The Maori: Yesterday and To-day
Chapter XV. — The Cultivation of the Kumara
The Cultivation of the Kumara.
When the first long clear whistling notes of the pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, were heard in the groves in the spring of the year, the Maoris said to each other “Listen! The messenger of summer, the bird of Hawaiki, cries ‘Koia, koia!’ (‘Dig away!’) 'Tis time to plant the kumara.” This was in the month of October, or early in November, when the little shining cuckoo landed on these shores after its long flight from the South Sea Isles. Then the villagers made ready the ground for the reception of the sweet potato, which was grown very largely in Taranaki, as in other Maori districts. It is particularly the methods in the Ngati-Ruanui Country, Taranaki, that will be described.
The ancient religious rituals were still used by Titokowaru and his people in the Sixties and Seventies, and everything connected with the planting was conducted with great ceremony, for the kumara was a sacred plant, and not to be treated lightly.
It was the Maori custom to have a big “working-bee” whenever a man wished to lay down a large plot in kumara. Taiporohenui, Turangarere, and Otiaiti, in South Taranaki, were the principal places where my informant shared in the kumara-planting and harvesting. The work was carried on under the direction of skilled men in husbandry, and a tohunga always recited the prayers that were believed to ensure a bountiful crop.
When the people heard that the owner of a cultivation was going to plant largely in kumara, say three or four acres, they would come in a body to help him with his planting (whakatō-kumara). Twenty or thirty, or perhaps forty, men would come page 184 to ko the ground, and with them a number of women and children to plant the seed tubers and to look on. The ko was about seven feet long, sharp at the digging end, with a step or rest for the foot about a foot from the point. The top of the ko was slightly curved, and it was often carved into the form of a head, and adorned with feathers. It was also a custom of the ko-men to decorate the top of the implement, near the head, with aurei, the bone matpins formerly commonly used, crescent shaped, made from the tusks of the wild boar, whalebone, or the bones of enemies killed in battle. These aurei, sometimes six or seven to the one ko, were tied to the implement, and as all the diggers moved in unison, now to right and now to left, the aurei rattled together and made a sound pleasant to the Maori ear.
When the people gathered at the maara, the cultivation plot, the priest karakia'd the field, chanting his incantations to Maru and the gods of the kumara. Then the head man of the visitors, taking his stand in one of the corners of the maara, cried in a loud chanting voice:
“Tenei au e tu nei, me taku ko i toku ringa. Keiwhea te tangata nana te maara? Haere mai nei!”
(“Here I stand, my ko in my hand. Where is the man who owns this cultivation? Let him come here!”)
A Kumara planting scene of the past: Diggers using the Ko preparing the ground for the Kumara seed tubers. They work in unison, to the sound of a chant.
[From a painting by G. Lindauer
The holes where the kumara were planted were all made facing the east, the warm Rawhiti. Behind the ko-men came the other men and the women, each with a basket of seed-kumara. One tuber was dropped in each hole, with the “eye” or sprout end pointing to the sun rising. The diagonal rows were so designed that the sun as it travelled through the sky went “between the rows,” as the Maoris say. Unless the kumara were planted with a careful eye to the sunny aspect, one side of the lines would be warm and the other cold, and the crops would suffer. The seed-kumara were not completely buried up when they were planted. The point was left just showing out of the ground. After the planters had done their work a man went over the ground to inspect the planting, and to remedy any mistake that might have been made in putting the tubers in.
Some of the seed-kumara were always planted whole. The mononehu kind was never broken; it was put in the ground whole. The kakau variety could be broken into three or four pieces and planted. The mononehu was slightly cracked in the middle; as the planters did this, all together, they cried “Tara-pana” and placed the kumara in the places prepared for them.page 187
The kakau, which is a red kumara, was the principal variety grown at Taiporohenui and Turangarere in the Seventies. The mononehu and the anurangi are white kumara. The toromahoe, another variety, is also white; it is a small, very mealy kind. The waina is a large red kumara. The “merekena,” the common kind now grown, is the large American sweet-potato, the kind chiefly known to Europeans.
The Ngati-Ruanui, like other tribes, observed certain customs when the kumara were about to be planted. When the maara was being prepared, no kumara—should there be any available after the seed tubers were allowed for—were permitted to be cooked. Afterwards this restriction was removed. Any residue of seed left on the side of the maara after the planting had been completed was carefully taken away and buried, and not allowed to be eaten.
After the kumara had been placed in the ground it was necessary to bring up sand from the river or the seashore and mix it with the earth around the tubers. Hundreds of baskets of sand were brought up from the riverbeds at Turangarere and Taiporohenui and carefully heaped up in the little mounds which marked the resting-places of the seed-kumara.
The Maori were very careful in the selection of a suitable time of the month for planting. Each night of the moon had a special name. The best time was from the 13th to the 18th day of the moon's age. On the 18th of the Maori month (marama) the moon was at its maximum fulness (rakau-nui).
Te Karira Ruarangi.
A chief and tohunga of Pakaraka, Waitotara, West Coast, in the Sixties. He fought with his tribe, Ngarauru, against the British and Colonial troops, 1864–69.
Kao, or dried kumara, was a favourite food of the Maori when on a journey. This was the way the Ngati-Ruanui went about it. The kumara selected—perhaps thirty or forty baskets full—were first carefully scraped with fern, then they were put into large hāngi or steam-ovens in the earth, covered over in the usual way, and allowed to remain in the hāngi all night, so that they should be perfectly cooked. Next morning they were taken up and spread on stages to dry, until they became quite dry and hard. They were then put into baskets and hung up in the pataka or elevated storehouses. In this way they would keep for two years. To prepare them for eating, they were crumbled to pieces and mixed with water; the kumara are very mealy, and the sweet kao kumara is a luxury very palatable to the Maori, and almost equally agreeable to the pakeha who has tasted it.
A Rotorua Planting Song.
A fine rhythmic chant which was used until recently by the people of Mokoia Island, Lake Rotorua, at the planting of the kumara, was given to me by the old man Tamarangi, at the ancient cultivation ground on the Paepaerau flat. He picked up a long manuka stick, and gripping it firmly at the “should-arms” in the fashion in which the priests grasped the rapa maire, the digging implement, he recited the sacred planting song, dandling the staff to and fro, as he showed how the fields were blessed. This is my translation of Tamarangi's pihapiha-ko-kumara, as chanted for centuries past on Mokoia, beginning “Ue-uea, ue-uea te titi o te rua; kia tutangatanga te ara ki Mokoia”:—page 190
“Unloose the fastening of the food-pit;
Let the way to Mokoia be open.
How many backs are bending to my song!
O give me breath
To outstrip mine enemies.
The earth is shaken,
The Rainbow-god appears.
O plant the seed, whose tendrils stretch
Hither from distant lands,
From far Waeroti,
Our fathers' Island homes.
Though we have not here
The fruit of the kuru,
Spread out, abundant, is the produce of the food-vine.
May a strange cloud
Obscure the foeman's eyes,
And guard the children of the soil.
Deprive mine enemies of strength,
Hinder their war-like steps!
'Tis a magic cloud
That guards me from the foe.”
And all the planters join in the loud chorus-shout,
The opening words in this chant, “Ue-uea, Ue-uea, te titi o te rua,” refer to the loosening of the wooden pin which closes the door of the pit in which the seed kumara are kept, so that the door may be opened, and the kumara served out to the planting-party. In former days not only the Maori on the island but also the tribes living on the mainland invoked the help of the sacred carved stone image “Matuatonga,” the mauri of the cultivations, when planting their seed-kumara, and performed ceremonies to ensure a plentiful crop. When the season comes page 191 each year for the planting of the kumara each tribe sent a number of its tubers across to the Mokoia, so that they might be taken to the shrine of the atua and there touch “Matua-tonga,” while the priests recited the necessary karakia to preserve the plantations from harm and send a bountiful harvest. The expression in the chant, “Kia tutangatanga te ara ki Mokoia” is an allusion to this olden custom of taking the seed-tubers across to the Island so that they might absorb some of the mana-tapu of this Ceres of Maori Land.
The Rotorua Maori have over forty names for different kinds of the kumara. The only old Maori varieties now cultivated there are the toromahoe, hutihuti, and pehu. The kumara grown which were introduced by Europeans are known as the waina (a red tuber) and kai-pakeha (white). The hutihuti is regarded as the best.
Maoris of the Urewera tribe informed me that in the Upper Valley of the Waimana, near Tauwharenikau, there is a large and remarkable rimu-pine, the top of which was shaped as a store-house for food. It is called “Te whata-kao a Rongo-mai-pawa.” In this tree store the chief Rongomai used to keep his stock of kao or dried kumara. Maori when on a journey often took a small quantity of kao stowed away in the folds of their tatua or flax waist-belts. This kao, mixed with water, was a favourite food, very sweet and satisfying.
* Waeroti and Waerota are ancient names for the islands in the Pacific whence the Maoris brought the kumara and the hue (gourd). Kuru (or Kulu) is the general Polynesian name for the bread-fruit, which the Maoris found would not grow in New Zealand. Reference is made to the Maori belief in magic incantations which could cause a cloud to arise to obscure a person from his enemies, and to the mystical practice called “tupé-tané,” in which a warrior pursuing a fleeing foe, repeated prayers to “tupé” his enemy, that is to cause his footsteps to be slow so that he might be overtaken. On the other hand the person pursued “hoa”-d his own footsteps with the appropriate formula so that he might be swift in flight and elude his enemy.