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The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki)

Comparisons with New Zealand. 1

Comparisons with New Zealand. 1

Maori mats, whether rough floor mats or finer sleeping mats, come under the general name of whariki—to spread on the ground or floor. Rough mats were made of strips of green flax with the scraped butt ends plaited into a three-ply braid as a commencement. As no detail was obtained about rough floor mats in Aitutaki, comparisons must be confined to the finer sleeping mats, the moenga of the Islands, and the porera, takapau or tienga of New Zealand.

Material. The Maori material was obtained from flax, harakeke, phormium tenax, and kiekie, Freycinetia banksii. Both materials are much harder and stiffer than rauhara. New Zealand mats have not the soft feel of the Island article, but they are much more durable. A softer mat is made in some districts from the dried and flattened stems of the paopao, scirpus lacustris.

Preparation of Material. The green leaves of the flax are split into wefts with the thumb nail and this process is called toetoe. Compare with Aitutaki hitoe. The midrib and edges of the leaf are discarded. A strip of the butt end of the half leaf is left unsplit to connect two or four wefts together. The strips are softened by passing through a flame or subjecting to hot water and then lightly scraped (piahu) with a shell. The scraping removes some of the green colouring matter and renders the strips whiter, softer and more pliable. They are hung up to dry and then bundled for future use. Before using, the bundles are beaten against the ground, or on a stone, to render them softer. The difference in method was necessitated by the nature of the material.

The stiffer and thicker flax, or kiekie, could not very well be done up in tupe rolls for storing. Thus the Maori toetoe process of splitting the leaf into strips came first, instead of last, as in the hitoe method. The Rarotongan method of dyeing the strips black was identical, except, of page 160course, that local barks were used before soaking the material in mud.

Commencement. The Aitutaki hatu rua commencement of crossing the butt strips was known and used in New Zealand. When the butt strips carried only two wefts, the wefts were crossed and the butts lay in one direction as in the hatu tahi method.

Plait Technique. Here a difference existed. The usual Maori plaiting stroke was the twilled two as against the Island check. In some Maori mats in which the alternate wefts are coloured, the check stroke is used. The building up of the side edges and the working in successive depths from left to right are identical. The procedure in plaiting a kovire mat and a Maori takapau is exactly similar. Sections were joined, the side edges were formed as the plaiting proceeded, and the two ends had to be finished off with a special technique.

Side Edges. The piu edge of a double turn to expose the same surface of the wefts was avoided by simply bending the weft inwards at right angles without turning it. The single turn at the side edge of pae bands was used in rough floor mats where the change in colour did not matter.

Sections. As in the case of the pandanus mats, the flaxen or kiekie mats were made in sections owing to the shortness of the material. The raurahanga section was called a whara or papa. As in Aitutaki, the average-sized mat consisted of four sections united by three joins. The Aitutaki phrase expressing this, "E ha raurahanga, e toru hono," corresponds to the Maori, "E wha nga whara, e toru nga hono."

The Join. The join is generally called hono, but in some parts, maurea. A radical difference occurs in technique. The stiffer and thicker flax wefts will not remain secure if they are simply overlapped for a number of strokes. Thus each weft was added separately and secured by doubling back the short ends of the old wefts ere fixing them with crossing wefts. This is done on the true under surface, by turning the mat over. In the join of the Island mat, there is no difference in appearance between the upper and lower surfaces. In the Maori mat, the join shows as a distinct ridge on the under surface of the mat. The ridges are formed by the doubling back of the wefts and the cut off ends of both old and new wefts which are left about 1½ page 161inches long. The ends appear as distinct fringes on the under surface. Both sinistrals and dextrals may be added along the same row of plaiting. This is termed a hono tahi, single join, and appears as one ridge. The dextrals may be added along one row and after they have been secured and the plaiting moved up a short distance, the sinistrals are added in a separate join. This is called a hono rua, double join, and results in two ridges with two sets of fringes.

Finishing the Ends. The taviri finish is used under the names of tapiki, kopetipeti or kapiu. Though slight variations occur, the principle of turning back a dextral and a sinistral along the course of a sinistral and plaiting over them, is the same. The turned back portion is usually much deeper, as many as 16 dextral wefts being used on the working edge, as against the 2 to 8 of Aitutaki. In both cases, the end wefts on the right are plaited into a three-ply braid and knotted.

Decoration. In decoration, there is considerable difference. The Maori did not use overlaid plaiting in his decorative technique. For one thing, there was no local material that could be split as thin as the Island papa to form a suitable material for overlaying. Coloured wefts were used as foundation wefts and the decoration was thus structural ornamentation as against the applied ornamentation of Aitutaki.

The structural function of the coloured wefts altered the site of the decoration. To form marginal bands with structural coloured wefts would have necessitated their being joined on at the commencing edge of the bands with the ridged Maori join. Much extra work would have been entailed and whether the decorative effect would have been worth it is more than doubtful. In any case it would have to be supposed that the Maori was acquainted with the border type of decoration before he would attempt it with an unsuitable technique. It seems more probable, however, that the pae bands of the Cook Islands have been a local development which occurred after the ancestors of the Maori passed through that group.

The Maori plaiter developed the form of decoration best suited to her material and technique. By commencing with an alternating series of coloured foundation wefts she formed coloured panels extending diagonally across each section of the mat. The panels lean to the left, or to page 162the right, according as the coloured wefts were sinistrals or dextrals. On the next section, the coloured wefts were joined by the ordinary technique and another series of panels were produced across the new section. By keeping the coloured elements to wefts running in the same direction and commencing a new set in the spaces between the ends of the panels of the previous section, the pleasing effect of parallel panels was repeated over the surface of the mat. By changing the direction of the coloured wefts on succeeding sections and making the commencement of one panel coincide with the ending of another, broad zig-zag lines were produced. It was just as easy to manipulate coloured dextrals as coloured sinistrals for there was no confusion with overlaid material. Within the panels themselves, various patterns and designs were made by changing the stroke and varying the combination. Most of the older motives of Aitutaki were used but with different names and different combinations but space does not permit of going into in detail.

1 Te Rangi Hiroa, 1923. I.