In traditional Maori terms, a marae refers to the specific space in front of the wharenui, or meeting house.1
While it is not wrong to call these buildings houses in English, seeing them merely as houses would be missing their real significance. To people of New Zealand Maori descent (and today they are not alone in feeling this way), these whare whakairo (carved houses) are alive with the energy and spirit of all those who are—we would probably be more inclined to say were—the ancestors of the builders of each of these houses and their currently living owners.
Taonga tuku iho is a Maori phrase roughly referring to anything “sacred” or “treasured” that has been handed down over generations, including intangible things such as stories and songs as well as physical things like houses.2
During community gatherings in New Zealand, for instance, speakers talk directly to such houses both as the living expression of the famous ancestor whose name it bears and also as the living expression of all those in the community who are no longer alive. It is also customary for anyone, including formal speakers on a marae, to cry quite publicly in front of these houses especially at the start of community gatherings. It would be wide of the mark to see such open expressions of human emotion as merely make-believe, role-playing, or public theatrics.
A marae is also a turangawaewae, or a “place to stand,” where people may stand proud, speak, and be heard knowing that they will be received with respect and open-mindedness even by those present who may violently disagree with what they say.
Te-marae-nui-atea-o-Tumatauenga. Either way, this word means “The great open field of Tu of the angry face.” Tu is the ancient Maori god of war and “angry face” refers to the fearsome Maori custom of challenging your enemy before battle (or nowadays, before a rugby match) by grimacing menacingly while rapidly thrusting your tongue in and out.