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The Coming of the Maori

The ohu Custom

The ohu Custom

Co-operation in labour took the form of working bees, termed ohu, which were frequently organized for clearing bush land for cultivations. Sometimes they were arranged to promote social intercourse between two tribes. The tribe owning the land sent out an invitation to another tribe to clear the land for them. The home tribe provided the food and entertainment and the visiting ohu put forth their best efforts to gain the approval of their hosts. Such exchanges gave pleasure to both sides and served to maintain friendship between the two tribes.

A curious story is connected with the visit of a Ngati Tama ohu to clear some land for a Taranaki tribe south of the present New Plymouth. The ohu speedily completed its task with a large stone adze named Poutamawhiria, to which a certain amount of magic power was ascribed. The working party had been fed with choice mussels from a local reef. They were so good that the Ngati Tama priest with the ohu decided to steal a portion of the reef. He waded out secretly to the reef, cut off its northern end with the adze, Poutamawhiria, and by means of magic incantations, floated it back to his own territory, where it is now fixed in the sea as the mussel-bearing reef named Paroa. However, Poutamawhiria marked its disapproval of the theft by allowing a chip to break off from one corner of its cutting edge. Generations later the adze disappeared, but a description of it was handed down orally. It was of very black polished stone about 16 inches in length, and it had a chip off one corner of its cutting edge. One night a young girl of the Ngati Tama dreamt that Poutamawhiria had been found at the neighbouring village of Pukearuhe by a European farmer named Black. The girl was so insistent that her father, Te Kapinga, visited Mr Black's home, where, to his intense surprise, Mrs Black produced a large stone adze which her husband had found recently. It was of polished black basalt, the right length, and it had a chip off one corner of the cutting edge. Mr Black arrived and, after hearing the story, very generously gave it to Te Kapinga as the representative of the rightful heirs. The Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga tribes held a meeting at which

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Poutamawhiria was laid in state on a flaxen robe on the marae, and the people greeted its return with a welcome of tears. The finder was publicly thanked and given a suitable present. Later, on a visit, I was shown Poutamawhiria. I looked doubtingly, perhaps, at Te Kapinga, as I felt the chipped corner. "Well," he replied, "If you examine the Taranaki reef, you will see that its northern end is cut off clean and if you examine the Paroa reef you will find that its southern end is cut off clean. Now if you were to bring the two reefs together, you would find that the two cut ends would fit perfectly." Who am I to gainsay such proof?

The system of the ohu co-operative labour prevailed throughout Polynesia. The spirit of the ohu exists among the Maori to-day but the shift to a money economy and the changes in food and occupation render it difficult to recapture the full atmosphere of the past.