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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Stilt Walking

page 145

Stilt Walking

Stilts are known to the Maori as pou turu, pou toti, pou koki and tokorangi (or pou toko-rangi). The Rev. R. Taylor has recorded the name of ara poraka, which is presumably a modern name, the word poraka being the Maori pronunciation of 'frog.' In his work Te Ika a Maui, however, the above writer employs a genuine name:— "There was also the turu-pepeke, or tumbling head over heels, walking with pou turu or stilts, the rourou [? ruru], a game played with stones in the hands; the kai is a puzzle to undo a knot, or find out a riddle."

In some cases the footrests of stilts were simply the fork of a branch, the pole used being often a sapling of mako (Syn. Makomako. Aristotelia racemosa), an extremely light wood when dry, in others the footrest was a separate piece lashed on to a pole shaft. Stilts were termed pou koki among the Ngati-Porou folk, and were made by lashing a short piece of wood across the pole to serve as a foot-rest (teka). Then a short piece of cord was tied by one end to the outer end of the teka and by the other to the shaft or pole (pou) a foot or so above, so as to act as a support. Thus, when the foot of the stilt walker was on the rest, it was inside the supporting cord. In some cases adepts placed the foot rests four or five feet up the shaft. Youths and young men engaged in this practise, as well as children. Stilt races were indulged in, as also wrestling on stilts, the latter exercise resulting, as may well be imagined, in many falls. Another pastime was the crossing of rivers, streams, or pools on stilts, an exercise that resulted in many falls, to the delight of the onlookers. In some places wading in the sea on stilts was practised.

In Fig. 38 (p. 146) we have in A an ex-member of the Maori Pioneer Battalion, one Apera-hama posing for the camera man, while B shows a pair of stilts made by an East Coast native.

Stilt walking was apparently practised throughout Polynesia, but is noticed very briefly by writers, with the exception of Porter. Ellis dismisses Tahitian stilt walking with the following brief note:— "Walking on stilts was also a favourite amusement with the youth of both sexes. The stilts were formed by nature, and generally consisted of the straight branches of a tree, with a smaller branch projecting on one side. Their naked feet were placed on this short branch, and thus, elevated about three feet from the ground, they pursued their pastime."

In his Journal of a Cruise to the Pacific Ocean (1812-1814) Captain Porter gives a detailed account of the stilts used by the natives of the Marquesas:—"Each stilt is composed of two pieces; the one, of page 146 hard wood, and of a single piece, may be called the step; the other is a pole of light wood, more or less according to the stature of the person who is to make use of it. The step is eleven or twelve inches in length, an inch and a half in thickness; and its breadth, which is four inches at the top, is reduced to half an inch at the bottom. The hind part is hollowed out like a gutter or scupper, in order to be applied against the pole, as a check or fish is, in sea terms, applied against a mast; and it is fastened to the pole at the height required, by lashing. The upper lashing passes through an oblong hole pierced in the thickness of the step; and the lower one embraces, with several turns, the thin part, and confines it against the pole. The projecting part, which I should call the clog, and on which the foot Fig. 38 Maori Stilts. See p. 145 Dominion Museum Photos page 147 is to rest crosswise, bends upwards as it branches from the pole: this clog is an inch and a half in thickness; and its shape is nearly that of the prow of a ship, or of a rostrum … The clog is supported by the bust of a human figure, in the attitude of a Cariatides, wrought in a grotesque manner, which greatly resembles a support of the Egyptian kind. It has below it a second figure of the same kind, but smaller, the head of which is placed below the breasts of the larger one; the hands of the latter are placed flat on the stomach, and its body is terminated by a long sheath, in order to form the lower and pointed part of the step. The arms, as well as the other parts of the body of the two figures, are angularly striated, like the upper face of the clog. The natives make a very dexterous use of their stilts, and would, in a race, dispute the palm with our most experienced herdsmen in stalking with their's over the heath of Bordeaux." This writer mentions that stilt walking entered into the games of the people. Illustrations given in the above work show steps of precisely similar form to those from the Marquesas now in the Dominion Museum. On the body of one of the carved human figures the representation of a lizard, in relief, is seen, a creature much dreaded by the Marquesans.

I will now describe the detachable footrests for stilts from the Marquesas referred to above. These carefully formed and carved rests must have been attached to the shafts in the same manner as was adopted by the Maori in securing a footrest to his ko or digging implement, namely by lashing. The faces that would come into contact with the shaft are concave, evidently so formed in order to fit round poles. These straight faces are ten inches in length and 1¾ in. wide. The outer, upstanding part of the implement projects 3¼ in. above the tread. The straight part or shank of the rest is not adorned with any pattern, its surface being rough, as though it had been chipped with an extremely blunt tool. The projecting rest, above and below, as also the body of the figure supporting it, are adorned with a simple design, small parallel grooves about ten to the inch. These grooves form straight lines in nearly all cases, a few curved lines appear on the upper surfaces of the projecting parts. These small grooves or channels scarcely seem to have been cut out, rather do they bear the appearance of having once been formed by a rubbing or scoring process, possibly by means of stone rubber. The whole step has been cut out of the solid, including the supporting figure, a grotesque representation of the human form. This description is of little service without an illustration, but unfortunately the footrests seem to have been mislaid since I wrote the description eight years ago. [They are in the Museum's collections Fe. 321.]