Pare Sannyasi grew up at Wellington’s distinctive Tapu Te Ranga Marae, founded by her father Bruce Stewart. She tells Charlotte Muru-Lanning about the rebuilding process after the main whare was destroyed by fire in 2019.
Since its establishment in 1975, Tapu Te Ranga marae has been a safe haven for Māori living in Pōneke. Built into the hillside by local gang members, youth, volunteers and whānau, the marae was born out of an urgent need for housing, training and cultural reclamation for Māori in the city, displaced from their traditional whenua.
Tapu Te Ranga looked nothing like the marae we’re used to. It was a shared vision, expressed through recycled wood, corrugated iron and salvaged stained glass windows. Its 350 beds, 350 knives and 350 forks were always ready for the constant flow of visitors from all around Aotearoa and the rest of the world.
But all this was lost in 2019, when a fire destroyed the central whare.
A year after the debris at Tapu Te Ranga was cleared, director Vanessa Patea and producer Ruth Korver released their eponymously titled documentary Tapu Te Ranga Marae. The 28-minute film offers a rich history of the marae, documented room by room, and stands as a record of the hopes and dreams of marae founder Bruce Stewart (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa), who died in 2017.
Patea (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Maniapoto) and Korver first met at the marae in 2004. At the time, Korver was filming a short documentary about a painting by Patea in one of the marae whare, named Tane Whai Ora. The pair ended up spending six years documenting life at the marae.
While the end product is under half an hour long, it manages to document significant parts of the marae history, Matua Bruce and the unique whare of Tapu Te Ranga. After Bruce’s death and the fire that destroyed much of the marae, the documentary has taken on new and unexpected significance.
“It’s become a really important archival piece,” says Patea. Bruce’s daughter Pare Sannyasi agrees. “It captured us in different stages of our life, the marae in different stages and all the whenua around it, so it was really special.”
Life growing up at the marae dubbed “the Māori Hogwarts” by some was vibrant and filled with surprises, says Sannyasi. “I really felt like the world came to our doorstep and we were able to share something really special.” Visitors came from all over, to visit, for hui and for tangi – sharing their culture and kai. “I never had this huge desire to travel the world, because I really felt like I didn’t need to.”
A teenaged Sannyasi was featured in the documentary, and says the film captured a huge amount of loss in a short amount of time for her whānau. “Things like this tend to test whānau, but I think we’ve come out stronger,” Sannyasi says. “We’re rebuilding ourselves as well as our marae.”
Strengthening themselves as a community is at the forefront of this rebuild process. This means a focus on taha Māori, through learning and improving skills that keep marae functioning, Sannyasi says. “Learning to upskill in areas that Māori community and marae need; so that’s rongoā, haka, waiata, raranga, the whole lot and just really immersing ourselves in that lifestyle.” Part of this community building work is about using the time to strengthen relationships with those around them; from hapori to mana whenua, iwi to marae.
In terms of the physical rebuild, progress has been by way of meeting as hapū and whānau to figure out their vision for the physical rebuild. Though there are definite financial constraints, they’re choosing to think about what their new marae would look like if money wasn’t an issue. It’s a thought experiment that allows them to think deeply about what they really want and need, rather than being constrained by what they can afford.
“We’ve always catered to those who need homes; we’ve always had hui and events and functions as a marae and then also on top of that provided things like trades training. That will always stay the same,” says Sannyasi. “If anything we’d probably add more”.
“It’s definitely a traditional marae, in the sense of what it’s used for but not a traditional marae in the way it looks,” Sannyasi says in the documentary. Tapu Te Ranga marae looked like the stuff of fairytales, known for its sprawling layout and towering design. Made of salvaged wood, electric blue windows and green corrugated iron roofs – modern building codes and consents would make it almost impossible to replicate the same patupaiarehe-ville style. While this means some elements of the original labyrinth of whare will likely be too difficult to build again, Sannyasi says the flair that made the building so unique wouldn’t be lost in a rebuild.
“Some would call it quirky, but it was just natural. We went with the landscape of the whenua and we complimented the forest around us.” That distinct aesthetic runs through their veins, says Sannyasi. “It’s just our style.”
In the meantime, they’re looking to build a smaller whare to house their community, and to allow them to continue to function as a marae while they rebuild.
“I guess to those on the outside, it doesn’t seem like much progress, but for those of us who are in it here, it’s huge.”
While that fire represented a huge loss, Sannyasi says it has had its silver linings. In the 1970s when the marae was built there was a huge need for Māori to be housed and to live in a way that was culturally comfortable. “It was something that needed to be done, but it couldn’t be legally done at the time which meant that it wasn’t futureproofed,” says Sannyasi.
She believes that though painful, the fire opened a window of opportunity for their community to start afresh. “The marae was just so incredibly special to us, we wouldn’t have let it go and the community wouldn’t have either and so when the fire happened, we really had no choice.”
“Now we’re able to focus on a build of a marae that is equally as special to us and our community around us that we are able to futureproof.”
“Knowing my dad on a really personal level, it just felt fitting – like of course he would take it all back, and of course he would want his whānau and his community to build something for themselves,” Sannyasi says. “It was his treasure, his baby and his life’s work. So there was a small sliver of a silver lining.”
For Sannyasi, now married with kids, it’s a treasure to have those memories documented of her teenage years and her ever-changing favourite nooks inside the whare.
“It’s really important to be able to look back. There are obviously so many fond memories and things we want to keep forever, but I think also when you’re looking at rebuilding it’s also important to look back at things that you can do better and fix,” she says.
In this careful and unhurried process toward rebuilding, the documentary is a memento of what they once had and a constant reminder of the kaupapa they want as a touchstone moving forward. “I know that we will honour and do justice to the marae that we lost.”