In the heart of Wellington sits Tapu Te Ranga Marae. Built from scavenged materials by homeless youth, ex-cons, and gang members, it carved out a space in a city that had little to offer them. Forty years on, the marae faces the threat of closure. This is the story of how one man’s dream came to be.
Bruce Stewart spends his days in this reclining sofa chair, spread low and horizontal to form a bed.
His beard is white and thick, his top-knot is thinning. Every half-hour he eases the chair up or down, seeking the precise angle to ease the pain in his back. He reaches for his pills and knocks them, sending them spinning across the wood floor, reaches for a walking stick to grab them back.
The body has paused, but the work always continues.
Above the chair hang ropes, bungee cords he uses to suspend his computer. A tabletop is crammed with cups of tea, pencils, architectural plans.
“The ropes? For my laptop, so I can work.”
He gives a quick, dry laugh. “Or hang myself.”
He was a big man, but is now in his 80s. A Hawaiian shirt sits loose around his frame. The pain in his back is palpable.
A twinge interrupts his flow from time to time, but he’s told this story over and over and the narrative runs on set grooves.
He isn’t fond of interruptions. Ask a question. “I’ll tell you that,” he fires back. “Just let the story come.”
“I got out of jail with $25 and a dream.”
Bruce landed in prison young.
Brought up in Wairarapa by his mother, theirs was the only Māori family in a white town. “There were pluses and minuses,” he says, “but a lot of minuses.”
Growing up, he says he quickly got the sense of where Māori sat in the local hierarchy.
“If a horse played up it was a Māori horse. People would beat their dogs, ‘You stupid Māori dog I’ll beat the living shit outta you. My mother was brought up on a marae and fluent - but never spoke a word.”
By the time he was 17, “life had begun to revolve around the closest party”, and petty crime to fuel the lifestyle. He found his way to prison on drug charges, and it was only there that he began to discover his roots.
A particular man was a regular presence, volunteering to teach kapa haka.
“I wasn’t very interested, but then I heard they went out for suppers - so I got very interested, and joined up,” Bruce says.
“For the first time I met a Māori who was confident in being a Māori. It oozed out of him. I’d met a lot of Māori who were something else first, and then a Māori. But he was Māori first. I wanted to be like him. I wanted what he got.”
“I remember picking up a Māori magazine, and it said this,” he leans back in his chair to recite the words:
“The marae is my home. The marae is my place of work. The marae is my church, the marae is my museum, it is where I was born, and where I will be buried.”
“So I got out of jail with $25 and a dream.”
The dream was simple, and utterly improbable. Bruce wanted a marae, he wanted to live Māori, and he wanted it at the centre of the capital.
He started working with the young Māori men of Wellington’s streets. Many of them had been drawn to the city by the promise of work and then set adrift, squatting in the houses scheduled for demolition.
In an old van, he used to go around picking them up, taking them to a community art space called The Workshop and teaching them to carve.
“I taught them to make some little bits of furniture; that chair you're sitting on now,” He gestures to a small milking stool, dark wood thickly polished.
“They were crashing in old houses in Te Aro, waiting for demolition. One day a very drunk pakeha man went past, one Taffy Williamson.”
Reports from the time say Williamson was drunk, walking home from the pub, and yelled a racial slur at the boys by the roadside.
“Lazy black bastard, get yourself a fuckin’ job, he said - and they killed him,” Bruce says.
“Booted him to death. Covered his body with pallets and a line of blood flowing in the gutter. It was awful.”
In one way, the path to building Tapu te Ranga started with that murder.
The killing sent shockwaves through the city, sparking a brief frenzy of moral panic in the local press. The Dominion ran five full-page special reports, headlined Anatomy of Brutality on Our Streets, and Gang Life in City Prelude to Tragedy.
“What is happening in our community that an old man is beaten to death for nothing at all - unless it is that he said something disparaging to an 18-year old passing by,” the reporter asks.
A few weeks after the murder, a chauffeur pulled up outside The Workshop. Michael Fowler, Wellington’s mayor, stepped out holding a loaf of bread and a pound of butter.
“He said, people in Wellington are terrified. People weren't walking along the back streets at night. There had been a lot of death, but this was the first time a pakeha was killed. What can we do to to fix this up, he asked me.”
“I said we want to live Māori, that’s what the problem is, we want to live Māori.”
With Fowler’s backing Bruce leased a plot of land in Island Bay, owned by the Sisters of Compassion, who lived in the convent up the path. With no plans, money or materials, Bruce and his gaggle of men began to work.
The foundations they carved out by hand, metres deep, spades and pick-axes digging into the hillside. Wooden beams scavenged from the demolition yards surrounding the city.
In the old photographs, their backs strain to lift the foundational beams, they stand surly and shirtless or in patched leather jackets, work boots, in the dirt of the site. The whare rise behind them.
The building today looks like an enormous pirate ship, riding the crest of the hill over the tidy villas of Berhampore.
Ten stories high, each level stacked like a wedding cake slumped into the slope, spiked with enormous wooden beams, strewn Tibetan prayer flags turned white with sunlight and age.
Over the years, the marae took in the homeless, youth gangs, drifters.
“I made up a saying,” Bruce says: “Those who build the house, are built by the house.”
Today, thousands of people come here every year, Bruce says.
“The ones I like best are the little kids. I ask them, ‘Does anyone know what a microcosm is?’ And one day a little kid piped up, ‘I know. It’s a small picture of a much bigger one.’ What I like to say about Tapu te Ranga is - it’s a small picture of what the world could be.”
In 2000, the Catholic year of jubilee, the Sisters of Compassion forgave the debt on the mortgage, gifting the land permanently to Bruce and Tapu Te Ranga.
Today, the largest whare stand closed, wrapped in plastic warning tape and with no entry signs on the doors.
After almost 20 years in operation, Wellington City Council has cracked down on the building, which was never properly consented and they now say poses a risk to inhabitants.
“If you wanted to be uncharitable you could call it a death trap,” says council spokesman Richard MacLean.
“That’s why we’re taking action, from a council responsibility point of view if we know there is hazard there we have to act on it, we can’t just turn a blind eye anymore,” he says.
“A number of the buildings on the site have been built or altered without consent. Inspections last year found a number of major problems – including serious fire risk, lack of safe escape routes and structural problems.”
Parehinetaiowaitaka “Pare” Sannyasi, 22, is one of Bruce’s 13 children. She’s lived at Tapu te Ranga since she was born, and has been showing visitors around since she was a child.
She is striking, with hair to her waist, a searching gaze and a kind of steady, unruffled toughness. She says the closure of the whare at the heart of the marae has been devastating.
“In the beginning we were completely lost and it was a real stressful time. It’s been over a year that it’s been closed and we’re learning to work around it - because if we can’t move forward, we’re dead.”
“Every single whare we have is used weekly - so it was a huge loss. This place is 10 stories high, and the power bill alone is massive so that loss of income was really really difficult. It’s had a huge impact. We’re scraping by, and some weeks we won’t even scrape by.”
Council’s relationship with the marae has long been complicated, MacLean says. In the past it was backed by Fowler, and since then many councillors have spent time visiting and staying, building a personal connection to the place and its history. Now, however, they’re also responsible for its shut-down.
“Going 30 years back, I’m told the construction of the marae was supported by some councillors and politicians so you’ve got this complex situation,” he says.
“On one side people believe the marae serves a useful purpose but on the other hand It’s been built by what looks like enthusiastic amateurs.
“If there was a tragedy and we knew about it but had done nothing we’d be in deep trouble.”
Paul Eagle, of Tainui descent, is councillor for the area Tapu te Ranga rests in. He says the marae’s past and future are complicated.
“We’re going back to when the rules weren’t quite there or the penalties weren’t. That was a different era, now there’s more scrutiny and robustness around implementing regulations and at the end of the day, with the added earthquake risk and resilience issues, council is taking a harder line.”
He says there are also issues with where the marae fits into the wider community.
“It’s not a marae of the local iwi, so the local iwi don’t recognise it as such. But if we go back to my childhood 30 years ago, people saw it for what it was: an urban marae.”
But for Pare Sannyasi, it is part of a more complex legacy of raupatu, land confiscation and Pākehā institutions’ imposition on Māori sovereignty.
“The whare is more to us than wood and nails. It’s an ancestral house,” she says.
“You could call this the modern raupatu - we’re not the only ones going through it and we absolutely won’t be the last. This is modern raupatu at its finest - we’re dealing with people that don’t understand us.”
Back at the whare, Hirini, one of Bruce’s seven sons, is in the kitchen cooking two-minute noodles on the whare kai stove.
“Everyone here has a place here,” he says. “One person does the cooking, or the cleaning, another person does the gardens.”
What do you do?
“I do what I’m told.”
While the present of the marae remains uncertain, he talks mostly about the dreams they have for the future: a village, a co-operative, where people of all ages can come if they want to live Māori. Maybe a new building for the marae, or else strengthening the place, so the council leaves them to it.
“That’s all the stuff he plans, sitting up there in his seat. He designs everything. It must be hard for him, because his mind is still running, as fast as ever. But his body just sits there. It becomes a bit like a prison.”
“It’s the proverb he always told us - those who build the house are built by the house. And so all those people will come down with the house, if it comes down.”