Hopa the Tohunga
A Maori Detective Story.
Said one of us: “Hello, there’s old Hopa from the Three Sisters. Wonder what he’s making yonder?” We were riding through Kihikihi to school, and with the curiosity of youth we went over to watch the ancient man. He was squatting on the grassy road in front of the little weatherboard whare built for his use when he happened to visit the frontier township, and he was making a kite,—a Maori kite, a kahu, or manu, which is a very different affair from our kite of pakeha childhood.
Hopa’s flyer was made mostly of dried raupo reeds, fastened with flax, and shaped like a bird with outspread wings and a wedge-like tail. It was about six feet long, and we wondered however he was going to get so large a kahu afloat in the air.
But the ancient was not going kite-flying at his time of life, though in Maoridom it was usually the old men, not the boys, who flew kites for amusement—and as a means of divination. We found that he was making it for his friend, Major William Jackson, the veteran Forest Ranger and Commander of the Waikato Cavalry. Jackson was interested in these old-time Maori artifacts, and perhaps this raupo bird was intended for some museum.
Hopa te Rangianini was a chief and wise man of the Ngati-Matakore sept of the Ngati-Maniapoto tribe. His home was at Whenuahou, at the foot of yon terraced hill Tokanui, one of three cones curiously alike which the settlers called the Three Sisters, a few miles south of the Puniu River, the Maori border line. Those three ancient fort-hills, looming blue in the King Country distance, always were fascinating places to us frontier boys. There was a singular attraction, too, about Hopa (the name was the Bible Job). He was a man of short, compact frame, with an uncommonly massive head. His brow, high and broad, denoted intellect; his expression was a mingling of sternness and shrewdness. Every inch of that strong, hard old face was deeply incised and black-pigmented in the tattooer’s best art; it was literally a carved head, trenched in the heroic manner of old. From chin and neck to his ears and the roots of his grey hair the old warrior was moko’d and no doubt he was similarly decorated hip and thigh. His deep-set eyes still held the glitter of his fighting youth, when he carried his double-barrel gun and his tomahawk on many a far-roving foray.page 86
That Hopa was a man of brains, a man wise in knowledge of men, and skilled in the esoteric lore of his people, was known all along the frontier. He was a tohunga, educated in the whare maire of the old days, and he was regarded with healthy respect as a man in intimate communion with the Maori deities, whom it were well not to offend even in this pakeha-church era.
Hopa was often called upon to his last days to perform some tapu rite or other. The last occasion to my knowledge on which he made demonstration of the sacred ceremonies of the old religion was at Kiokio— not far from the present railway station of that name, in the King Country, a few miles before you reach Otorohanga. A half-caste, a particular friend of mine (he taught me shorthand and Maori), was under the boycott of tapu; his Maori family all left him to his own resources because he had used a certain sacred tree, supposed to be his mother’s ancestor, for firewood and fencing posts. Hopa was called in at last to lift the quarantine. This the grim old wizard did by kindling a fire in front of the house and roasting some kumara in it. This food was given to the tapu’d man and the other folk, who ate the sweet potatoes while Hopa recited his mystic prayers. This done, the chief subject and the house were noa, or free from tapu.
At a much earlier period than the time of my sight-acquaintance with Hopa, in the Eighties, the wise chief of Ngati-Matakore was a man of importance in the Waipa Valley in the days before the King Country was so named. He was a member of the tribal council of Ngati-Maniapoto, headed by Rewi, which met in the carved meeting house, “Hui-te-Rangiora,” in Kihikihi. When the Waikato War came he was one of the leaders of the war party which attacked the stockaded church in the forest at Pukekohe East. Before the war he was a friend of the missionary folk, and, like many a tohunga, he pored over the translation of the Bible until he was better versed in it than even most pakeha parsons, and in his speeches he could introduce ancient mythological allusions and songs and white man’s Scripture texts with equal dexterity to illustrate some statement or reinforce his argument on some contentious subject.
This story of Hopa at the beginning of the Sixties concerns the era of the Rev. John Morgan (“Te Mokena”), when that excellent pioneer missionary and his wife conducted a residential school for Maori boys and girls at Te Awamutu, before the Waikato War.
In that school community of the untamed, or only lately tamed, youth of Maoriland, human nature would have its way, and so now and again there were hara (offences) which gave the good mission people much vexation of spirit. The parents of the young folk looked with a lenient eye on precocious love-making, which would happen at times in spite of all the page 87 care and admonitions of the teachers. Sometimes there would be petty thefts; these were regarded as more serious and the old people co-operated with the missionaries in trying to put a stop to them.
One day Mrs. Morgan missed an item from her larder, a bottle of peach jam. This was a grave hara. The thief must be found and punished. The scholars were closely questioned. No one knew anything about “Mother Mokena’s” jam.
Mr. Morgan and the elder men were determined to discover this jamstealer. One of the chiefs had an idea. Hopa te Rangianini was in Te Awamutu at the time. He was a tribal councillor and a tohunga of high repute. Why not enlist his shrewd brain and his occult knowledge in the detection of this grave hara?
So Hopa was called in. Whether Mr. Morgan approved of seeking the help of one of those “limbs of Satan,” as the early missionaries very uncharitably described their professional spiritual rivals, I am not quite sure. But at any rate he did not make strong protest; like a wise parson he probably thought it might do no harm to let the Prince of Darkness try his skilful hand.
The school boys, all neatly clothed in shirts and trousers, were paraded on Hopa’s request and were drawn up in one line on the roadside between the mission station and the Maori mission church of St. John’s, the pretty place of worship used by the pakeha folk of Te Awamutu to-day.
Hopa, the tattooed and grim—he was a middle-aged man even then— advanced to the front of the line. In his hand he carried a light stick or wand, sharpened to a point at one end. This he stuck upright in the ground in front of one end of the line.
“Now,” said Hopa in loud, stern tones, “look on this staff, my boys. This is my tapu’d wand, my tira. I have endowed it with supernatural powers for the purpose of detecting a thief. Now, one of you boys stole Mother Morgan’s bottle of peach jam. The thief will not confess, but he shall not escape. I and my tira will infallibly find him out.”
Hopa paced up and down in front of the awed boys, his greenstone mere now in his hand; he brandished it as he stepped in a half-dancing measure to and fro, and he chanted a quick, high charm song.
Ceasing abruptly, he ordered the boys to file past the tira from the right, each boy to look at it intently as he passed. That was the ordeal. The tira would make no sign against the innocent, but immediately the thief came to it it would fall towards him and drop at his feet.
The boys, all wide-eyed, fearful, intensely impressed by the tohunga’s address, faced the test. Even the most innocent among them could not but page 88 feel wobbly about the knees. What if the enchanted stick made a mistake and tumbled on the wrong boy?
One after another the lads went slowly past, eyes right as they marched. Hopa keenly scanned each one’s demeanour. Soon he saw there was something wrong near the end of the line. One boy there was holding back. He was trying to shirk the ordeal. He crouched behind the next boy, his knees were shaking, his face expressed abject fear.
“Ha!” said Hopa. “Who is that slinking back there? Come out, boy, and face the tira!”
But the boy was not going to confront any accusing tira that day. Hopa pounced on him.
“So you are the thief!” he said. “You took Mother Morgan’s jam, did you?”
“Yes, I took the jam! I’ll tell you all about it,” said the terrified youngster. “But take that stick away.”
Hopa pulled his tira out of the ground (the boy, be it noted, had not appeared before it, so it had not been necessary for it to fall!) and marched the boy in to the missionary. Whatever punishment was in store for him, he had received the fright of his young life. He would keep his hands from picking and stealing henceforth, at any rate in the Morgan establishment.
As for Hopa, great was his mana; loud were the expressions of admiration at his thief-catching tactics. Truly he was a second Solomon for wisdom. But what I most admired in Hopa when I heard the story was his astuteness in pouncing on the boy convicted by his conscience and his fears before the culprit appeared in front of the magic wand.