It Started with a Dream

Bruce Stewart QSM, Rangatira and founder of Tapu Te Ranga Marae is of Waitaha ki Te Arawa and Ngāti Kirihika ki Raukawa descent. Bruce was an award-winning hunter, builder, singer, playwright and Māori indigenous-rights activist who envisaged a place where people could reconnect with Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother and learn about Māori culture. 

In prison, Bruce read about two people from which he drew inspiration. The first Cliff Whiting who described the Marae as being a spiritual, social, cultural and economic base. This moved Bruce to recite on numerous occasions…"The Marae is my home; it is my place of work, The Marae is my kindergarten right through to my university; It is my museum, my church, my art gallery, It is where I was born and where I will be buried." The second was Suzanne Aubert who healed and helped the Māori people alongside the Sisters of the Home of Compassion in Whanganui. Incidentally, Bruce became neighbours with the Sister's Home of Compassion in Island Bay and both supported each other's kaupapa and visions.
 
In 1974 he embarked on his dream. The Marae became a "place to belong" for numerous Māori who moved from the provinces to the city in the 1960's and 1970's. He named the Marae after Island Bay's Tapu Te Ranga Island, which means the "sacred rising." After a lifetime of service to the community, Bruce passed away in June 2017. His whānau worked with the government and iwi authorities to arrange his burial on the Marae whenua (land), thus fulfilling his last wish and his whakataukī (proverb)..."It is where I was born and where I will be buried."

1970-1974 Helping Young Māori in the City

While Bruce was in prison from the early 1970's, he joined a kapa haka group (Māori performing arts), which was led by Amster Reedy who became a well-known Kaumātua (elder). At first, kapa haka was Bruce's opportunity to venture out of prison, as the group would go out for suppers after performances. Amster's self-confidence rooted in Māoritanga (culture) inspired Bruce to discover his own Māori identity.

Bruce's journey began in 1974, which marked a new chapter of life on "the outside." He was disheartened to see numerous young Māori lead lives of crime and discontent. They were drawn to the city by the promise of work but were set adrift squatting in houses scheduled for demolition. Bruce attributed this to the negative, dis-empowering effects of colonisation. In an effort to turn the situation around, he picked up Māori youth in an old van and took them to "The Workshop" in Mudges Terrace, Newtown - a space created by Jim Kebble and Marion Wood (founders of Commonsense Organics). Bruce taught the youth how to make furniture from recycled timber to sell at the market. He also cooked a hot meal everyday so they wouldn't steal.

The Hopper Street murder: December 1974 was a dark period in the history of Wellington. An intoxicated man by the name of Joseph "Taffy" Williamson provoked 18 year old Rufus Marsh yelling racial slurs. Marsh and his mate Dennis Luke kicked Taffy to death and left him under a pile of crates. Bruce recalls that he arrived after it had happened and it was front page of all the major newspapers instilling fear across Wellington. This was a major juncture in Bruce's journey that led to building a place for people to be self-determined, a place "to belong."

1974-1977 The Mayor of Wellington

Two weeks after the murder, a chauffeur pulled up to the workshop and outstepped Wellington Mayor Michael Fowler (now Sir) with a loaf of bread and a pound of butter. He told Bruce that the people of Wellington were living in fear and asked what could be done to address the alarming crime rates. 

Bruce said the people were disenfranchised from their cultural identity. Many Māori were robbed of the very thing that would provide stability. They needed a safe place to go and learn about Māoritanga - this would restore their spiritual and cultural equilibrium. With $25 for a down payment and with the support of the Mayor, a house at Rhine Street was acquired to facilitate such a programme. Bruce has said that the Marae started "with just twenty-five dollars and a dream," but he also said it would not have been possible without Sir Michael's support. 

In 1977, the Tapu Te Ranga Trust was formed. The board comprised of Academic Dame Joan Metge, Engineer Susan Hockey and members appointed by the Wellington City Missioner, the Mayor of Wellington and the Māori Women's Welfare League. Well-known lawyer, John Morrison provided pro bono services to Bruce and the Trust. They supported Bruce's mission by engaging government funding for a trade-training programme, which equipped young unemployed Māori with trade skills. Carpentry was what Bruce knew best and he used it to give others hope for a better life.  He believed that when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon visited the Marae, Muldoon could see the value of Māori-led initiatives helping Māori and he was impressed to support similar kaupapa.

1977-1983 Building the Marae

Although the building of the Marae began in 1974 the journey continued for another 30 years. Bruce led a building crew, which consisted of his whānau, youth, tradesmen and gang members. The Marae was built into a slope, which they levelled into seven levels with pick and shovel. They built seven large retaining walls, compacted the earth and built the foundations. 

The structure consists of segments built from car-cases that were used to encase vehicles during transit from Japan. Timber, materials and the fittings are recycled and re-purposed acquired through demolition contracts, allowing the crew to salvage materials such as stained glass windows and doors

The Marae is a tribute to Bruce's mother Hinetai Hirini. He said, "Māori houses are a personification of an ancestor - they’re alive." His whakataukī (proverb) is true for the many people who have rebuilt their lives at the Marae… “They who build the house are built by the house.” 

Bruce named the first whare after Sir Michael Fowler, 'Tāne' meaning man and 'Whaiora' as a transliteration of Fowler. The 16 September 1983 was a day of two openings. The Mayor opened Tane Whaiora in the morning and he opened the Michael Fowler Centre in the afternoon. Over time, the Marae expanded to 11 stories high - it is a phenomenon reflected in the name Tapu Te Ranga, "Sacred Rising."

1987-2000 Restoring Papatūānuku

Kaitiakitanga or stewardship over our taiao (environment) is part of the Marae's ethos. In 1987 the Sisters of the Home of Compassion asked Bruce if he would like to add the hillside and surrounding land to the Marae. He responded that the land would be used for “bush and bird reserve” and the Marae would be developed on the remaining land. The Sisters of Compassion supported this vision and Bruce arranged to pay off the debt to the Sisters by working the land and making monthly repayments.

In 1990 a public meeting was held to generate community support for the “bush and bird reserve” and the Manawa Karioi Society was formed to manage the project. According to Manawa Karioi, “this 26-year-old restoration project is one of the oldest restoration projects in Wellington and many hands have planted the trees, weeded the gorse, cut the scrub, cleared the tracks, nurtured the seedlings and most importantly enjoyed seeing the forest and birds return over these years.” 

The year 2000 marked a new millennium - it was also the Great Jubilee for Roman Catholics. This was a turning point for the Trust, as the Sisters of Compassion forgave Bruce of the Marae's remaining debt for the land. Over 100,000 native trees have been planted across the hilly landscape enjoyed both by the people and native birds.

Our History on Film


Whare Maori - Kainga (2011) 
A series on various Marae presented by Maori Architect Rau Hoskings.


Te Marae - A Journey of Discovery (1992) 
Tapu Te Ranga Marae is the last feature in this documentary, starting at 8.5 minutes.

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