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The Coming of the Maori

Attributes of Chieftainship

Attributes of Chieftainship

The ariki chiefs, by reason of their exalted birth, were imbued with the two inherited attributes of mana and tapu. These attributes have a variety page 346of meanings, depending upon whether they are applied to human beings or to inanimate objects. The mana of a chief carries the meaning of power and prestige. The first-born son inherited the power to rule and direct his tribe, but this mana lay dormant within him, so to speak, until it was given active expression on his father's death or his retirement through age or some other disability. He also inherited the prestige of his position, and the greater the prestige acquired by the family and the tribe, the greater the mana that was inherited. Besides the inherited mana, a new ariki could acquire additional mana by the wise administration of his tribe at home and by the successful conduct of military campaigns abroad. Even though tribal successes might be primarily due to good advisers, sub-tribal leaders, and noted warriors, the prestige acquired by the tribe was concentrated on the ariki as the figurehead or human symbol of the tribe. On the other hand, poor administration and defeats in war might lead to loss of power and prestige. The mana of a chief was integrated with the strength of the tribe. It was not a mysterious, indefinable quality flowing from super-natural sources; it was basically the result of successive and successful human achievements.

The power which a high chief had over his tribe is perhaps best illustrated by an example of the control which was sometimes exercised in the heat of battle. The warrior chief, Uerata, of the fighting Ngati Tama of North Taranaki once attacked the many-tiered fort of an enemy. He carried terrace after terrace until only the topmost tier remained, and then he rested his men before the final assault. But the chief of the defenders knew that one of his ancestors had come from a leading family of the Ngati Tama, and in this knowledge there was an inkling of hope that he and his surviving tribesmen might be saved from annihilation. He stood on the topmost parapet and called down for the leader of the war-party. Uerata rose with spear in hand and gazed upwards. The desperate chief voiced his petition, "O Uerata, what token from the past have you for me?" Uerata recognized the claim, raised his spear horizontally above his head with both hands, and then deliberately broke it across his knee. Without a word, he turned his back and walked down the slope on his homeward way with his warriors following quietly behind him. It was a grandstand play, but only a chief with great mana could have accomplished it. Incidentally, this act of chivalry added more to Uerata's prestige mana than he would have gained had he exterminated the garrison.

The tapu of a chief is difficult to define, but it is probably best regarded as a form of personal sanctity. The arikiinherited it through his senior lineage (aho ariki), and he inherited the tapu observances which his family had created in previous generations. His people treated him with a respect which sometimes amounted to awe and dread. The term for page 347dread is wehi and high chiefs were sometimes welcomed with the greeting, "Haere mai te mana, haere mai te tapu, haere mai te wehi" (Welcome to power, welcome to sanctity, welcome to dread). With this reverence, as distinct from worship, there was a feeling of satisfaction and pride in having a person of such distinction as the head of the tribe. Some authorities have stated that the tapu of the ariki was intensified by the fact that the senior line was descended more directly from the gods, but I doubt that the people needed to think back as far as that. It is true, however, that the ariki had to perform certain priestly functions which could not be conducted by the professional priests. An example is afforded by the ritual feast which followed the exhumation of the bones of the dead in the North Auckland area. A special oven of food was ceremonially restricted (tapu) for the ariki, and only he could open the ritual feast by partaking of the food cooked in the special oven. The whole exhumation procedure was saturated with tapu, and unless the direct representative of the line-age, senior to all who were present, opened the ritual feast by partaking of his restricted oven, the ceremony could not be carried out. Thus in the North Auckland area, the ariki had to attend all exhumation ceremonies in his priestly capacity.

The tapu of a high chief's person was particularly concentrated in his head. His hair cuttings had to be safely disposed of so that no harm could come to others. If his lips touched a calabash when he drank water, the vessel could not be used by others. Hence the economical procedure was adopted of pouring water into the chief's cupped hands in order to save the calabash. It is amusing to think back on the story of the wrath of a white woman whose cup was deliberately broken by the chief who had drunk from it. He had merely taken the only step which would prevent disaster from overtaking those of her family who would subsequently drink from the vessel. The head tapu could also be conveyed to ground where the head had rested in sleep. Hence a high chief was sometimes asked by his host before leaving not to leave anything behind. The chief touched with his hand the spot where his head had rested during the night and, raising the hand to his nose, inhaled his tapu back into himself. A similar procedure occurred in the Tongan moemoei obeisance rendered to the Tui-tonga high chiefs. People entering the house where the Tui-tonga was seated, made obeisance to him by touching the soles of his feet with the backs of their hands. On retiring, they performed a similar act and thus returned the tapu which they had received on first contact. Should the Tui-tonga be engaged when they left, the second obeisance was made to a wooden bowl placed outside as a receiving proxy for the Tui-tonga. Contact with tapu was equivalent to a psychological infection which resulted in physical symptoms usually followed by death.

Statements have been made in the literature that a chiefs head must page 348not be touched because it is the seat of the soul. This may be an impression gathered-in Melanesia and Micronesia, but it certainly is not true of Polynesia. Among the Maori, there are a number of words—such as mauri, hau, and manawa-ora—which refer in some way to the vital principle, or essence, within man, but these are evidently extinguished when life becomes extinct. However, the wairua leaves the body after death, and it is apparently the nearest to the "soul" of the higher cultures. The wairua apparently occupies the whole body during life and it can no more be corralled into an organ or specific part of the human body than can the soul of civilized man.

Personal tapu was sometimes intensified to such a degree that the ground which the ariki walked upon was rendered tapu and thus prohibited from use by its owners. The proper prophylaxis was to keep the chief's feet off the ground by carrying him during passage over other people's property. This occurred but rarely in New Zealand, but more instances are recorded in Tahitian traditions. The personal tapu of chiefs also extended to their personal property, particularly to articles, such as clothing and ornaments, which came in contact with the body. In this form, tapu was a useful safeguard in protecting property from promiscuous borrowing.

Special forms of obeisance towards tapu chiefs were observed in some parts of Polynesia. In Tahiti, the people promptly sat down on the ground and bared the upper part of the body when the [unclear: ari'i] passed by. In Hawaii, there were two forms of obeisance, termed the sitting tapu (kapu noho) and the prostration tapu (kapu moe), which were rendered to chiefs who derived the most intense form of tapu as the results of close inbreeding. The prostration tapu was given to chiefs whose parents were full brother and sister, the sitting tapu, to offsprings of marriages a little more removed, such as between a half-brother and half-sister. The excuse for these consanguineous marriages was that there was no one outside the family of sufficiently high rank to mate with, and what would have been regarded as incest by others was glossed over by conferring upon the progeny an extra allowance of tapu. Chiefs who were given the prostration obeisance were regarded as divine (akua), and as their presence among the people in the daytime would disrupt their labours, they usually confined their walks to the night time. The Tongan moemoei obeisance has been referred to. Among the Maori, their respect for their chiefs and ariki was not less than in other parts of Polynesia, but they never approached the stage of servility indicated by elaborate forms of obeisance.

The very ancient institution of tapu accompanied the early voyagers into Polynesia. In the course of time, degrees of intensity and extra observances were added to the nuclear concept. Distinct variations were developed in different island groups by chiefly and priestly families to add page 349to their social prestige and power. Thus tapu observances might vary even between different families in the same tribe. In my mother's lineage, the general prohibition against eating food in a sleeping-house was extended to not giving a child the breast within a sleeping or assembly house. If the child cried for the breast, the mother went outside to feed it. Any inconvenience caused by tapu observances were more than compensated by the prestige they gave the family.

As junior families merged into commoners, they lost their tapu. But in observing the tapu prohibitions of their chiefs and priests, they incorporated some of these observances in the social etiquette which functioned among themselves. In serving a chief with food, it must not be passed over his tapu head, and the absent-minded person guilty of such a lapse was punished either directly or by the unseen agencies which guarded the chief's tapu. It is conceivable, therefore, that the fear of the consequences attending such an act led to its general avoidance in serving or passing food even among commoners. Though the commoner's head had no chiefly tapu, the act of passing food over a head created an uncomfortable feeling and constituted a breach of social etiquette. It became bad manners, and a vague spirit punishment was replaced by the condemnation of public opinion. Hence some social observances, particularly with regard to food, originated from tapu sanctions, for, after all, the social etiquette of any people consists primarily of a series of "don'ts". Even in modern times, vessels used with food must not be used for washing clothes or vice versa even if they are disinfected with boiling water. Boiling water may kill microbes but it will not wash away mental associations.