‘Native spaces’ and the demise of woven whare

When Maori and Europeans first met it was Maori who had the most desirable dwellings.  Dug into the earth, clothed (not clad as Deidre Brown reminds us) in raupo, these structures were havens compared to the tents or packing-crate piles that the first Europeans survived in.  This situation quickly changed as the colonial project got underway and into full swing.  The femininity of woven structures did not fit with the masculinity of a settler society fixated on taming the wild frontier, and the need to impose order saw accusations of disease and contamination levelled.

The woven whare was the site for interracial relationships and marriage as whalers and sealers found love and family within Maori dwellings.  These whare housed what Angela Wanhalla has called “Pakeha-Maori” – men deemed unruly and troublesome in the context of systematic colonisation since they inhabited “native spaces” and were married to Maori or mixed-descent women, ‘blurring the distinction between separate white and native spaces.’  Wanhalla also notes how legislation reinforced the role of the masculine and established the patriachal society.  Those who married or partnered with native or mixed descent women complicated the system’s desired clarity around white men’s land rights (even though the land rights for the female partner was likely to be far more complicated).

Raupo house near New Plymouth, ca 1860. Taken by an unidentified photographer.

The relationships and the sites were linked, and so the fate of the woven whare was closely tied to the efforts to bring the “Pakeha-Maori” under control.  Fears of femininity undermining the social order were reflected in responses to Maori architecture of the time.  Sarah Treadwell points to how the woven whare was associated with domesticity and women’s work (sewing, weaving etc) by settlers, with the solid construction dwelling (i.e. masculine) being preferred and justified.  Even the mobility of the woven whare was cause for concern:

“the house is conceived as a strong container or property, a place for the maintenance of the father’s law.  It needs solid walls, strong doors, and latches to guard against inadmissable openings.  The permeable structure of the woven home, with openings omnipresent, had the potential to lead to dissipation, the loss of life, and the loss of property and name.”

Control came via New Zealand’s first building legislation – the Raupo Houses Act 1842 (which was repeated throughout the provinces through until the 1860s).  Woven whare were seen as a fire risk and as ‘endangering valuable property’ (but obviously weren’t valuable property themselves).  They were also seen as a health risk.  Disease and contamination, like femininity, threatened order.  Woven whare were implicated in the Maori struggle with European diseases – raupo as cladding material was seen to harbour disease, the structures often lacked what was considered adequate ventilation, and the simple layouts mixed with extended families led to perceptions of overcrowding.

Even when leaders such as Te Puea combined raupo thatching with European-style construction – creating a ‘hybrid house’ – the European neighbours still feared the fabric enough to call in the health inspectors.  Deidre Brown notes how the accusations of dirtyness and unhealthy living conditions that were associated with raupo whare eventually led to Maori leaders turning their backs on the woven dwelling.  Rua Kenana had raupo whare at Maungapohatu condemned if they didn’t meet hygiene standards, and Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana insisted on all dwellings built as part of his movement should use European methods and materials.

Maui Wiremu Piti Naera Pomare, alongside a raupo whare, circa 1911. Location unknown. Photograph taken by William Andrews Collis.

Unidentified Maori group alongside a raupo whare, circa 1870s. Location and photographer unknown.

Health was the persistent thread as the woven whare continued to be hunted out through the early stages of the 20th Century and post-World War 2.  But fears of femininity and the need to establish a patriachal family structure remained powerful undertones.  Angela Wanhalla points out how housing reforms of the early 20th Century – driven by health concerns – were central to a wider goal of Europeanisation.  This included imposing European standards of masculinity on Maori men via work (particularly as builders in the housing schemes), and the domestication of Maori women (since a clean house meant a healthy home).  As Wanhalla states, “For a good home to become a moral home, gender relations were required to undergo a transformation.”  And of course ‘home’ in this context was not a woven whare, but a timber-framed and weatherboard-clad European dwelling.

By the end of the 20th Century woven whare were starting to make a comeback via architectural researchers.  Rau Hoskins and Carin Wilson were running workshops to construct woven whare using traditional methods in Auckland and further north, and others such as Kepa Morgan and Hugh Morris who researched the use of harakeke as fibre reinforcing in soil cement construction.  This recovery of ‘woven architectural knowledge’ (as Deidre Brown has put it) can not be only technical in nature, but must also unwind the cultural constructions that were the original drivers behind the demise of the woven whare.

Home for the Maori People, Te Ao Hou No.10 1955

Deidre Brown, “Clothed not Clad. Maori Woven Architecture”, pp.59-63 in Celebration: Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, SAHANZ, Napier, 2005.

Angela Wanhalla, “Housing Un/healthy Bodies: Native Housing Surveys and Maori Health in New Zealand 1930-45”, pp.1-21 in Health & History, 8(1), 2006.

Angela Wanhalla, “Rethinking ‘Squaw Men’ and ‘Pakeha-Maori’: Legislating White Masculinity in New Zealand and Canada, 1840-1900”, pp.219-234 in Jane Carey, Leigh Boucher, and Kat Ellinghaus (eds.), Re-Orienting Whiteness: Transnational Perspectives on the History of an Identity (New York: Palgrave), 2009.

Sarah Treadwell, “Categorical Weavings: European Representations of the Architecture of Hakari” pp.265-284 in A. Calder, & J.Lamb, & B. Orr (eds.), Voyages and Beaches: Pacific Encounters, 1769-1840, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1999.


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