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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Poi Dance. Haka Poi

Poi Dance. Haka Poi

This form of haka calls for some remarks, inasmuch as it appears to be the only ball game played by the Maori, and also because it has survived to the present time. It is now viewed as being essentially an amusement for girls and women, but there is some evidence to show that, in former times, young men took part in it, at least among some tribes.

In his account of the origin of ball games, Prof. Haddon says:— "These early games of ball were evidently martial exercises, and encouraged for the purpose of keeping the young men in good condition for actual warfare." These remarks scarcely apply to such a ball game as the Maori poi, which word signifies a ball.

There is but little on record concerning this pastime in the works of early writers, or any writers for that matter, and it would now be difficult to describe the purely Maori forms, so much has the exercise been influenced by the European invasion. This is especially noticeable at Rotorua, where the guileless tourist is entertained, and where the supply of ancient Maori artifacts never fails them, buy they never page 102 Fig. 22 Two Poi (Balls) A Common form made of doubled-up bulrush leaves B Ornate form. Specimen in British Museum From Edge-Partington Album. Sketches by Miss E Richardson so unwisely. In one of the modern haka here performed, the motions of the arms are derived from the various activities displayed by a carpenter, as in sawing and using gimlet, brace, auger, hammer, etc.

Nicholas, a sojourner in the Bay of Islands district in 1815, wrote: —"They made Mr. Marsden a present of a ball called a poi, with which the ladies amuse themselves by throwing it repeatedly backward and forward; it is somewhat larger than a cricket ball, and made of their cloth or canvas, stuffed with the down of the bull-rush, having a long string appended to it, which they seize with the forefinger while the ball is in motion, and are very dexterous in this practice."

The Rev. R. Taylor left us the following brief note:—"Poi is a game played with an ornamented ball, causing it to revolve by a small string attached, and singing at the same time. The ball is page 103often sent to a pa and played as an invitation to join in a war expedition."

In Halswell's report of 1841, we find these remarks:—"The natives make baskets in colours, and toys of various sorts, such as balls very neatly made of black and white plait, which are swung by a cord in a peculiar manner, whilst the performers, many in number, sing in excellent time. Most of the women excel in this, and the exact time, the regular motion, and precise attitude which is observed by all the performers, are peculiarly striking,"

C. O. Davis wrote:—"Poi: a ball with string played with the hands, and made from the fibre of the flax (Phormium). This article is sometimes fancifully ornamented with feathers, dog's hair, pearl shell, etc."

Colenso gives us nothing, but Dr. Thomson notices our poi— "Poi is a game played with variegated balls, about the size of large oranges, to which strings are attached. The string is held in one hand and the ball is struck with the other. The hand holding the string is often changed, the string is shortened and lengthened, and the ball is struck from under the arms, and in a variety of ways. Poi is played in a sitting posture, and players sing songs applicable to the time. Much practice is requisite to play the poi ball properly, and when well played, with a handsome ball, and a good song, the effect is beautiful." Though this ball game might be practised to some extent in a sitting position, as of an evening, yet more important exhibitions were certainly given standing in ranks. Again, it is doubtful if the manipulation of the poi ever constituted a request for armed assistance. Such a request might be conveyed, merely hinted at, in the words of the song accompanying the game.

The following notes, contributed by the late Tuta Nihoniho, of Ngati-Porou, East Cape district, are more explicit:—Poi balls were made by weaving, or rather netting (ta, not whatu) round bags of Phormium fibre, made with a very fine mesh, and ornamented with patterns. These bags were filled or stuffed with raupo down (tahuna), the pappus of Typha augustifolia, and ornamented with little tufts of dog's hair, such a ball being termed a poi awe. See Fig. 23 (p. 104). Common ones were made by wrapping raupo leaves round some object so as to impart form to them, as also additional weight; these common ones being known as poi kokau, or plain balls, not being ornamented in any way. See Fig. 22a (p. 102). These balls had a short string attached to them, whereas the poi awe possessed a long one, the latter ball being thrown outward from the performer more than the raupo ball, so as to show its ornamental properties. The series of movements of the two kinds of ball differ much. Only the short page 104 Fig. 23 Three Ornate Poi (Balls). The one on the right is a poi awe H. Hamilton, Photo string ball is now seen, the long stringed one, with its peculiar movements, has fallen into desuetude, like most of the old Maori pastimes. This latter is said to have been a particularly picturesque exercise. One of the movements was to swing the ball under a lifted leg and strike it back with the free hand. Another was to flip it outwards to the full length of the cord, and then jerk it back. All movements are made in time to the measure of the song (rangi poi) sung by the performers.

page 105

The poi was performed by females, but sometimes youths took part in it. It was a common pastime among the people at all times, and was practised at intertribal social gatherings. Contests were sometimes held between different hamlets, when a party of poi performers from a village would visit another in order to play against a local team. Such visits also took place in connection with the haka, and other amusements calling for skill on the part of the performers. This ball exercise was performed standing. The rangi poi, or time songs, were sometimes specially composed to be used as tiwha (songs sung to the people or chiefs of another hamlet, or clan, and which contain a hinted proposal for joint action, as in regard to war). In such cases as when the performance was employed as a medium for political or kindred purposes, the success or failure of such purposes was thought to be foreshadowed in the manner of performance; if well delivered, it predicted success for the project; if badly rendered, then failure would ensue. Mehemea ka ata tu te poi, a he ra kei tua; ka he te poi, he aitua. If the poi be well rendered, the sun shines ahead; but if badly performed, then trouble looms, before.

The following is one of the old time songs of the poi performance, said to have been composed by Puhi-wahine of Ngati-Apa:—

A Rangi Poi

"Poi, poi, poia atu taku poi, wania atu taku poi
Nga pikitanga ki Otairi papatairite mai ki Patea
Ka tirotiro ki Te One-tapu, taiawhio tonu ki Taupo
Ko Te Rohu, ko Te Rerehau
E whae ma! Kia tika mai te whakaaro
Mo aku haere ruahine ki kona
He nui tonu mai, he iti taku iti
E hara i muri nei, no tua whakarere
No aku kaumatua i whiua ki Heretaunga
Ko Puoro-rangi, ko Tarapuhi
Ka rawe ra maua ko taku tara ki te hapai awe ki nga whenua
Tapapa ana i te hiwi ki Horohoro
Ka matau tonu au ki Tara-wera, ko Te Hemahema
Ka rere titaha te rere a taku poi
E oma ana i te tai pouri ki Rotorua
Ko Pare-hokotoru, ko Te Apoapo, ko Ngatoro
Kai whea te rae ka hapainga mai
Kai Tauranga a Tupaea
Ko te mea ra e wawatatia nei e maua ko taku poi
Tiherutia i te wai ki Hauraki, ko Hapai, ko Taraia
Tu tonu mai Taua-iti kei Mahurangi, ko Te Ao-hau, ko Tiao
Ka taupatupatu te rere a taku poi i nga ia tuku ki Wai-kato
Ko Kingi Po-tatau, ko Te Paea, ko Matutaera
E taoro nei i te nuku o te whenua hei mana mo Aotearoa.
Potaea! te mana o taku poi, potaea!"

page 106

The following was also given by Tuta as a poi chant, presumably it is but a fragment of one:—

A Rangi Poi

"Tu ke Marotiri, tu ke Toiroa … e
Ko Rakai-hakeke ki waenganui, nawa … e."

The same contributor stated that the balls were occasionally made from a light wood, either houama (Entelea arborescens), or mako (Aristotelia racemosa). No other authority mentions wooden balls, and probably they were rarely employed. The modern ball, as used to-day, is a paltry affair, merely a few dry bulrush leaves folded up, and having a string attached to it. The poi awe formerly used were carefully made, demanding considerable skill on the part of the maker, and were attractive to the eye. An old specimen in the Dominion Museum is spherical, and four inches in diameter. See Fig. 23 (p. 104). It is a netted fabric, the twine used being apparently that of the Phormium plant. The cord attached is a short one of fifteen inches, having a big knot at the end to prevent it slipping from the hand. The ornamentation of the ball consists of six diamond shaped figures, placed equi-distant, made and secured in the following manner. The bag having been made, and tightly stuffed with some soft substance, it was then closed and fastened so as to form practically a perfect sphere. Taking the point of attachment of the cord as the top of the ball, a piece of twine has been tied tightly, in a horizontal position, round the middle of the ball. Two others have been tied round it in a vertical position, crossing each other at right angles at the top and bottom of the sphere. Thus the points of intersection are six in number, and each such point is the centre of one of the lozenge shaped ornamental patterns, such patterns being worked on the crossed containing strings in much the same manner that a patu ngaro or fly killer is made. In forming each lozenge, the first act was to make a small laced (nati) design in diamond form, by working narrow strips of a fibrous leaf on the crossed strings as a frame or base, these strips being three deep on either side of the central point. The strips are about one-eighth of an inch in width, and are the epidermis of the midrib of Cordyline indivisa, or of some other leaf that has been dyed red. Surrounding this design are three rows of rolled twine (takerekere), of dressed fibre, and dyed black. Outside these are three strips of white undressed leaf, probably Freycinetia Banksii, though possibly Phormium The spaces between the apices of the different designs are about three quarters of an inch. These lozenge page 107shaped designs in red, black and white render the ball quite an attractive object. In addition to these, small tufts of the long hair from the tail or rump of the native dog have been attached to the encircling strings at intervals. One of these is attached at each space between the apices of the lozenge designs, at and above the middle of the ball, but none below the middle, while two have been placed in the centre of the uppermost lozenge, where the twirling cord is attached. At some later period, apparently, some unprincipled person has surrounded the lozenges with some strands of dyed wool, but, fortunately, most of this has come adrift. This ball came from the Taupo district. Two specimens in the Auckland Museum are larger than the one described above. See Fig. 24a (p. 108).

Standing in a rank, or ranks, the poi performers, holding the cord in the right hand, twirl the ball in many ways, outwards, upwards, over each shoulder, etc., etc., all keeping time in such movements. A quick twitch of the string recovers the ball in each movement. Some poi songs commence with the words:—

"Kia rite, kia rite, kia rite;
Kokiri kai waho—etc."

(Keep time, keep time, keep time; dart outward) and so on, such song giving the signal for each movement. A number of these poi songs are on record in Vol. XXXIV, of the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute. The movements made by the performers, when swaying bodies and limbs in rhythmical motion kept time with the song, showed great proficiency, and were remarkable for ease and muscle control.

It has been suggested that the haka poi was originally a ceremonial performance, and one theory even connects it with phallic worship but is is difficult to see where any proof lies. Nothing is known concerning it to show that it was ever viewed as anything more than an amusement and exhibition of dexterity on the part of the performers.

It is in the haka of the Maori that we see, to some extent, mimetic dancing, and, in a few cases, something like pantomimic drama, an illustration of the latter form being the haka described above, wherein the movements of a carpenter, when using different tools, are imitated. Another phase of expression by dancing is seen in the peace dance already referred to, wherein the girl actors beckon their late enemies to approach, thus intimating that strife is past and that there is nothing to fear. It is clear that, in former times, the Maori was much given to expressing his feelings by means of song and dance, and that a close study of both would be of much interest, as illustrating Maori mentality and certain conventional usages. In such an enquiry the more formal dances would probably present the greatest difficulties; page 108 Fig. 24 Two Ornate Balls A Specimen in Auckland Museum Photo by W. R. Reynolds B Specimen in the Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts any form of ceremonial dancing having probably come down from a remote antiquity. In some of these, such as the war dance, women were not allowed in the ranks, though one or more enthusiastic females might prance before the column, indulging in wild grotesque caperings, gestures and facial distortions.

In some districts the new moon was greeted by women with a haka, as also the reappearance, or heliacal rising of such important stars as the Pleiades.

It here becomes necessary to explain the absence of illustrations of the haka poi. Many photographs of this pastime have been taken, and of these at least some should be available, but they are not.

Dancing alone, without some accompanying song, evidently did not appeal to the Maori. Rhythmic movements and sounds he delighted in, and there is little in our modern European dances to attract him. His dancing was conducted largely as an exhibition, sometimes for mere amusement, occasionally for divinatory purposes.

The writer has often been struck with the facility with which natives compose a song and formulate a series of gestures and postures to page 109accompany it, in fact evolve a new haka, and learn to render it correctly in company before a party of visitors. Basil Thomson, in his work on Savage Island, mentions such an instance, when the Niue natives performed a haka before his party:—"It must be confessed that, both in voice and melody they fell far behind the Samoans and the Tongans, but a people who, in a single night, can compose and teach to a chorus of fifty persons, words and music, with the accompanying gestures, is not lightly to be called unmusical." In this work is also found a good account of the haka of the Tonga Group.

In his interesting work Head Hunters: Black, White and Brown, A. C. Haddon describes a performance witnessed at Hood Point, New Guinea, that closely resembles the haka poi of Maoriland. It was performed by girls who manipulated a cord about three feet in length, to the end of which a small netted bag was attached. In this case, however, one end of the cord was attached to the waist belt of the manipulator. States the author:—"They swung it with the right hand, causing it to make a graceful sweep behind the back round to the left side, where it was caught by the left hand. During this manoeuvre the whole body made a half turn. The action was then repeated with the left hand, the tassel being caught with the right hand. Up and down the little damsels walked, well pleased with themselves, and fully conscious that they were the centre of attraction; it was an elegant dance, and really quite charming."

In The Savage South Seas, by Hardy and Elkington, occurs the following description of this poi performance of New Guinea:— "A score of girls … suddenly begin prancing through the village, swinging in their hands a long string at the end of which is a ball. By practised movements they make it curve in grotesque shapes around their bodies, and all the time this is going on they are swinging their skirts backwards and forwards by a peculiar movement of their bodies, from their waists." In these descriptions we have an account of the haka poi of the Maori. I have noted no account of a similar performance in works on the isles of Polynesia, and we have here another of the New Guinea—New Zealand parallels that form an interesting study to the ethnographer.

Illustrations of these posture dances, as described above, should be more numerous, but few photographs were available in the time allowed for preparation of the figures for this paper.