The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days
The art of the fowler. The mauri of a forest. The kakapo. The whare mata. Bird-snaring. Flock-names. The tui taught to talk. The kiore, or native rat. Tree-climbing. The institution of rahui. Superstitious beliefs. Curious practices. Uruuru whenua. Firstfruits. Vegetable oils. Tutu berries. Uncultivated food products.
The food-supplies of the Maori in former times differed to some extent according to districts. The inhabitants of fertile lands such as those of the Auckland Isthmus, and certain parts of the Bay of Plenty, the northern peninsula, Taranaki, &c., were the most fortunate. They were able page 181 to produce large crops of kumara, taro, and, to a lesser extent, yams, and these formed an important part of the food-supply of the people. If adjacent to the sea, then fish would be another important item. The proximity of forests would mean a supply of game. In most parts, however, either soil or climate was against the growth of large quantities of cultivated food products, and so greater reliance had to be placed on game, fish, and uncultivated products. The following pages tell of the forest lore of the Maori, of his woodcraft, of how he captured game, and collected the food-supplies provided by the forest.
Commodore Wilkes, the American voyager, wrote to the effect that he had made inquiries as to the Maori methods for taking birds prior to the introduction of firearms, and came to the conclusion that the natives had no method of taking birds in former times. This amazing statement shows us how unreliable may be the evidence of travellers as to the arts and customs of barbaric folk. Polack, a gentleman of Semitic descent, and an early trader in New Zealand, gives us an equally absurd story concerning the native method of taking the pigeon. It seems that the Maori used to attract it with a call leaf, until it came quite close to the fowler, who then, by similar sounds, caused the bird to put its head under its wing and go to sleep. It was, says the entertaining writer, “then easily killed by a pointed stick of hard wood being thrown at it.”
Any extent of forest containing a goodly proportion of such trees as provide much food for birds, as miro, kahika, &c., is known as a whenua pua (fruitful forest land). The term uruora bears a similar meaning, while high-lying, sterile country is called hunua. The possession of forest lands much resorted to by birds was an important matter in olden days.
The art of the fowler was a very important one in many districts. The absence of any animal larger than the rat meant that birds, rats, and fish were much desired as a supplement to the sweet potato, or the starchy rhizome of the fern or bracken. Owing to his superstition the Maori went to a great deal of unnecessary trouble in many of his industries. He took great pains to retain birds in his tribal forests, to prevent them leaving it and migrating elsewhere, and also to attract birds from extra-tribal lands. He believed that he could endow a certain object, such as a stone, with such powers that it acted as a talisman. This talisman, we are told, protected the vitality of a forest, its fruitfulness, and the fecundity of its fur and feather folk. It also protected the forest land from shafts of black magic, page 182 as when an enemy tried to impair or destroy its products. Such a talisman is called a mauri, and its powers are derived from certain spirit-gods that are, as it were, implanted in it. To call or attract birds from other lands to your own is another magic art, and the act is called tiepa.
There is some evidence to show that, even prior to the advent of Europeans, birds were becoming less plentiful in these Islands. For instance, the kakapo, formerly common in the North Island, had disappeared except from one area. Some other species seem to have been very easily pushed off the stage.
Prior to the opening of the fowling season an expert would enter and examine carefully the forest to ascertain the quantity and condition of bird-life, and the numbers of the different species of game birds. In a tau hawere, or prolific season, trees fruit abundantly. During a tau maro natural products are scarce. When berries are in scant supply, then birds cannot be numerous.
The whare mata, or whare takaha, was a house set aside for the storage of implements connected with the art of the fowler and kindred pursuits, and where new snares or traps were made when the snaring season opened. Bird-snares were made of narrow strips of the leaves of a young Cordyline australis, and hung in the smoke of a fire made by burning leaves of Veronica, Solanum, and Piper excelsum. They are then very durable and keep their form well. Women were not allowed to enter such a house, because there was a certain amount of tapu pertaining to it, and women are very apt to destroy tapu.
There are a number of different modes of snaring birds. Loop snares, running nooses, are set for pigeons and some other species; but no such snare would hold the combative kaka, who must be speared, or caught by the legs on a snare perch, and quickly killed. Snares were set in the runways or paths of flightless birds, just above the surface of the water for ducks, and on trees for forest-birds. Cool-headed and courageous fowlers ascended the tallest of forest-trees, the kahikatea, and set their pigeon-snares far out on its widespread branches. It was a dangerous pursuit, and many a man has perished by falling from such trees; hence an old and well-worn aphorism, He toa piki rakau, he kai na te pakiaka (A tree-climbing expert is food for roots).
In taking birds in tree-tops by means of spear or perch snare, a platform was constructed on the branches to accommodate the operator. The bird-spears used were page 183 from 18 ft. to 30 ft. in length, and made with great care. The pigeon was often taken with the spear, but when feeding on the berries of the miro it was often taken by setting snares round the nearest water. If this was a stream, then the waters thereof were covered with large fern-fronds, leaving a few open spaces of water, round which many snares were set. Having feasted on miro berries, the birds greatly desire water. In some districts wooden troughs were elevated on posts, filled with water, and surrounded with snares. It was scarcely possible for a bird to obtain water without being caught. The kaka parrot was often taken by using a decoy bird, as also was the parrakeet.
A strong feeling against trespassing by fowlers was common, and many a fray has been caused by such offences. Hence, if a person in wandering through the forest chanced upon a set of snares containing birds, he would break off a branchlet and place it at the base of the tree or in some conspicuous place to catch the eye of the snare-owner. The latter, on seeing the tohu, or sign, would at once know how and why it had been placed there.
In the tahei method snares were set on the outer extremities of branches, and such a tree was called a taumatua, or rakau taeke. A tree on which birds were taken by means of the mutu, or tuke, a loop snare arranged on a perch, was termed a tutu. Trees on which birds were speared, as rata, &c., were alluded to as kaihua. Charms were repeated by fowlers when setting snares, in order to secure a good bag. When about to go forth and examine snares and traps the Maori did not employ certain expressions of everyday speech, lest the game, birds, &c., should hear him and escape the snares. Also, it is page 184 page 185 extremely unlucky to talk about the game you mean to slay: the creatures will be affected by a condition termed pahunu—they will become apprehensive, nervous, wary. When the first bird taken has the taumaha charm repeated over it in a proper manner, then abundance of game will be taken later. Certain trees were resorted to by birds every year when their berries were ripe, and the more famous of such trees received proper names. At least some of such trees were rendered tapu by experts, and in some cases its hau (vitality, productiveness) was protected by means of a mauri, or talisman. Thus if an enemy page 186 attempted to destroy the tree by means of black magic, or to prevent birds resorting to it, such foul attempts would be foiled. The power of the gods located in the mauri would protect the tree. A favourite feeding-tree of birds was a prized possession; hence such sayings as, He kaihua ki uta, he toka hapuku ki te moana, meaning that a kaihua tree on land and a codbank of rock at sea are both famed for providing food for man. Birds were taken by snare on both trees and shrubs—from the lowly poporo (Solanum) to the lofty kahika (Podocarpus). The kaka was taken by means of the spear on the tawari, rata, and kowhai trees. They become very plump and fat when feeding on the fruit of the tawari; hence the saying, He kaka tawari ki Hikurangi, he moki ki te moana. Herein the fatness of such birds is likened to that of the sea-fish moki. These birds are also much attracted by the wai kaihua, or nectar, contained in the blossoms of the rata. A flock of kaka is called a pokai kaka; one of pigeons a tipapa kereru; one of koko (tui) a wiri koko; one of whiteheads a ta tataeto; and one of ducks a kawai parera.
East Coast native assert that kaka and pigeons used occasionally to be seen flying in landward by persons fishing from canoes out at sea. The latter sometimes settled on a canoe at sea, seemingly much exhausted. If not interfered with, they would, after a rest, resume their flight to land. The kaka never attempted so to rest. One can only suppose that these comparatively short-flight birds had flown seaward, possibly in search of a feeding-ground, and were returning; or they may have been blown seaward. O kaka, o manapou, and manatawa are names applied to page 187 reddish stones that are said to be found in the crops of kaka that have flown hither from Hawaiki—that is, from the isle of Polynesia. Here we enter the realm of myth.
An old saying of the Maori folk is, He wahine ki te kainga, he kaka ki te ngahere (A woman at home, a parrot in the forest)—illustrating the two noisiest creatures known to the Maori.page 188
The tui, or koko, was occasionally trained to talk by the Maori in former times. They were taught to repeat a kind of welcoming speech to visitors. The male bird only was so taught, and such a talking-bird was much prized in former times. The kiwi was caught by means of dogs, and sometimes lured by the fowler; the parrakeet by means of a decoy and a slip-noose; the tui by means of spear, snare, and mutu. This mutu, tumu, or tuke comprises a loop snare arranged on a portable perch. On cold, frosty page 189 nights the tui was sometimes taken by hand, owing to its benumbed condition.
Birds and rats were preserved for future use; they were boned, cooked, and placed in gourds and similar vessels, and covered with their own melted fat. They constituted a very highly prized food-supply among a people possessing so little animal food.
The native rat was a frugivorous creature, and its flesh was considered a delicacy. They were trapped principally in high-lying country, on the summits of ranges and spurs, along which in their nocturnal wanderings they formed little padded paths. Along these paths the rat-traps termed tawhiti were set, and great numbers of these little creatures were so taken. The trap was a spring one, and was baited only when set away from an ara kiore, or rat-path. This animal seems to be now extinct, though this is denied by some; certainly the dark-hued introduced rat is often mistaken for the native rat. Some natives assert that there were two varieties of kiore maori, or native rat, but it is now impossible to say whether there were or not. The rat became very fat, we are told, in winter, when feeding on beech mast and other berries. Apparently this rat was introduced from Polynesia by the Maori.
Another method of taking rats was by means of a pit (torea, kopiha), and a bait was used in this case. The natives say that the rat is credited with having crossed the ocean by swimming when it came to these shores. page 190 Those residing about Waikare-moana assert that in former times, on misty nights, rats have been known to swim out into the lake in great numbers until exhausted, and so drowned.
When engaged in fowling operations natives would camp in the woods, as they often lived for some time on the coast when engaged in sea fishing. On returning to the village home from fowling-camp certain ceremonial chants were sung and curious old customs kept up.
The foot-loop (toeke, taparenga) was used by tree-climbers on trees of suitable size, but in fowling operations the trees ascended were too large to be “swarmed” up. In these cases poles were lashed to the trunk and secured to it by means of vines passed right round the trunk, and so a rough form of ladder was formed. This was known as a rou.
The products of forest and stream were sometimes protected by an institution known as rahui, a form of tapu that was more effective than our game laws. The kapu or whatu of a rahui is an object that equals the material mauri of a forest, as explained before. It is the kernel of the effectiveness of the restriction, and if polluted such effectiveness would disappear.
Persons engaged in taking birds in the forest were very careful not to carry any cooked food about with them, or to cook food anywhere but in camp, for such acts would pollute the mauri or life-principle of the forest, and birds would then leave it. If fowlers left any feathers scattered about a forest the birds would probably desert that forest. It was a very unlucky act, and old men were ever warning young folk to conceal all loose feathers, so that birds should not see them. The faith in the pahunu probably is connected with this peculiar superstition—that, unless great care is displayed, game, fish, &c., will become what is called pawera (nervous, suspicious, apprehensive), and so probably escape.
Another institution connected with forest craft was the tuapa. A post was set up at some place adjacent to the village, and this “luck-post” served as a focus for simple ceremonies and charms designed to bring good luck to fowlers, trappers, and fishermen. A person setting forth to snare birds would touch his implements with a branchlet, which he then cast down at the base of the post. At the same time he repeated some simple form of charm, such as “Ill luck and thwarting desires of the indolent, lie ye there! Banish bad luck and cause man to acquire!”page 191
Another peculiar custom was that known as tuputupu and uruuru whenua. This was a peculiar act performed at certain places whereat a tree or rock was utilized as a medium, and to which travellers made offerings of branchlets or a handful of herbage. These offerings were made to the spirits of the land in order to placate them. Charms accompanied all such acts as these.
Firstfruits offerings wre common in Maoriland. The first birds and fish caught were offered to the gods, as also the first-lifted portion of a crop. The first growth of herbage in the spring was collected and offered to the stars, which were believed to have much influence on the food-supplies. A prolific season was described as a tau hawere, tau kai, tau hua, or tau horahora; a poor season for food-supplies is termed a tau matao, tau maro, &c.
A prized oil was extracted from the seeds of the berries of the titoki tree in former times. The ripe berries were placed in baskets, which were placed in water, and the berries trampled on in order to separate the pulp from the hard seed. The cleaned seeds were then placed in a wooden vessel and pounded with a tuki, or pestle, until crushed, and then poured into a strong closely woven bag termed a ngehingehi or kopa. The two ends of this elongated bag were twisted with much force in opposite directions; thus the oil was expressed from the crushed seeds and flowed into a vessel placed to receive it. It was rendered fragrant by adding to it certain vegetable products, and used as what may be termed a toilet article.
The ripe berries of the tutu were treated in a somewhat similar manner in order to express all juice from them. A plaited bag, or basket of conical form, was lined with the plumes or panicles of the toetoe, and the berries were placed within this primitive strainer, which is said to have retained all the poisonous seeds of the fruit. This form of bag was not twisted as in the former case; while the fruit-juice thickened into a form of jelly that was appreciated in pre-European times.
The seed of the raupo, a bulrush, was sometimes collected, separated from its pappus, and cooked as an article of food. It was appreciated as such, but the process was a tedious one. Berries of the tawa tree were freed from their pulp, then the kernels were steamed for many hours, and dried for future use. In the case of the fruit of the hinau tree the hard stone was discarded, and the mealy matter covering it was formed into cakes and cooked by steaming. It is an unpleasant article of food to Europeans.