A Maori Activist Talks of community, tradition and life


by Bruce Stewart

This Maori cultural center, called a Marae, in the heart of Wellington, New Zealand, has an interesting story, and I want to tell you about it and why it is here. 

I was in jail at age 37, and when I got out in the early '70s I had only $25. It seemed like a chance to start again, like a new baby. What I decided to do is live the Maori way, the ancient truths of my ancestors. I had to try and discover them, which was a journey in itself because they have been so overlaid with Christianity. 

I had this dream of a community living in the Maori way, and I had to find a way to make it come true. I lived in a shed not far from here. One day as I was passing some big rubbish bins at the side of the road I heard someone snoring. I found a Maori boy sleeping inside. So I said, "Come with me to my shed." It wasn't long before I had a lot of Maori boys living with me. We had no money, but I used to get old bits of wood off of demolition jobs and make little handmade furniture. We sold it to keep us alive. 

On Christmas day in 1974 a big limousine pulled up in front of our shed. Out stepped the mayor of Wellington, Sir Michael Fowler, with a carton of fresh bread for us! He had heard about how we were gathering young, jobless Maori boys to live and work together cooperatively. That led to the Prime Minister hearing about us. We started a whole movement getting unemployed people back to work. Hundreds of young people were trained in skills. The only trouble was, the government financed it. I told everyone, "Live each day as if this assistance is going to stop tonight and tomorrow we have to make our own lives." Later, as the government withdrew their funds, a lot of other organizations folded up, but we kept going. I love seeing those boys today, grown up and successfully driving around in their vans and feeding their families. Whenever we have some big project to do here, I call them back to help. 

What I've always been is a hunter. I've always been hunting for answers and hunting for what to do. I see things that a lot of people don't see because I'm always hunting. Once I read an article in a Maori magazine in which the writer said, "The marae is my home, my place of church, my university, my place of work, my museum, my art gallery, where I was born and where I'll be buried." I've always been a homebody, so that idea appealed to me. 

Here we are, 30 years later. This marae is all that and more. We've gathered Maori paintings and artworks, and all the beams and rafters are carved in the Maori way. As well, this place is my insurance, too. I'm getting close to 70 and I'm fairly disabled. I'm too old to get a job; people would laugh at me if I applied. They laugh at you if you're 45 and try to get a job. But I've got tons to do here. I'm empowered by the dream.

My own ancestors ("waku") came here in the 4th century in the big migration, and I can easily trace my family tree back 33 generations. That is something the Maori have kept-some of our family tables go back to the big migration. At that time, the Europeans were frightened to leave the sight of land, thinking they were going to fall off the edge. But the Maoris had a better philosophy: "Every way ends up on a beach." The Polynesian navigators crossed the greatest body of water on earth, the Pacific Ocean. They came here and went back again to guide others. They lived close to nature and observed the birds flying off and the birds flying back. They navigated well, just as we use street signs and maps today. And they had intuition so they knew that this land was here.

Maoris have a word, "makutu", which means having another eye to see today and to see tomorrow. I saw instances of this kind of intuition in my great grandmother who was 113 when she died. She had 900 descendents. Whenever people came to tell her that someone had died, they found that she was already wailing and lamenting for that person. All the time she knew things that were going on. She was blind, and we weren't allowed to take photos of her, it was taboo. One day I saw her all beautifully lit up in the sun. I was a very cheeky young man, so I thought, "I'm going to take a photo, the only one ever taken of her!" So I got my camera and behind the crowd, I lay down on the ground, aiming the camera through the legs of the people. Suddenly she looked straight at me with her blind eyes and held up her hands in front of her face. So I got a glimpse of "makutu".

Since I was very young, I bought and read just about every book on Maori things. An early Englishmen here told how one night he saw a Maori elder sitting and staring at the night sky. When he went to sleep in his tent, he saw the man was still there. And in the morning when he woke up, he saw the man was still there! So as a hunter, I thought, "What did he see? What could keep him there all night?" That's the mystery: what did we lose? 

In my journey to discover where the Maori, the Polynesians, came from, I learned there are two theories: either they came from South America, or they came from India. What survives in any culture is the language. As I looked further, I found that some words in Sanskrit are still the same in Maori, while others are not far off. For example "agni", which means "fire", is "ahi". After the Aryans conquered India, they came through Southeast Asia and then across the Pacific. That is a very strong theory. Last week some Hindus came here to celebrate their rituals. I was surprised to find that many of the things they did were very close to Maori. In this way, I discovered some new things that expanded the dream. 

So I learned a truth like "karma". Then I'd see that same idea expressed differently in the Christian way. So I'd try to find it in Maori. I worked backwards, and it often took me a long time. You see the colonizers had interpreted the word "utu" to mean "revenge". But one time I heard a Maori child say, "He aha? He aha taku nei utu?" meaning, "What do I deserve for what I've done?" Then I understood that it means what you deserve, what you've earned, what is coming to you for what you've done. That's the principle of karma.

Some of the Maori stories are great metaphors. The Maori story of creation tells how the Earth Mother and the Sky Father had all these children born in darkness. One of the middle sons, whose name was Tane, said, "It's all darkness here and there's light outside. We should separate the parents so the light can come in." The older brothers, the Tuakana, said, "No way in the world we're going to separate them. We like it how it is." So Tane rebelled and, together with some of the younger brothers, separated the Sky Father and light flooded in and things grew. It's a simple Maori teaching that sometimes things become dark and we have to find a way to let the light in. I loved it. 
A Chunk of Wellington
When we started this project, we didn't have any money at all. Money's not the problem-to believe and to do is the problem. A lot of miracles happened on the way. At one point, they were going to put me in jail for building this place without a permit. Nobody wants to live next to a marae. It's like an Indian reservation or a ghetto of blacks or Puerto Ricans in North America. Nobody wants to buy a house next to them. Why? One reason is that people in New Zealand worry that the value of their land will go down. By and large Europeans value everything by money. I decided a long time ago to follow the path of my ancestors and not to own anything at all. As I acquired land, I gave it away, I set it free. I love doing that. So we started off with a small piece of land and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. 

The Catholic nuns from the Home of Compassion live next door. One day about 15 years ago they came over and said, "Bruce, would you like to buy our extra land that's adjacent to yours?" I said, "Yes." Then they asked, "If you bought it, what would you do with it?" "I would plant trees and put a big fence around it and bring all the birds and endangered animals to live there." They said, "We would like you to buy our land. But it costs a million dollars. How much have you got?" I replied, "I've got five dollars." They said, "Then owe us." So with a carpenter's pencil I scratched out our deal, a million dollars worth of Wellington land for a deposit of five dollars and my promise to pay the sisters $1200 a week. Who would sell land worth that to someone who's been to jail and who has only $108 a week income? Yet we never missed one payment. 

At the beginning of 2000, we still had $100,000 more of the capital to pay, but together with the interest it came to a quarter of a million. The sisters came over early one morning and said they wanted to have a little word of prayer with me. Then they told me, "We decided, because of the Jubilee 2000 program of the Church, that we're going to forgive you the debt. You don't have to pay any more." I couldn't speak. They know I'm not even a Christian.

A long time ago, I learned a concept called "kaitiaki". In the old days, one family would look after a stretch of land from one ridge down to the next ridge, guarding the fish, the birds and the trees. It was very hard to kill a bird or cut a tree down, because you had to go through a lot of rituals and say "mapa" before you could get permission. Kaitiaki means caretaker, but when I say that word in English, I think of the guy at school who used to clean the toilets. Kaitiaki means much more. It means being a nurturer and protector. 

We've got a big chunk of the city of Wellington now: 25 hectares! We've planted 60,000 trees here, many of which are in danger of extinction in the wild. We have a safety network, so in case they fail in the wild we have a backup population environment. We make sure we don't have any other similar tree so they won't cross. It is our plan to construct a predator-proof fence around the area so the animals and the birds will feel safe just like humans do. Some of our plants are very rare and fragile. Recently we've had a very dry spell, so lots of young people have carted water in backpacks up to the plants that are threatened. They take a plastic bottle and half bury it uphill from the roots so over the next couple of days the water trickles down slowly. 

This kaitiaki concept has started to catch on with other groups. If everybody cared for a patch of bush or a bit of coast within walking distance from where they lived, we could do a lot of good for this planet. I would like to see the people in every city and school stand up and say, "Don't touch that bush! We are the kaitiaki of this place. We are the protectors." 
We didn't have any money, so just about everything here has been built from materials we recycled. The windows, the floors, the doors were constructed from the wooden car cases from Mitsubishi Motors. They cut down trees in the tropical rainforests and turn them into car cases to be used only once. Wellington must be just a very small part of the Japanese car market, but I remember every day seeing truckloads and truckloads of car cases going by. That's a huge waste of resources. So we grabbed them all and built this place that some people call, "The Car Case Castle!" This series of buildings goes up nine stories. 

Along the way, we developed our own proverbs. "They who build the faddy, are built by the faddy." It means the young people who built this were also helped, because the faddy was a vehicle for building them. We're still building. My job is to straighten out all the nails. I can't stand to see a nail that hasn't been used at least three or four times. Nails are a wonderful invention. I say, "Don't throw that nail away." "Oh, Kota (grandfather in Maori), it's already been used two or three times." I answer, "Well, it's still alright."

I've written and published a couple of books. I've written two others, but I don't need to publish them because they were really about my journey to find myself. My path is this: I believe in making the impossible come true. I believe in it so much that I can't sleep, and I make it happen, time after time. In Maori we use the word "pumanawa", a flower that blooms just once, to mean a person who reaches his or her full potential.

Bruce Stewart is a poet and can be contacted at: Tapu Te Ranga Marae; 44 Rhine St, Island Bay; Wellington, New Zealand.

This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 10, No. 3, issue 34, Autumn 2001. © Copyright 2002, Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved. Posted on the web on July 31,  2002.