Are the Protectors
by Bruce Stewart
A Maori Activist Talks of community, tradition
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
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
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
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
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
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
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