to him. The cheerful way he states that one day we will all bear the mark. That it’s happening already. Like the Bible you mean?

He lies on the day bed watching the Kapa Haka competitions and Family Feud, wearing the dark red cavern of the lounge like a second skin.

And his hand starts to reach out for me when I go past.

Rangihaeata’s Celebrated House on the Island of Mana Called ‘Kaitangata’ (Eat Man) 1844, by George French Angas. Reproduced courtesy of Te Rünanga o Toa Rangatira Inc.

Rangihaeata’s Celebrated House on the Island of Mana Called ‘Kaitangata’ (Eat Man) 1844, by George French Angas. Reproduced courtesy of Te Rünanga o Toa Rangatira Inc.

*

Making connections. I got told all the way through my social services degree that this is what Māori do. We connect. With each other.

Much is made of Māori rituals of encounter in Damian Skinner’s art history book about whare whakairo, The Māori Meeting House. The tikanga hula-hoops he has to jump through to get close enough to appraise our treasures for the ever diminishing Te Papa Press.

Skinner introduces The Māori Meeting House by talking about trying to whakapiri with the gateway of Pūkākī, the ancestor whakairo carved by Te Taupuaro of Ngāti Whakaue. Pūkākī now guards the council offices at Rotorua though he used to watch over the lake. Skinner describes introducing himself to Pūkākī in English, not in the hope that he will reply but as a way of engaging with who he is, a representation of living, breathing dead person.

He writes that he can talk to pou and whakairo in reo now, which possibly makes him feel less foolish because he also states they are yet to talk back.

Meeting houses. We always had these great ancestral huts, right? Well, no, actually we didn’t. Meeting houses aren’t ancient spaces, they house ancient stories. When Pākehā arrived en masse we dismantled the whakairo from the waka and elaborate pātaka storage huts and reassembled them into whare to receive the new manuhiri. Skinner notes the whare whaikairo is really an adaptation of an older sleeping hut, a whare puni, suggesting to me that communal sleeping around hui was common practice at least.

My iwi were nomadic within their rohe at the time of first European contact, living off the sea in their waka and covered in shark oil and red ochre, the women weaving nets that were hundreds of feet long.

One of the first things my tīpuna asked Russian explorer von Bellingshausen for when he arrived in the Sounds in the early 1820s was nails or hau. New!

They traded their taonga for them which can now be found in a naval museum’s vault in St Petersburg, in the same city as Catherine the Great’s palace and its aqua silk chinoiserie room, birds and peonies adrift on an empress’s private luxury.

Skinner argues that whare whaikairo emerged as a response to aspirational contact with Pākehā, the bits of wood they nailed together to make themselves presentable to the visitors. The marae ātea in front of the whare whakairo become a performance space to lay geo-political claim to the whenua. The sheer pragmatism that drove Māori to reinvent themselves in the new, increasingly dominant culture’s clothes post-Treaty.

He’s also spent time with contemporary artists like kōwhaiwhai specialist John Hovell (Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi), the subject of one of his other books. Hovell died in 2014 but was part of a larger aesthetic movement that includes tohunga whakairo Cliff Whiting (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) who have worked and are working to dislodge the primordialism Apirana Ngata cast us in like a spider in kauri gum when he dreamt of us as great house dwelling ancients. Instead, these modern carvers, artists and weavers have brought us back to the free painterly style that was partly inspired by prophet Te Kooti and the whare that tell his stories.

It wasn’t that thick red paint, it was ochre, and we were always rubbing it around, making ourselves fit for purpose. Covering Jesus in blood and shark oil.

Skinner also notes that whare whaikairo are still fluid, flexible technologies and I guess the best current example of this is the work with homeless the urban marae Te Puea did when they morphed into a state service. Providing a service the government didn’t want to know about to the growing underclass of working poor like Isaac that some statisticians say don’t exist, like a pou tokomanawa, or heart post of an invisible whare.

Constantly adapting and changing. Isn’t that really the chief feature of Te Ao Māori, and by proxy our art? The canny way Isaac uses his bucket of shearing combs and hand pieces as a stool while he waits for the element to heat the knives up.

Winter

Whanganui Inlet, photo by Talia Marshall

Whanganui Inlet, photo by Talia Marshall

When Issac says I love you before I can bear it coming from someone else, it doesn’t sound right. It has an echo to it like it’s coming from inside that cave at Rarangi. It sounds like the voice isn’t coming from inside him, but through him, like he’s just a stick twitching for water, the vessel rather than the message.

We go to Rakopi where my ancestor’s brother, Kōtuku was slaughtered during the musket wars, utu for killing Te Rauparaha’s children at Lake Horowhenua. The muddy inlet that houses Rakopi used to suck witless whalers and sealers in, and there’s a density to the air that comes from the semi-tropical threat of the bush and knowing the islands are graves. I am so deep in mourning for my old life I don’t bother to try and hide it from Isaac.

He catches a carpet shark and uses my best chin tweezers to remove the hook from its gums. He shows me the hole in his own gums where the meth has eaten through to the other side. Because of this and the persistent cough I start to worry he’ll die on my shoulder like Dustin Hoffman does on a bus with Jon Voight at the end of Midnight Cowboy.

I shouldn’t have taken Isaac to a place that reminded me of being there with someone else.

1989

The first time I remember staying the night at a marae, it was for a 21st at Kōputaroa, near Levin. I went there with a cousin and bounced on a pile of mattresses in the wharenui with the other kids. Outside, under a tarpaulin, a man let me pour his beer from the keg. Don’t get too much ice-cream on it he said meaning the foam as I learn to tip the glass.

I didn’t know then that Kererū Marae on the spot of Hokowhitu Mcgregor’s original. But later I find this photo of my great-great-great grandmother Riria Sciascia standing in the shell of her brother’s whare. Hokowhitu (Ngāti Takihiku/ Ngāti Kuia) came from the Ngāti Raukawa style of carving, less refined possibly than the great whare whakairo of the East Coast and Rotorua/ Bay of Plenty region that Skinner dotes on in his book.

Riria Sciascia standing in the shell of Takihiku, September 1931

Riria Sciascia standing in the shell of Takihiku, September 1931

I love Hokowhitu’s pou. They remind me of Thingee and watching afternoon television, that great but deadly comfort. But the pou from Takihiku ended up in the pool hall of that benevolent Goldie forger and Foxton legend, Karl Sim.

The lonely open mouth of the broken whare and Riria standing in the brains of the porch reminds me of me, I guess, it’s a photo I look at a lot and take the house with me wherever I go.

The meeting house is not just an artifact and Skinner is very conscious of this, writing that “sound, movement and smell can be as important as vision,” the sense art privileges the most at their expense.

But the boundaries of art history scholarship mean that he’s limited not just by being a Pākehā working in an “other” realm but also by the implicit burden of having to use western intellectual constructs to talk about Māori art practices, the sense he hasn’t just had to take off his shoes outside the whare, but is also on tippy-toes. In spaces Māori kids run around when their aunties aren’t looking and their tīpuna watch from the wall and katakata.

And as much as I coveted this book that’s when I also realised that it bugged me. Not Skinner or his reverent approach; the great writing, the great feel, and impeccable aesthetics or how pleased I was to own it. Or even the fact that at $49.99 it’s a bargain or possibly even a steal because of all the taonga inside.

What bugged me was that it occurred to me that there would be so many Māori who probably won’t read it unless a Pākehā told them to or made it available for them. Worst of all, and this is by no means Skinner’s fault, it reminded me of what happened to my friend in class when we were re-learning ourselves as Māori in the social services degree because we had to go and stay on the marae.

My friend arrived late for practice and was flustered when she said her own tribal mihi instead of the template the local iwi had provided.

This wasn’t the problem. It was the Pākehā lecturer coming over to her afterwards actually wringing his hands about her use of pronouns. She’d got mixed up between the use of tāku and tōku when describing her grandparents. He wondered if I would maybe help her. I eyeball him and tell him that she does not need my help.

I don’t say that if he listened properly to her mihi he would have heard the family name of her whānau multiple times and maybe might have realised he was sitting in the same room as the living descendant of Ihaka Whaanga, rangatira, wānanga attendee, warrior, pretty cool Lindauer portrait and the subject of 1400 words in Te Ara.

It’s up to her to correct him and she chooses not to. Not because she doesn’t embody Ihaka Whaanga, and isn’t in possession of his mana and oozes the very authenticity I lack with my own swotty mihi.

It’s this joke of me helping her and him standing over us.

The loss of reo and whenua hasn’t taken her wairua and mauri away, it’s that he’s just trampled all over it wearing shoes fretting about sacred pronouns. Words that used to belong to Ihaka and now belong to him.

My friend, part of the Māori shearing gang diaspora that relocated south now having to relearn herself if she wants to work with her own people. People she would get on with in a shed or garage like a whare on fire. Isaac even.

Having to perform what’s in her marrow like a seal with a moko, the whole sorry, colonisation process, but in reverse, and that’s a shame, the real whakamā, because it’s trying so hard not to be.

Ironically, the best writing in Skinner’s book comes when he talks to his own sensory experience of being in a whare whaikaro. Like when he describes sitting on the paepae of Kahunungu at Nūhaka in shafts of light to let the ancestors get to know him, engaging with the life force all houses seem to have.

Skinner writes that he was advised to do so by a kaumātua, Paora Whaanga.

I question my own intentions then of joining Isaac’s transience to his narrative. Damian Skinner has written this lovely book about our taonga, and has real relationships with the whare he describes and their makers. It’s not that I think Pākehā shouldn’t be able to talk about our stuff, it’s the problem of lost possessions, the fact that we don’t have our stuff.

The grandson spooked at losing a pounamu down a grate.

1886

Rotorua is already a tourist wonderland but Tarawera is about to blow. People come from around the globe to see the flossy grandeur of the pink and white terraces not knowing that soon they’ll be lost forever. How amazing these terraces must have been! Pink! And white! A proper psychedelic experience for tramping Victorians after the interminable kākāriki of the bush.

Nearby at the village of Te Wairoa, Ngāti Tūhourangi hide from the sulphur and ash coming from Tarawera inside Hinemihi along with Tene Waitere, her Ngāti Tarāwhai carver. One of their tohunga is dug out of his whare three days later, alive and pissy at being rescued.

I ask Isaac if the ungrateful tohunga is his relative because Te Wairoa was his people’s village before the volcano turned them into exiles and pennydivers at Whakarewarewa.

I show him Skinner’s book and the image of his whare, Hinemihi-o-Te –Ao-Tawhito from Tarawera inside.

I’ve been there, he says, but he’s never left the country and she was transported to Surrey by Governor Onslow as a souvenir late in the nineteenth century. She now sits under an oak tree on his family pile in Clandon Park, exactly the type of pile my ex used to taunt me about as proof of the faded empire’s superiority.

I don’t tell Issac that Hinemihi sitting on all that English green reminds me of the cave at Rarangi. I don’t tell him that to properly leave one person you sometimes have to walk through another. Heartbreak and romance like a chamber of infinite doors.

We eventually figure out that it is Te Wairoa, and Whakarewarewa that Isaac has been to, not Surrey where a caretaker spent all night protecting Hinemihi with a hose when the lovely palladian mansion caught fire.

I read a New Zealand Geographic article that tells me Guide Sophia saw the portentous ghost waka prior to Tarawera erupting and claimed the people onboard bore the heads of dogs.

I keep trying to remember the difference between Guide Sophia, Guide Maggie and Guide Rangi, those famous wāhine of the lakelands circling my disorder like three benevolent witches.

Interior of Guide Rangi’s House ‘Hinemihi’, Whakarewarewa, by Mark Adams, courtesy of Rotorua Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Mark Adams, Tene Kereopa, Jim Schuster and Joe Te Poroa Malcolm.

Interior of Guide Rangi’s House ‘Hinemihi’, Whakarewarewa, by Mark Adams, courtesy of Rotorua Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Mark Adams, Tene Kereopa, Jim Schuster and Joe Te Poroa Malcolm.

I am in fact guilty of raving to Isaac about his own stories, already making them mine by rolling him up in my tongue and papering over the pained interior of my whare with his strange, mystic optimism.

I can’t believe you wore trackpants to a wedding, I berate him, chuffed at having fresh meat to emasculate.

They were not track suit pants, he retorts, they were sports pants. A world view that is brazenly rose-tinted despite or maybe not defined by owning a proper pair of shoes.

Even better, when I ask Isaac how he feels about macrons he asks what they are and we bicker about how to pronounce Porangahau, that place Hokowhitu’s other whare sits, wonderfully alive.

While Damian Skinner writes a book that includes Isaac’s tīpuna saying that when he talks at his ancestors they don’t talk back. But even more fatally in the conclusion states that he intended The Māori Meeting House as a “guide for Pakeha who want to know more.” Oh.

No wonder the carved pou’s lips are sealed. I mean, what good has ever come from telling a Pakeha more about us for their purposes, not ours.

And I’m like pssst, you missed Isaac, as though he was just a totem with worms for eyes waiting to be dug up.

*

When I first meet Isaac I ask him if he has ever done violent, rapey stuff on the P, thinking of fallen property developer Mark Lyons and the willfully deranged Tony Dixon. Isaac looks properly affronted at being associated with such people simply because they like the same drug. Because rich, poor, good and bad do meth, it’s just that some people are better enabled at hiding it, flying lower under the radar of the moral adjudicators.

Isaac says P is everywhere, especially small towns, and when I ask him why he calls it crack he says that’s because of how it leaves you. Cracked. And I marvel again at the bald irony and economy to his language.

Because the helping professions and larger society tend to pathologise addiction instead of celebrating the fact that for some people it’s a mode of survival.

Or the even plainer fact that getting wasted can be really fun, that first puff, spike or mouthful and the dual sense of surrender and willful release.

When I consider the mamae and betrayal in his past I’m not surprised Isaac uses drugs as a trapdoor to escape re-feeling trauma, moving from house to house and through walls and lives like a walking pou, the future at his back.

The tohunga telling the rescuers to leave him in his happy pit because trouble follows him through the world.

Trouble. It’s everywhere he doesn’t look.

*

Isaac brings a live sheep home in the boot and I have to reassess my saintly visions, but it’s true, at least, that the animals are all instantly devoted. There he is, walking down the road in someone else’s dressing gown with the neighbourhood dogs padding after him. Three lolloping puppies even, sniffing at the edges of a ghost I’m just starting to believe in, not blinking because it would upset the dream.

How we can’t drive or walk past a broken, lonely old hut without Isaac saying it looks like a nice place to live, his hope for shelter inside as golden as Hinemihi, the whare whakairo who became rich from tourists giving her coins instead of paua for eyes.

The way it looks like the tohunga whakairo took extra care in carving Isaac’s chin so that it will always have the grace of an orphan standing by the road expecting kindness from strangers.

Love shifting on its scarred haunches and taking its wood from house to house.

Nau Mai Haere mai, come in, come in, come in.


The Māori Meeting House: Introducing the whare whakairo (Te Papa Press, $49.99) by Damian Skinner is available at Unity Books.

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