We walked as a group to the House of the Ancestors on our first evening at the Mahuri Marae on the North Island of New Zealand, all of us wondering what the next few days would bring. The air was cool with the lengthening promise of winter and the stars overhead promised insight. We had left Dunedin in the South Island many hours earlier and we had travelled all day. We were tired and more than a little curious about what life was like in an Original Peoples community in New Zealand.
The group I was travelling with was comprised of adventurers from around the world – coaches, trainers, consultants, medical people and more – and we had already visited the beautiful cities of Queenstown and Dunedin on the South Island. We climbed the front steps of the sacred wooden building that was to be our home for the next four days, removed our shoes and paraded inside to join our hosts. Words of welcome and words of appreciation were spoken by our respective leaders and then we quietly filed past the line of Waitaha community elders that had assembled to receive us.
“Welcome home,” TePorohau Ruka Te Korako said warmly. TePorohau is the leader of the Waitaha community and in words reminiscent of my own beloved father, he told us there was only one rule to observe while we were at the Marae, and that was that there were no rules! We were, however, instructed to be kind to each other.
We felt both welcomed and at home as each elder hugged us and bestowed upon us the traditional “hongi,” a greeting where our hosts pressed their noses and foreheads to our own and exchanged with us the breath of life. Thus did we transition from manuhiri (visitors) to whanau (family). It was a moving and humbling ceremony.
So much happened during our time at the Marae that it’s impossible to capture the experience in mere words. The Waitaha people are magnificent orators and we were all encouraged to tell our stories and speak our truths during the Tohunga Circles that were held every day. Much of what was said was very touching and healing for all of us, coming, as it was, out into an environment of overwhelming love and acceptance. We were embraced, and swept into the magic of a place on Earth that is full of reverence for all beings, one that is intricately connected to a greater Web of Life.
The Waitaha people sing a song when they’re finished speaking and we were treated to many beautiful examples of how breathtaking the human voice can be. A ritual that would be viewed with alarm in my own family was celebrated among the Waitaha, and there was much laughter and joy in our time on the Marae. This is a matriarchal society and the grandmothers are revered, while the men of the community are self-assured and masculine. There is dignity and delight in a shared humanity and it was an honour to have been adopted by this loving extended family.
I have come home with the heart of the Waitaha people resonating in my soul and I left part of my heart there, as well. Life will never be the same, and, of course, that is probably the idea.