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The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days


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Substitutes for civil law. A form of theocracy. Muru, a peculiar institution. Social classes. Social unit. The family group. Ariki. Primogeniture. Women of rank. Tapairu, kahurangi, and mareikura. Tribal organization. Family life non-existent. Eponymic ancestors. Treatment of slaves. Property. Chieftainship. Personal behaviour. Power of public opinion. Public discussion of tribal, clan, and family affairs. Military duties. Public announcement an important usage. Sense of dignity. Consanguineous nomenclature. Division of labour. Tasks of men. Status of women. Tasks of women. Village life. Social life. Meals. Hospitality. Population. Generation of fire. Cooking. Domestic vessels. Feasts. Customs pertaining to birth. The tohi rite. Betrothal and marriage. The atahu. Customs and beliefs pertaining to death. Lizard connected with death. Maui and Hine. Death-journey food. The tuku wairua ceremony. Ritual pertaining to sickness. Trussed burial. Exhumation. Sand-dune burial. Objects placed with dead. Social pleasures. Lack of furniture. Mannerisms. Attitudes. Gestures. Carriage. Gait. Greetings. Terms of address.

The social customs of the Maori folk were those of a communistic people, and hence may be likened to those of Polynesia generally. Early voyagers to these isles had a remarkably fine opportunity to study the arts, customs, and institutions of a neolithic folk, a people ignorant of the use of metals, a barbaric community possessing many elements of interest. We have seen that the religious ideas and practices of the Maori were in a very interesting stage of development, and their social usages are also worthy of study. The most striking institution in Maoriland was undoubtedly that substitute for civil law that had served its purpose for so many centuries. The means by which law and order are preserved in savage and barbaric communities, wherein such institutions as our civil law and police force are unknown, convey to us some very important page 87 lessons. We see how uncultured man has in the remote past evolved certain restrictive regulations by means of which society was controlled. In conjunction with the communistic spirit and habits of the people, they induced the cohesion and produced the discipline necessary to a condition of welfare. In the foregoing brief account of Maori religion we saw that the institution of tapu occupied a very important place in Maori economy as a substitute for civil law. Inasmuch as the powers of this tapu came from the gods, they alone rendering it effective, it follows that the Maori had evolved a somewhat theocratic form of government. There were, however, other forces that were relied on in domestic government, as public opinion, the influence of chiefs, and such institutions as that of muru. In all communistic societies public opinion is an exceedingly strong force, a corrective and preventive power of great utility. The Maori also showed much respect for chiefs of importance so long as their behaviour met with approval.

The peculiar institution termed muru was of so strange a nature that it calls for some explanation, and a new paragraph. The word muru means “to plunder,” and was applied to an extraordinary custom, the plundering of those who had committed some offence against the community. So far it was a disciplinary measure, the oddness lying in the list of offences. People were subjected to muru plunderings on account of offences committed by others, and in which they had taken no part. This is one of the anomalies of communistic life. Should a man meet with an accident and so incapacitate himself, he was liable to be plundered as a punishment. Such offences as adultery were generally punished by a muru raid, the unjust part of such proceedings, from our point of view, being the fact that innocent and guilty alike suffered in many cases. It is almost impossible for us to conceive or to bear in mind the point of view of such peoples. To them the individual is as nothing—he does not exist, as it were, as an individual, but only as a part of the group or clan. When any trouble or danger threatened a Maori community its ranks closed up at once and it presented a united front. To assail one was to assail the lot. On the other hand, as a member of the tribe he has no status as an individual under certain circumstances, and he has no right to deprive the community of his services by meeting with an accident.

If you ask a Maori to define the classes of native social life in former times he will specify three such ranks: (1) The chief; (2) the common folk; (3) the slaves. page 88 By making further inquiries we find great difficulty in locating the ware class, or commoners. No one will admit that he is a ware, and, indeed, most can prove that they are closely related to some family of rank. When a family occupies a lowly position it may often be noted that such position has originated in some circumstance that cast it under a cloud for a generation, or perhaps longer. All families can show their connection with people of standing, even though they do not themselves occupy a position of any influence. The descendants of younger sons sometimes hold an inferior position, but in other cases a younger son may, by personal merit or ability, obtain a very important standing.

The rangatira, or chieftain class, embraces not only all the head people of tribe and subtribe, but also all persons of good birth, and it is difficult to determine who are to be excluded and relegated to the common, or ware, class. It would not be far out to say that every freeman considered himself a rangatira. The real gulf lay between the freeman and the slave. An examination of the social organization of the Maori shows us that the smallest cohesive and self-contained group was that termed by anthropologists the extended family, or family group. This was the real social unit, not the true family, and this family group is termed a whanau. It extended to about four generations from the common ancestor—the primal pair—after which its title and status would be altered to that of a hapu, or clan. Now, the principal man of a whanau would assuredly consider himself a rangatira, and every other person of the group being a near blood relative of his would also claim to be of the rangatira class. Hence we see that the class-name means little more than “freeman.” The terms ware and tutua, denoting low-born persons, never apply to oneself, but only to the other fellow.

Seeing that the title of rangatira had such a wide range of application, it was necessary to have some term by which to describe a superior or head chief. Hence the name of ariki was frequently heard as applied to such a man, though perhaps its original meaning was “first-born” of a family of rank. Much stress was laid on primogeniture by the Maori, and he ever respected rank and birth so long as the individual was worthy of such respect. But should the eldest son of a tribal or clan headman prove to be unworthy of such a position, then he might be passed over by the people, who would place some more desirable person in the position, probably a younger brother of the page 89 deposed one. Primogeniture certainly endowed a chieftain, however, with additional prestige and influence.

Other terms were employed to denote a high chief, some, no doubt, representing local usages. In regard to women, the title of tapairu was applied to the first-born female of a superior family. In the Kahungunu district the term mariekura was applied to a woman of the highest rank, and kahurangi to one of somewhat inferior rank.

The tribal organization of the Maori included three different groups—the tribe (iwi), the clan (hapu), and the family group (whanau). True family life, as we know it, did not exist among the Maori. The clan or subtribe was composed of a number of family groups, and the sum of the clans (hapu) formed the tribe. Each family group had the right to use certain lands, fish certain waters, &c., so that clan and tribal boundaries were well known.

Many tribes and clans were named after their respective eponymic ancestors. European writers disbelieve that such ancestors are genuine, but so far as the Maori is concerned they are so. These natives were very particular in such matters: no outsider could become a member of the tribe, though he married into it and lived with it until his death; his children would be tribal members in virtue of their mother's standing. There is no doubt in my mind that all members of a Maori tribe were not only blood relatives, but were also descended from a common ancestor. Why should it be otherwise, when we know how a whanau originates and develops into a clan, and how no outsider can become a true member?

The status of a slave was a somewhat peculiar one from our point of view. Although he was ever liable to be knocked on the head and consigned to the oven when food-supplies ran short, yet otherwise he was not badly treated. In many cases slaves married members of their masters' tribes, and in such cases their children were not only free but also tribal members. Occasionally slaves were employed as a medium of exchange, and southern natives have been known to give as many as ten slaves for a musket when purchasing from northern tribes. We are told of cases in which slaves have risen to hold important positions in the tribe. These slaves were captives taken in war.

Apart from his interests in certain lands, which were inalienable, the Maori possessed but little property, and his personal property was pretty well confined to his few garments and weapons. Dwelling-huts contained no page 90 furniture, and even bedclothes were almost unknown, though a special large-sized rug of Phormium fibre was sometimes kept for this purpose. Otherwise people used the same garments day and night.

The condition of tapu pertaining to a superior chief would have considerable effect in producing a feeling of deference and respect toward him. If his character and actions met with general approval he would acquire much influence over the people. From other points of view, however, the Maori was given to independence and democratic usages. The people would obey an order from a chief so long as they approved of such order and the man who gave it. Also, they were not backward in letting him know what they expected from him in the way of consideration. Intercourse between folk of the rangatira class was marked by a good deal of punctiliousness and etiquette, more especially during any function, social or political. Contrary to an impression that obtains somewhat widely, there is a considerable amount of politeness practised by barbaric peoples such as the Maori. A persistently boorish element noticeable in our modern civilized communities is lacking among folk of lower culture grades; it would be impossible in the face of public opinion. We are quite unable to conceive the force of public opinion in a communistic society; it has a crushing effect on the recalcitrant. In the Maori community the powers of public opinion were remarkable, and had no small effect in the preservation of law and order.

A marked feature of the social life of the people was that of public discussion of all proposals and activities. The family groups discussed in common all matters pertaining to the group, even matters that with us are controlled by the restricted or true family only, such as marriage. All these family groups would also attend meetings of the clan and discuss and arrange matters concerning that body. Again, all the clans would assemble to discuss tribal affairs. All matters were thus openly discussed. Influential chiefs even did not arbitrarily order the people to adopt any course of action; the people would have objected to such a procedure. They would propose a certain line of action and the people would discuss it. Some might approve of it and follow him, while others might refuse to do so, in which case he had no power to coerce them. He could call on no force, military or civil, to carry out harsh decrees affecting the people. The military force was a volunteer one, but always in training page 91 and always ready to lift the war-trail at an hour's notice. But if it did not approve of a proposed campaign it simply declined to march. With all the Maori's respect for rank he was extremely independent, also in many ways democratic. Another usage was that any statement made before the assembled people was recognized by all to be of a permanent and binding nature; such a public announcement took the place of written agreements, wills, &c.

The Maori possessed a marked sense of dignity, this being more noted among the families of superior rank. It was not infrequently carried to unpleasant extremes, which resulted in a “touchy” disposition. This, added to the petty jealousies that often existed between different chiefs, led to certain habits and weaknesses that showed a lack of self-discipline. Perhaps the Maori sense of dignity was seen to its greatest advantage at the clan or tribal assemblies, whereat speech-making was much indulged in. These social meetings were much appreciated by all, for at them folk from scattered villages met; they introduced a form of change into somewhat monotonous lives. Matters of general interest were here discussed—anything affecting the welfare of the tribe—though the main object of the assembly may have been the opening of a new house, the launching of a new war-canoe, the funeral ceremonies of a person of rank, or an exhumation of bones of the dead.

As a result of the communistic habits of the Maori, his consanguineous nomenclature differed from our own. Thus the ordinary terms for “father” and “mother” (papa and whaea) are also used to denote the brothers and sisters of parents. There do exist names that are applied to true parents only (viz., papara and kokara), but they are not often heard, especially the former. A native will often explain that he is using the term papa as meaning his real father: “Toku papa nana nei ahau” (“My papa, he who begat me”). The terms tuahine (sister) and tungane (brother) are employed in the same loose manner, while those denoting an elder brother or sister (tuakana) and a younger brother or sister (taina) were carried still further and applied to other branches of the family. Maori nomenclature, in its different departments, is a subject on which much might be written.

There was a certain amount of division of labour among the natives, principally as relating to the two sexes, but there was also a little specializing done. For instance, certain men would excel in certain industries—house-building, page 92 carving, canoe-making, the manufacture of stone implements, &c.—thus by common approval they would largely confine themselves to such tasks. Men, women, and even children worked together in some cases, as in clearing a piece of land for cultivation. Men alone worked at any task into which the element of tapu entered, as house-building, canoe-making, crop-planting, &c. A considerable amount of their time was taken up by fishing and obtaining other food-supplies. The procuring of fern-root for daily use, the seasonal tasks of bird taking and preserving, the snaring of rats, the collection of berries and their preparation, all occupied much time. Again, the manufacture of implements was a ceaseless task, so tedious were the processes employed, owing to the lack of metal tools. Among folk who lived on the coast-line men passed much time in sea fishing, and in many cases those who lived some distance inland made occasional trips to the coast, where for a period they occupied their time in fishing.

The status of women among the natives was a fairly favourable one, but they were expected to do far too much heavy work, such as the carrying of extremely heavy burdens. They not only attended to all such domestic work as the preparation and cooking of food, but also performed no small share of the work involved in the procuring of food-supplies. Thus they assisted in certain labours connected with crops; they always procured the shell-fish, though sea fishing was done by men. Women joined in the task of procuring berries and edible roots, and sometimes assisted in bird-snaring operations. They also had other tasks that were confined to women, such as weaving. This industry, although a light one, was exceedingly tedious work, the preparation of the fibre and the actual weaving being slow processes. The manufacture of a superior cape or cloak demanded months of patient work. Women were also exceedingly deft in plaiting baskets and floor-mats. Small, quickly made open baskets were used as dishes to contain food, fresh ones being made for each meal; thus the native woman escaped one harassing task that darkens the lives of our women folk—she never knew the horrors of washing up.

The peculiar communal system under which the native lived prevented the development of true family life, of home life to which we are accustomed. The privacy of the house that we prize so highly was unknown in Maoriland, and, never having known or conceived such a domestic life, presumably the Maori did not miss it.

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As in most other barbaric lands, we find that women were looked upon here as being inferior to man. At the same time, a woman endowed with initiative could acquire influence, and some of superior families have attained commanding positions. Children possessed an interest in land derived from both parents, so that added somewhat of dignity to the position of the woman. Rank also was transmitted through both parents, and consanguineous relationship counted through both. On the whole, the Maori leaned to agnatic filiation; the male sex possesses greater mana than does the female, for is not man descended directly from the gods, while woman had to be created from earth!

The Maori ever dwelt in villages, fortified or otherwise, and fully appreciated social pleasures; the joys of solitude appealed not to him. Industry was forced upon him and kept him in good health. At night the people loved to assemble in one of the larger huts and there pass the evening in conversation, story-telling, and amusements. Fires in small pits sunk in the earthen floor of a hut were used in winter for both warmth and light. Always was the Maori an early riser, and he liked to commence his daily labour at an early hour, though he did not work late into the evening. Two meals a day sufficed him, and meals were always taken in the open air. Natives had strong prejudices against partaking of food in a dwelling-hut. Early travellers were often surprised and annoyed by such superstitious observances. Women would take their meals apart; they, being denizens of cooking-sheds, were void of tapu.

As is usual among folk occupying the culture stage of the Maori, hospitality and generosity were considered to be two of the highest virtues. As it was impossible for a person to accumulate property under such social conditions, then he might as well be generous. All this display of hospitality and altruistic talk so much heard among the natives is rather marred by the petty jealousies and backbitings that are soon found below the surface when one abides among these children of nature.

There was evidently a certain amount of difference in the general culture and conditions of life of different districts, and the east coast of the North Island appears to have occupied about the most advanced position. Cook noted the superiority of the natives of that district over those of the Bay of Islands and the South Island. Their garments and dwellings seem to have been superior, as also their practice of the arts, as those of weaving, &c. In the page 94 preservation of traditionary lore they also seem to have excelled, for the best series of traditions collected by White and others are of Takitumu origin—that is to say, of the east coast. Some districts were markedly backward, and in some regions agriculture could not be practised, the climate being too cold for the subtropical products brought from Polynesia. Thus the population was in some places sparse and much scattered, while in other places, favoured with fertile soil and mild climate, a large number of people must have lived. In such districts as the Auckland Isthmus a great area must have been under crop to support the number of natives it would take to occupy such a village site as One Tree Hill. It must have taken five or six thousand people to occupy the residential terraces of that much-scarped hill, and there are many other such places within sight of it.

Fig. 24.—Fire-generating implements

Fig. 24.—Fire-generating implements

We are much struck by the crudeness and primitive aspect of certain Maori implements and processes. Thus, we find that his so-called weaving is naught but a method of plaiting, and no true weaving. It is the “tied cloth” of anthropologists. We see that his mode of generating fire was a very primitive one, the rubbing of a small piece of wood in a groove formed in another piece, the “fire-plough” of the Pacific area.

The most favoured mode of cooking among the natives was the earth-oven, or steam-oven, in which food was cooked on heated stones in small pits excavated in the earth. A fire was kindled in the pit and dry fuel piled on. Stones were placed on the top of the fuel, and, when the fire had burned down, green leaves, branchlets, &c., were placed in the hot stones. On this bed the food was placed; then a covering of more leaves placed over it, and water sprinkled over all. Some flax mats were then used to cover the oven, and earth was heaped over the mats until the steam was confined. In about one and a page 95 page 96 half to two hours an ordinary meal would be cooked, and an excellent method of cooking it is.

Fig. 25.—Fire-generation

Fig. 25.—Fire-generation

As the Polynesians never acquired the art of pottery-making, the Maori housewife was compelled to use vessels of wood, gourds, bark, and plaited baskets. True boiling was impossible, but a crude, incomplete form of stone boiling was occasionally practised. Gourd water-vessels were in common use, and bowls were made by cutting gourds in half, while others were laboriously hewn out of blocks of wood. A few stone bowls were fashioned. Few peoples were so poorly provided with domestic vessels as the Maori, but apparently the housewives were satisfied with the few utensils they had. A flake of obsidian or other stone served as a knife; a shell served as a fish-scaler, while the ever-present basket served as dish and plate. Cooking was often done out-of-doors, but oven-pits within sheds served on wet days. Those cooking-sheds were rude, comfortless erections; indeed, it must be said that the Maori never utilized his intelligence in the way of promoting his comfort. The ordinary dwelling-hut presented a cheerless interior, and the lot of woman was but a poor one from our point of view.

Fig. 26.—The umu, or steaming-pit. Fuel stacked over pit; stones piled on fuel; ready for kindling

Fig. 26.—The umu, or steaming-pit. Fuel stacked over pit; stones piled on fuel; ready for kindling

The native character is an interesting study, and presents to our view curious contradictory aspects. Thus the people spent much of their time in collecting and page 97 page 98 page 99 preserving food-supplies for future use, such as cultivated products, dried fish and shell-fish, preserved rats and birds, berries and roots, &c. At such tasks they wrought with much diligence; and yet in other ways they were most improvident. They were wont to waste their substance in giving great feasts to which all were invited from far and near. These hakari, as they were termed, were often but the result of an ostentatious desire to excel the efforts of some other clan or tribe. The question of an equivalent was always to the fore in the Maori mind; and whether it was a question of a gift made by a private individual, or a feast provided by the efforts of a thousand clansmen, always there was present the expectation of a return gift or feast. At some of these feasts enormous quantities of food were consumed, and in late times some curious features were introduced. Thus at one given by Poverty Bay natives the dining-room was a temporary structure of great length, and covered in with new blankets, all of which were presented to the guests. Another favoured novelty was the giving-away of money to the guests in the form of £1 and £5 notes, the same being inserted in cleft sticks standing amid the piles of food presented.

Fig. 27.—A hakari stage. (After Thompson.)

Fig. 27.—A hakari stage. (After Thompson.)

Fig. 28.—A hakari stage. (After Yate.)

Fig. 28.—A hakari stage. (After Yate.)