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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 10 (January 1, 1936)

Famous — New Zealanders — No. 34 — Elsdon Best. — The White Tohunga Of Tuhoe Land

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New Zealanders
No. 34
Elsdon Best.
The White Tohunga Of Tuhoe Land

Of the numerous Maori-speaking New Zealanders who have studied at first hand the customs and traditions and beliefs of the native race, the most thorough and scientific in method, and the most industrious and copious in recording collected facts, was the late Mr. Elsdon Best. He was a truly great man, a man of strong individuality and natural gifts, who had seen much of frontier life in his day and who was peculiarly fitted by temperament and talent for this research duty which so completely occupied the greater part of his career. His first close study was the life of the Urewera tribes, who retained in their mountain and forest land primitive customs and thought long after most other tribes had adopted pakeha ways and faiths. The thoroughness of his investigations during his life in the Urewera, or Tuhoe Land, resulted in the publication of many volumes that remain as a splendid memorial to an ancient warrior race. Later, his field of research was enlarged, and he wrote Museum Bulletins and Polynesian Society contributions that cover practically every phase of Maori life and culture. Elsdon Best's greatly-varied and useful life closed in Wellington, in his native province, in 1931, at the age of seventy-five.

Eisdon Best. (Born 1856; died, 1831.)

Eisdon Best. (Born 1856; died, 1831.)

Tall, lean, short-bearded, with the long, easy stride of the out-of-doors man, the figure of Elsdon Best was a familiar one in Wellington City in the later years of his life. It was easy, even for a stranger, to pick him out as a man bred in the open lands, accustomed to gaze out over wide expanses of country, and to cover the ground with the gait of an old campaigner. Many a swag the square muscular shoulders had carried in their day, many a league of mountain trail had developed that Maori lope. The early settler's life, years of work with axe and saw in the bush, thousands of miles of travel by horse and foot, had all in their ways gone to shape that spare, capable frame, and to give “Te Peehi” that distinguishing air of independence and self-reliance. He was a well-tried veteran of the adventurous life in many fields before he entered upon the absorbing study of his Maori fellow-New Zealanders that filled his hard-working days and nights until the end. For such men as Elsdon Best the days and nights are never long enough to get all the work in hand completed. There is always the task ahead that is the most absorbing pursuit in life, a task of pleasure that is never finished. The publication of one monograph after another, and its quick appreciation by the scientific world, was Best's chief reward. Like most original workers of his kind, his material reward was very small in proportion to the value of his painstaking research and the volume of his output.

The Young Pioneer.

Elsdon Best was a product of the pioneering age of New Zealand. The bush filled valley of Porirua and the small rough town of Wellington were his earliest memories. There was no college education then for the colonial boy, unless his parents could afford to send him to England. The primary school gave him the beginnings of education; the wide world of adventure and contact with all kinds of men was his university. His youth on the edge of civilisation, swinging an axe in the Porirua forest, clearing bush and dealing with horses, bullocks, and the men of the frontier, up on the East Coast and elsewhere, developed him physically and strengthened his self-reliant character.

At the end of the 'Seventies he turned to the martial excitement of life in Taranaki, where for a long time the tension between the Government and the Ngati-Ruanui and allied tribes bordered on war. His friend, W. E. Gudgeon, then captain in the Armed Constabulary, was in command of the military post at Manaia—in fact, it was Gudgeon and his men who built that redoubt, a compact little fort wellpreserved to this day. Elsdon Best enlisted in a company of the Constabulary, part pakeha, part Maori, under Gudgeon, and served as a frontier soldier for many months. Drill and marching, trench - digging, redoubtbuilding and road-making in the disputed territory between the Waingongoro on the south and Stony River on the north; and a period as one of the A.C. garrison of Pukearuhe Redoubt, the North Taranaki outpost, under Captain (afterwards Colonel) Messenger.

Adventures in the United States.

Then, when conditions eased down, and the Constabulary forces were reduced, the craving for adventure called in another direction. The stalwart young colonial worked his passage to San Francisco, and followed the eternal lure, something waiting just across the range. He roved about the Western States of America, from the forests of California and the slopes of the Rockies down to the Sierra Nevada and the plains of the Rio Grande.

There was adventure enough now, in the lumber camps, on the gold trail, page 18 page 19 and on the ranches. Wild country and rough men. The “long Britisher,” as they called him, consistently declined to carry a gun, though he could use one quite well enough, and thereby, as he told me once, avoided much trouble. Had he followed the custom of the country, toted a six-shooter and absorbed much “red licker,” he would probably have died suddenly with his boots on in some corner of the Wild West. As it was, he had to swim the Rio Negro at night, on one critical occasion, with revolvers popping drunkenly after him, to place the river between him and some determined patriots who didn't care for the looks of that long Britisher.

“They had a rope with them,” he explained, “and this Britisher thought it prudent, under the circumstances, to leave the shanty by the back-door and take to the creek.”

His company obviously not being desired along the Rio Negro, Best travelled unobtrusively as far north as he could get, and he saw a good deal of the Sierras and the big trees.

That was in the early and mid-'Eighties, when life was still wide-open and free in the Western States where the population in these days is chiefly engaged in helping to make cinema pictures and running “dude ranches” for Eastern tenderfeet.

Elsdon Best returned to his native land, and the quiet life, and worked at a variety of callings.

The Polynesian Society.

He was, I think, storeman in a Wellington business place, when the formaion of the Polynesian Society, in the early 'Nineties, heightened his already considerable interest in the Maori language and Maori history and folklore. He was a foundation member. One of his early friends in Wellington was Mr. S. Percy Smith, Surveyor-General, the chief founder of the Society. His friendship and advice fixed the course of Best's life thenceforward.

In the Urewera Country.

It was early in 1896 that Mr. Smith induced Elsdon Best to make the Urewera Maoris his special study. The Government was engaged in surveying the Urewera tribal lands and beginning the main highway that now links up Rotorua with Lake Waikaremoana and the East Coast. There was difficulty in persuading the Maoris that they would not suffer by the making of this road. Shrewdly and prophetically they foresaw that it would destroy their prized isolation and gradually change the life of the people. The first part of the survey and road-making was carried on under the protection of an armed covering party of the Permanent Force from Auckland and Wellington— a precaution that was not really necessary, after Sir James Carroll had seen the chiefs at Ruatahuna and convinced them that there was no hidden “catch” in the survey. Percy Smith arranged that Best should be given employment in the Lands Department, and he was sent to Te Whaiti as timekeeper on the road works that were to be carried out by the parties of bushmen and navvies. This gave him his great opportunity. For several years he lived at Te Whaiti, at Ngaputahi, and at Ohiramoko, near Ruatahuna, steadily gathering traditions and noting down all manner of curious lore of the mountain tribes.

When the road-making parties were withdrawn, before the works reached Ruatahuna, Best remained, fascinated by the prospects of studying a people so far untouched by scientific-minded enquirers.

“Te Peehi” in his Bush Camps.

It was in January of 1898 that I first met Elsdon Best, spare, sparsewhiskered, hard-faring student of the Maori and lover of the bush life. It was at Ngaputahi, a half-cleared valley a few miles beyond Te Whaiti. His camp was a half-slab, half-canvas whare by the roadside. Burnt logs strewed the clearing; there was a small enclosure with a potato garden surrounding the whare. There the white ruanuku—as he came to be called by the Urewera—lived all alone, visited every now and again by some of the old people of the Ngati-Whare tribe, I was on my way through the country on horseback from Rotorua and the Rangitaiki, bound for Ruatahuna, to see something of the Urewera there; from Mataatua I walked over the ranges to Waikaremoana. After a talk with “Te Peehi,” I went on, and at Ohiramoko, a most secluded little hamlet a couple of miles from Mataatua, I met his great friends, old Paitini te Whatu and his wife, Makurata. Paitini it was who guided me through the bush trails—where often the only way was the river-bed—to the Lake, the first of many such rough journeys through the Urewera ranges. Ohiramoko was Best's headquarters during the years he spent in the Ruatahuna district. Later on he lived at Haukapua above Ruatoki, where the Whakatane River emerges from the mountain gorges.

“Te Whai-a-te-Moto,” the carved meeting-house at Mataatua, Ruatahuna, built by the Urewera tribes for Te Kooti in 1890. It is over 80 feet in length, and is the largest building of its kind in New Zealand. It was for some years tapu against white people.

“Te Whai-a-te-Moto,” the carved meeting-house at Mataatua, Ruatahuna, built by the Urewera tribes for Te Kooti in 1890. It is over 80 feet in length, and is the largest building of its kind in New Zealand. It was for some years tapu against white people.

The White Ruanuku's Friends.

Paitini and his wife, Makurata, both veterans of the war-path, were among the wise old folk of the mountain tribes whose seemingly endless store of history, tradition, legend, and forest lore and all manner of native knowledge filled many of their white friend's notebooks.

Another learned man, the old chief Tutaka-Ngahau, the principal man of Maunga-pohatu, gave him an immense variety of information concerning native belief, customs and traditions which presently found publication in the Journal of the Polynesian Society and in books. From all the learned men of the Urewera, Ngati-Whare, and other tribes of the wild country, “Te Peehi” drew, by long and painstaking enquiry, the data which he put on record for both pakeha and Maori. In later years he came to investigate the history and wisdom of the East Coast tribes in particular, and so the lore which he placed on record deals chiefly with that sector of the island, from the Bay of Plenty and the East Cape to the Wairarapa and Wellington.

Methods of Research.

The special value of the life work of “Te Peehi” lies in its particularity and exactness. In his writings he did not strive after effect; his purpose was to page 20 page 21 place on record with strict regard to fact, as fully as possible, the manner of life and the beliefs of the Maori before the coming and the teachings of the European had transformed, more or less, the native mind. He neglected no detail, he enquired minutely into aspects of life and folk-lore and spiritual belief which others might overlook.

He was a man of system and method. One notable service he did for the cause of knowledge was to record many hundreds of words which were not in the Maori Dictionary; these have been included in the latest edition of the Maori Dictionary edited by Bishop Herbert W. Williams.

In putting together all his volumes of notes Best was actuated chiefly by the desire to rescue all he could of the olden wisdom and faiths and folk-ways while his life lasted. He was a student of primitive man for the pure love of the work. Naturally, as the old men who were his mentors passed to the Reinga, he came to be regarded by the Urewera and their kin as the repository of their sacred lore; he was the white ruanuku of the Tuhoe folk.

His history of the Urewera tribe is a work of unsurpassed merit in the field of records dealing with a particular district; the only local history which nearly approaches it is S. Percy Smith's History of Taranaki and the West Coast. The present and coming generations of the Urewera clans should treasure this great history; it is their family Bible and their Domesday Book. There is a truly wonderful range of tribal chronicles here transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth, and rescued by “Te Peehi” from the last of the sages of the bush, rescued only just in time.

There is a sympathy, a poetic touch, in much of Best's writings about his beloved bush region that give them a peculiar charm. His first book about those parts, a pamphlet issued by the Department of Lands and Survey in Mr. Percy Smith's time, narrating a pioneer excursion to Lake Waikaremoana, with a Maori party, is a little classic in descriptive guide books.

A little mannerism of “Te Peehi” which readers of his books will note is his frequent use of Spanish terms, a reminder of his adventurous young days in the South and West of the United States, from the Rio Grande to Colorado; that was in the ‘Eighties. He was fond of writing of the village marae or square and assemblyplace as the “plaza.” He would as often as not style his horse his “cayuse.” Another Spanish - American trait was his habit of wearing the poncho as a cape in his bush travelling in wet weather. The old poncho, with the hole for the head, slipped over his shoulders, a bit of a blanket or a shawl round his waist in place of trousers, and often barefooted, thus the tough bushman-student took the rugged and wet forest trail in his pioneer years in the last retreat of the Maori as he was.

A Rocky Mountain Memory.

In Mr. Best's “Maori Eschatology,” a description of death customs, and the native ways of burial and the beliefs concerning death, there is a vivid and touching account of the home-bringing to Maungapohatu of a little girl called Marewa who died at Te Whaiti while he was camped there in 1896. She was borne by a party of men over the ranges to the Tama-kai-moana village at the foot of the Rocky Mountain; she was a rangatira child of that clan of Tuhoe. The parents asked “Te Peehi” to accompany them. On the third day of the march the mourning party ascended the high bleak range of Te Whakaumu in a storm òf snow and sleet:-

“Through a break in the driving storm we see the great rock bluff of Maunga-pohatu far above and ahead of us. The moùrnful sound of the lament for the dead sounds through the drifting snows. The mother of the dead child is crouched upon a rock nearby and gazing across the forest ranges to the storm-lashed mountain. She is greeting the sacred mountain of the fierce Tama - kai - moana clan, the enchanted mountain of many a wild legend, that, as Maori myth has it, gave birth to the dark-skinned people who dwell beneath it, and gathers them to her stony bosom in death. For she is the mana of the clan—she is the Mother of the Children of the Mist.”

“The mother is in the whare potae (the figurative house of mourning). She is mourning for her child and greeting the landmarks of her home. It is a combination of mother-love and the love of primitive man for his tribal lands. Now the summit of the mountain is suddenly covered with a white pall of mist. An old man said, ‘The mountain is greeting for her child.’ The parents of the child are a little apart; they have chanted a lament for their child and greeted their mountain home. Then, as the mountain-brow becomes obscured by the mists, the whole of the people give voice together in an ancient dirge of their race. The bitter sleet and snow, fierce-driven by the winds, pelt the mourners unmercifully. Through the drifting scud we see the great cliffs far ahead, wherein are the caves of the dead, where lie the bones of many generations of the children of Potiki. And then, the storm fiends lashing us, we go down into the darkling valley bèlow.”

The Perfect Wizard.

The whitebeard Ngahoro, of NgatiMahanga, thus addressed Best at Te Whaiti: “Son! Great is your knowledge of the sacred invocations of our ancestors; with you are the spells and magic of the men of old. My thought grows—that you will yet be able to slay men by your great knowledge of karakia, not pakehas, maybe, but certainly Maoris.”

Digging with the ko. A photograph taken at Ohiramoko, Ruatahuna, to show former Maori methods of cultivation. The man in the foreground is the old warrior Paitini, one of Eisdon Best's friends and sources of information.

Digging with the ko. A photograph taken at Ohiramoko, Ruatahuna, to show former Maori methods of cultivation. The man in the foreground is the old warrior Paitini, one of Eisdon Best's friends and sources of information.

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In one of his newspaper articles (it was the now defunct weekly the “Canterbury Times,” in which much of his Tuhoe Land lore was published) “Te Peehi” discoursed on the marvellous complexity of the makutu or witchcraft rites and traditions and charms. This was his lightsome method of sketching the methods of the tohunga makutu:

“Should I desire to bewitch you so as to cause your death, I can (if endowed with the necessary powers) take the hau of your voice as you are talking, and so destroy you—that is if you are not quick enough to perform the mata puru,, and by tying the regulation number of bands of flax round your limbs and body, and invoking your atua, so render my magic powers harmless. Before that, however, I should probably have repeated the deadly incantation known to fame as the mapuna, and even if you diverted that by means of the kaiure, I could still bring you down by luring your wairua into the man destroying Rua iti, and slaying it with the Kopani harua, and even if you got tired and went home to lunch, the maiakai would fetch you; or ran away, then my punga would take the swiftness from your feet, or I could take your manea from your footsteps and thereby send you down to Sheol. Of course you might recite Tu-matapongia and so render yourself invisible, but that would not save you from my nene and umu hiki, even though you braced up and performed the tokotea, which is doubtful. By this time you would, no doubt, be assailed by Tumata-rehurehu, which is a pahunu and therefore not a thing to be trifled with; or the miti aitua would descend upon you—which is Hades—so what are you going to do about it anyhow?”

The Passing of the Old Maori.

There are Best's characteristic touches in another article, written when he was in camp at Te Whaiti, in the early part of his official sojourn there on the road works:

“One might run on for countless pages describing the customs and traditions of the Maori of old and his thoughts, wise and otherwise, of to-day. The old-time Maori is out of place in the era of the pakeha, and soon shall he be a memory of the past. His descendants will know but little of his doings and history, and that only which has been placed on record by the invading white man. Only the earthworks of his forts, where he fought the battles of his people, shall remain.

“The sullen waters of Whirinaki hurry onwards as of old through the grim Canon of Toi; the great forest of Tane still holds the lands of the ancient Marangaranga and of Potiki; the peaks of Otairi, Tawhiuau and Tuwhatawata are yet guarding the realm of Hine-ruarangi and her famous sire. Toi the Wood Eater. But no sign comes from them anent the history of the past. They have seen the rise and fall of many tribes; the coming and the going of races; the old, old struggle between Ruaimoko and the Fish of Maui; the birth, life and death of primitive man. Changeless as of yore are they, and hold their secret well.

“Across the moonlit valley the hill Umurakau looms black against the mother range, the palisades of the fighting sons of Pukeko, hewn laboriously out with some axes of a neolithic people, are white in the silver light; but below the ancient stronghold and lining the river bank, are the white tents of the Aitangaa-Tiki, and the unholy strains of the souldestroying concertina are making night hideous in the Vale of Toi. A few short decades back we might have heard the mournful chant of the watchman as he kept vigil in the pa above, the merriment of the whare tapere, or the resounding chorus of the war dance. But the old order ever changeth, and the ubiquitous Pakeha has come to stay.

“As old Tikitu of Ngati-Awa left me yesterday, he said—‘Friend! I see before me the day when the Maori shall be no more. That time is very near now; yet a little while and there shall be no more Maoris to trouble you. And it is because we, the Maori people of New Zealand, have lost the mana of our ancestors that we are disappearing so fast. There is no hope for us now, for that mana has gone from us for ever, and we shall pass away like the mao.'”

The Maori is not likely to become literally an “iwi ngaro,” a vanished tribe like the moa. But that mournful prophecy of the ancient man of NgatiAwa is already nearing its fulfilment. The primitive Maori is no more, and the last of the learned elders, the men and women who cling to the old ways, will soon be gathered to their Mother Earth again. The new generation, educated like the pakeha, its very language bastardized and debased by the inevitable hybrids, will have lost the mana tapu and the mana tangata of its fathers. It will have little interest in the traditions of the past. But some day it will fully appreciate the glamour and the wonder of the vanished heroic age, preserved in the notes so carefully and so copiously assembled from the lips of the bushmen and warriors, priests and poets, of the ancient race.

The Range of Research.

Best's intensive study of the Urewera and allied tribes was not extended to other sections of the Maori people, at any rate not with such a degree of thoroughness. But there were other competent enquirers dealing with many tribes, in particular Hare Hongi, who is the chief repository of traditional knowledge and priestly lore of his people, the Ngapuhi and related tribes; he was schooled by tohungas of the old religion. He is, too, the best living authority on the Maori language. Best did not study the lore of the Waikato, or the King Country tribes; and Taranaki he left to his friends, Percy Smith and W. H. Skinner. He did not know the South Island, which has its traditions and ancient wisdom of its own. He had so absorbed the special knowledge of the Urewera that he was apt to apply their sayings and beliefs to the Maori generally. Students of his books must allow for that peculiarity and remember that most of his great accumulation of mythology and ritual and spiritual concepts came chiefly from two or three districts—the Urewera, the East Coast (the Takitumu tribes) from the East Cape to the Wairarapa, and the West Coast as far up as Wanganui. But those tribal districts he searched thoroughly for the esoteric wisdom of the race.

Two veterans of the cue met in an Auckland billiard saloon the other evening, and while waiting for a table got, talking tobacco, as old smokers will. Said one: “Don't know how it is, Bob, but I don't seem to get the pleasure out of my pipe I used to. Losing my taste for it.” “Reckon you're ‘brand-tired,’” said Bob, “you want a change of baccy, old man. Myself, I've been smoking same old brand for 20 years, and wouldn't change. Why should I? I can't get anything better, or so good. But there are brands, I know, that ‘go off’ a lot. Mine—Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead)—doesn't.” “Toasted, isn't it?” asked his cobber. “That's right! One of the five genuine toasted brands—Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold. And next to no nicotine in any of ‘em! The toasting does it, my boy! Now you try Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), and I wager a new hat you'll soon relish your pipe again!” And so he did!