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The Coming of the Maori

Community Co-operation

Community Co-operation

In Maori communities, mutual help was a fundamental expression of blood kinship as well as human kindness. Only the skilled craftsmen, such as builders, carvers, and tattooers received recompense in food and material goods for their labour. The general tasks requiring a number of people were accomplished by community co-operation without thought of pay.

In the cultivation of the sweet potato, the ground was prepared and the soil loosened at intervals with digging sticks (ko) wielded by men who worked in unison to a kind of drill. Plots termed mara were prepared in this way for each family. Families attended to the heaping up of the mounds in their own plots and the planting of the seed tubers which came from their own supplies. The subsequent weeding and final digging up of the crop was attended to by the owners of the plots, but when one family had completed their work, they helped their neighbours. Later, the Irish potato superseded the sweet potato as the principal crop. I remember when we had but one plough in my own village. That one implement page 376ploughed the ground into plots of equal length and width, and the owners of the plots planted their own seed and attended to the weeding, hoeing, and digging, always receiving assistance from those who were free to help. The land was tribal land, and the plots were designated to the individual families by the older men in authority. The crop was gathered in baskets after being sorted, the smaller tubers being kept for next season's seed. The supply was carted to the village by those in charge of the available carts, but each family attended to the storing of their own crop in their own store pits. There was community co-operation in labour where required, but there was individual ownership of the plots and the resulting crops.

When gatherings took place, the feeding of the assembly was automatically a community undertaking by the whole village. Able-bodied men brought in loads of extra firewood which were stacked by the cooking places of each household. Others brought in bundles of flax which were also distributed to the cooking places for plaiting into the circular receptacles, termed kono, for holding the cooked food. Each household drew the vegetables from their own store pits but the question of the flesh food (kinaki) to go with the vegetables was a more serious problem. If the season was right, men went out fishing and the supply was distributed to the cooking fires. The women of each household collected shell fish and echinoderms, the kind depending on the natural resources of the neighbouring coast. In modern times, pigs were killed and distributed and cattle were bought and butchered to supply any local deficiency in the flesh-food supply. Any bought foods were paid for out of the community chest. With cheerful activity on the part of all, everything was ready by the time the people and the visitors had arrived. Without any fuss or confusion, the various households allocated the various duties. Men chopped the wood and prepared the fires. Women scraped baskets full of potatoes and plaited piles of kono platters. If there were such delicacies as dried fish and preserved pigeons in the storehouses, these were ready to be served for some of the meals.

The preparations for a meal are interesting. This is what I saw in my own village over fifty years ago. A man, who happened to be a Moriori named Mana, had somehow become accepted as the public announcer of the village. He was very capable and when the time approached to commence cooking, he toured the village and saw that all the fires were set for lighting and the vegetables and flesh food at hand. He then stood in the middle of the village and yelled at the top of his voice, "Ka tahu" ("Light up"). The cry was repeated by the nearer fireplaces and spread outwards to each end of the village. The wood was already stacked in the oven pits with the stones arranged above them. The commander of each fire, usually a woman, applied a match, and soon the smoke of the cooking page 377fires arose throughout the village. As the wood burned down, the heated stones fell to the bottom of the shallow pit where they rested on live charcoal. Mana, when he saw that the correct time had elapsed, took up his central position and yelled, "Ka tao" ("Cook"). The assistants at the fires levelled the heated stones into an even bed with a wooden stake, removing any unburnt wood. Water was sprinkled over the stones, and as the steam arose, women poured in the scraped potatoes to above the level of plaited flax bands (paepae) placed around the circumference of the pit, added the fish or meat, sprinkled more water, and quickly covered the mound of food with plaited oven covers (tapora). Then earth was heaped over the covers to seal the oven and prevent the escape of steam. The tao process was under way.

The time allowed for cooking was an hour or more but it was better to be on the sure side, for an uncooked oven of food brought shame to the housewife. Mana was associated with our family, and I have heard him ask the women who presided over our oven, "Kua maoa?" ("Is it cooked?") On receiving an affirmative reply, he took up his position and yelled, "Ka hura" ("Uncover"). The assistants at each oven immediately scraped off the earth and carefully removed the mat covers, taking care not to allow any earth to fall on the food. The women quickly placed the cooked potatoes in the kono containers and put portions of fish or meat on the top of the vegetables. When a sufficient number of kono had been filled, the rest of the food was left in the oven for the workers.

In our village, the meeting-house, with its marae, was set on a rise with an open space extending to the public road in front. The houses stretched away from either side of the middle space. Women and girls, carrying a kono in each hand, assembled at the nearest house on either side of the central space. Mana, on receiving from either side a signal that all were present, yelled his final command, "Ka hari" ("Carry"). The women in two lines then marched slowly in single file towards the marae, the leading women singing songs, joined by the chorus behind them. Every now and then, a short posture dance was performed to enliven the march, there being a number of songs and dances specially composed for processions carrying food. The procession having reached the marae, the food was laid down before the guests who sat in small groups to permit their hosts to serve everyone. The only available liquid in those days was water, and young men acting as waiters stood by with buckets of water and tin pannikins ready to serve those who called, "He wai" ("Water").

Gatherings usually lasted some days, and the feeding of the people went on during the whole time without any trouble. The organization was perfect and there were always people ready to do the work cheerfully. To break the monotony, shell fish, preserved pigeons, or whatever delicacy was available were served on some days. The guests derived pleasure page 378while the hosts acquired prestige. When the guests returned home, the stay-at-homes asked, "He aha nga kai o te hui?" ("What were the foods at the gathering?"). Reputations rose or fell upon the reply. When particular local foods were abundant, guests were given a special distribution to take home. I remember receiving a string of dried clams (pipi) from relatives who had been away to a distant gathering.

We have often been accused of wastefulness in holding such gatherings in modern times, but our critics belong to a culture based on a money economy and they cannot realize that there are emotional values which the individualist cannot feel.