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The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki)

Comparisons with New Zealand. 3

Comparisons with New Zealand. 3

Again, the severer climate of New Zealand effected drastic changes in the material culture of the Maori. The clothing that was quite sufficient and suitable in a tropical climate could not give satisfaction in the colder and wetter conditions of their new home. But this the earlier pioneers had to find out as the result of experience. Besides cultivable food plants, the colonising expedition of 1350 brought the paper mulberry plant under the name of aute; but the aute did not do well. Both it and other local bark substitutes were found unsuitable and were abandoned as clothing. For sentimental reasons, however, the aute was page 100still grown and used in making kites and for other minor purposes. The little bark cloth that was made, was evidently beaten in the Polynesian method, for two four-sided crubs with longitudinal grooves were dredged up from under 6 feet of gravel in the Whangarei Harbour. They were not made of iron wood, but one seemed to be of kauri branch and the other of manuka, both local woods.

On abandoning bark, the Maori found a more suitable substitute in the scutched fibre of the Phormium tenax. In some of the most primitive forms of rain cape, the flax was soaked for days in water to soften the inter-fibrous material, which was then easily scraped off with a shell. As the Aitutaki people first soak their bark, whether for cloth or ropes, in water, it seems reasonable that this was also the earliest stage in the Maori preparation of flax material. Later, as he got to understand his material and know where the most fibre was situated in the leaf, he improved his method to cutting across the back of the leaf, and either pulling the fibre away (takiri) or splitting off the back portion which contained little fibre (haro). The use of shells in the scraping and cleaning of fibre is universal throughout Polynesia.

The four-sided iron wood beater (ike) for felting the bast strips together on a wooden anvil (tutunga) gave way to the smoothly rounded stone beater (patu muka) for beating the flax fibre into softness on a large waterworn stone. But whereas the former was the actual manufacturing process, the latter was merely a stage in the preparation of material.

When the Maori was forced to abandon bast and use fibre he had to find a totally different technique for dealing with his new material. His inspiration could not come from the technique of bark cloth but he had to review the processes used in making clothing other than bark cloth. Judging from Aitutaki as a type of the islands whence he came, the only elements of technique that he could have brought with him were the three-ply braid of the Dracaena leaf kilt band, the attachment of hanging strips to one or two cords stretched between supports, and the single-pair twine of one or two rows in the hibiscus bast kilt.

At first, it is probable that for his hanging strips he used rough strips of flax fibre poorly scutched after soaking in water, such as are still used in the para type of rough rain cape. Later on, for improved cloaks, he subjected page 101the well scutched and pounded fibre to the hiro process of twisting into loose two-ply cords on the bare thigh. The name, however, changed from hiro to miro.

It seems likely also that he originally used the two-cord commencement for attaching his hanging strips, as the method has survived in a tussock rain cape found in a cave in the marginal area of Otago.

With the fibrous strands suspended, it required no great mental effort to continue with the single-pair twining technique, not for one or two rows as in the hibiscus bast kilt, but for as many rows as the type of garment required. Here was a simple technique for providing a close fabric. The cape is a kilt with more rows of single-pair twining and the cloak is a longer continuation of the cape.

It was found that the first twined row or weft line was quite sufficient for suspending the vertical elements. The two-cord commencement, being unnecessary, passed out of fashion in the more progressive technique of the North Island. The ends of the vertical strands were afterwards made into a waist or neck band, which varied in type with the particular garment. The commonest band in a kilt or rain cape is the three-ply braid which finds its prototype in the Dracaena leaf kilt common throughout Polynesia. Owing, however, to the combination with twined rows, the three-ply braid of the Maori garment is an end process.

The Aitutaki woman, in making the hibiscus bast kilt, tied the supporting cords for her commencement between any two supports whether trees, posts or stakes. The kilts were used only for dances and festivals. They did not take long to make once the material was prepared. The Maori woman though she abandoned the two-cord commencement, still had to stretch the two ends of her first twined row between supports in order that she could continue the other twined rows beneath. To her, the weaving of garments was no spasmodic effort, but a regular occupation that had taken the place of the bark cloth beating of the tropics. Each garment required many sittings and weaving took place within the house. Special supports were therefore needed that could be set up and taken down at will. Thus special pointed weaving sticks, with knobbed or carved upper ends, the turuturu, were made and became a necessary part of every woman's equipment.

The method of getting a black dye with mud is interesting owing to its wide distribution. Both the page 102Aitutakian and the Maori soaked their material in a bark infusion. In Aitutaki, the material was afterwards soaked in the mud of a taro swamp whilst, in New Zealand, the soaking took place in any swamp where the mud was particulary black. In the restricted area of Aitutaki, every wet or swampy part is converted into a taro swamp and assisted by irrigation. There are no swamps that are not taro swamps. In New Zealand the taro is grown in dry soil. There are no taro swamps, but plenty of other swamps. Therefore any swamp does that provides mud with an iron salt to combine with the tannic acid from the bark infusion. Tannate of iron is formed, which is the black dye in both cases.

From the simple beginnings we have indicated, was evolved an increasingly improved technique, that in the ramifications of its details became peculiar to New Zealand. Some other elements such as the method of attaching rain tags, may have come over with the simpler technique, but they are certainly not to be found in the Cook Group. Climate did not demand more than was there provided. Necessity forced the Maori to exploit the possibilities of flax fibre, and once he had started with the rudiments of a useful craft, he went on to improve his simple twining stroke to the two-pair interlocking weft, and he introduced various forms of ornamentation. Where his Island kinsmen expended their decorative efforts in dyeing and staining the available bark cloth with various designs, the Maori, using flax fibre, invented or adapted the wrapped twined stroke to taniko work to produce coloured geometric designs in the fabric and so gave expression to his innate artistic sense in the material with which a useful craft provided him.

Of head-dresses, the Maori seems to have forgotten any technique he may have had ere he left Hawaiki. The famed kura head-dress that was cast into the sea when the colonising canoes sighted the red flowers of the pohutukawa, is remembered in song and story, but no description of technique has been handed down. Wreaths, plaited fillet bands and feathers worn in the hair retained the name of pare. The wreath of green leaves became a sign of mourning and was worn only at funerals. The ornamental whalebone comb and individual feathers of the huia, the kotuku and the albatross became the insignia of chieftainship and the elaborate feather head-dresses of Polynesia page 103disappeared. Feather head-dresses on a woven foundation of flax fibre have in recent times been worn by an odd old man at Maori receptions to overseas visitors. These are really inverted feather baskets and are ridiculous from an ethnological point of view.

Sandals were worn in certain districts only. There is no affinity in technique to those of Aitutaki. The Maori, working so much with flax, naturally plaited them in that material with a check or twilled two stroke. The Cordyline australis was also used. A heel loop and side loops were provided and the method of tying with two long cords from the toe end was exactly similar to the Island method. The sandal was called paraerae and the Island name of tamaka was applied to a round cord of four strands corresponding to the taura puna.