The kuia committed to Te Herenga Waka Marae

The deconstruction of the houses on Kelburn Parade that were formerly home to Te Herenga Waka marae is a momentous time for one of the marae's key figures, Te Ripowai Higgins.

group of women out front of a marae with beautiful carvings
Te Ripowai Higgins is photographed here alongside some of the other kaikaranga of Te Herenga Waka Marae: (back row) Dr Hiria McRae, Venise Clark, Cereace Wallace, (middle row) Dr Karena Kelly, Ass Prof Ocean Mercier, Prof Rawinia Higgins, (front row) Te Ripowai Higgins, Lorna Kanavatoa, Dr Mere Skerrett and Pine Southon.
Work is well underway to deconstruct the houses on Kelburn Parade that were formerly home to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s marae to make way for the new Living Pā complex. It’s a momentous time for one of the marae’s key figures, Te Ripowai Higgins, who reflects on her deep involvement with the marae, and explains what she’s looking forward to most about the cutting-edge new Living Pā.

In her 20-plus years of service for Te Herenga Waka marae, Te Ripowai Higgins (Tūhoe) has seen thousands of tauira Māori through their university journey. Supporting those students by mentoring them in their academic pursuits, helping them adjust to life away from home for the first time, and ensuring they get fed, has made Whaea Te Ripowai something of a celebrity among students both past and present.

Te Ripowai began her career at the University in 1989 as a lecturer in the Social Work programme. Her skill in te reo Māori (she is a native speaker), and her extensive knowledge of tikanga and te ao Māori were recognised by Professor Hirini Moko Mead, who was the University’s first Professor of Māori studies. He offered her a lectureship at Te Kawa a Māui—she was later promoted to senior lecturer, and also held the position of head of school for two three-year terms. She later became the taurima and ruahine of the marae, holding the role of ruahine  until she retired in 2016 after 27 years of service.

The marae was first established in a two-storey house on Kelburn Parade in 1980, making Wellington’s University the first to establish a marae as part of its campus. The wider facility has served since then as a teaching space as well as a place to gather, with the carved wharenui, Te Tumu Herenga Waka, built in 1986.

Its name means ‘the mooring post of canoes’, which Te Ripowai says accurately represents the role it plays at the University. “It reflects how the marae was set up—you get all tribes from across Aotearoa coming here, and they’re all represented in carvings in the wharenui. It’s like a written history of this place.”

After joining Te Kawa a Māui, Te Ripowai took up the role of ruahine, the female leader of Te Herenga Waka Marae. As ruahine, it’s been her job to steer the tikanga and mauri of the marae, and ensure these are upheld. This role has allowed her to share her extensive knowledge of te ao Māori with students and staff at the University, as well as a steady stream of national and international visitors to the marae.

Despite being technically retired, she continues to carry out the role of ruahine, and is often called upon to help with big events at the marae. Until recently she was also ruahine at Government House in Wellington, advising the Governor General on tikanga Māori and helping to lead events that often involved high profile international visitors, including royalty and world leaders.

In her role as taurima (marae manager) at Te Herenga Waka, Te Ripowai was in charge of organising Te Hui Whakapūmau, the Māori Graduation Ceremony, for many years. “I think the graduation ceremonies we hold at the marae have been the highlight of my work here—getting to meet all the different students and celebrate with their whanau and the wider marae family,” she says. “The way we run these ceremonies makes them a big attraction for new students too. We end up with lots of different generations of the same whānau coming through the University.”

She says tangi are also an important part of marae life too. “We have tangi here for people who have passed who were special to the marae. Many of them are brought to the wharenui before their bodies are taken home. Unfortunately we’ve had students pass—it’s very sad, but it’s important to be able to do that for their whānau.”

As taurima, Te Ripowai was also in charge of organising—and helping cook—meals for tauira each day. “Professor Mead decided at the outset that we needed to feed the students to feed their brains, so we provide subsidised lunches every day. Boil-ups are probably the favourite! We get quite a few international students joining in for kai too.”

The wharenui is currently temporarily closed while building work for the new Living Pā takes place. But Te Ripowai says a typical day at the marae would see students roll in, make themselves a cup of tea or coffee, and “hang out” in the wharekai while they studied. Many like to help out in the kitchen too.

“For Māori students, this becomes a second home. For those who didn’t grow up on a marae or who were still searching for their whakapapa, this is an ideal place for them to make those connections—it’s part of their studies, but they are able to live te ao Māori every day here at the marae, too. Even Pākehā and students from other cultures who’ve done their courses at Te Kawa a Māui—they’ve just loved it because they have that lived experience here. There are some universities that have marae but they don’t have programmes that actively use it—it’s just used for visitors or special occasions. But what makes Te Herenga Waka special is that it’s a living, working marae.”

She says it’s heartening to see how many Māori students these days have a strong connection to their iwi. “Gone are the days when young Māori were distanced from their marae—now most of them arrive here already actively participating in their culture, which I think is due to an increase in young people coming up through kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa.”

Te Ripowai says the marae is a special place for so many people, and she’s excited by the prospect of a brand new space with the Living Pā.

“I think the concept of the Living Pā is really forward-thinking. We really need to be aware of the resources that are being used so that we can save planet Earth,” she says. “It’s not just about today—it’s about the future too. Generations of students will be able to come here and see how we’re doing things, and pass that on to their families—it’ll become the norm. Universities are exactly the type of institutions that should be leading by example in this area, so it’s quite exciting for Te Herenga Waka to be out front.”

She says it’s a great investment on the part of the University, and not just for Māori students. “The Living Pā is a project that will benefit the whole university and the wider community.”

While Te Herenga Waka Marae sleeps, Ngāi Tauira (the Māori Students Association) offices are located in the VUWSA building, classes have been moved to temporary spaces around the University campuses, and Āwhina (Māori student support services) is located in Level 0 Von Zedlitz.

You can now find these teams at their new locations in Kelburn:

·         Āwhina – Level 0 Von Zedlitz (and in usual faculty locations)

·         Ngāi Tauira – Student Union building

·         Science and Society – 22 Kelburn Parade

·         Te Herenga Waka Marae – 14 Kelburn Parade

·         Te Kawa a Māui – Level 3 Robert Stout

·         Women’s Health Research – 14 Kelburn Parade

Find out more about The Living Pā, and consider making a donation.