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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


The Maori, living as he did in such intimate touch with his Mother-earth and the forest, had careful respect for the spirits of the wild, and his mind was saturated with the magic and mystery of the bush. The forest was his home, refuge, and defence; from it he drew much of his means of life. He was prone to invest the Tree with human attributes. The Mountain, the Rock, he clothed with poetic legend and with lore of tapu.

A feature of the old Maori's reverence for the sylvan deities, whose material frame is the spreading forest-tree, is their habit of referring to the trees as their ancestors. Some genealogical tables trace a chief's pedigree away back into the dim past until it comes to what was regarded as the root of all things—the tree.

Tane-Mahuia, the ancient Maori god of the trees, is in fact, the personification of the trees of the forest and of the birds which have their homes therein. Tane's limbs were the trees; it was with these great forest-pillars that he propped up the leaning sky. The ancient classical name for the dense forest was “Te Wao-nui-a-Tane” (“the great forest of Tane”).

The olden Maori would not lightly lay hands on those noble children of Tane, towering so far above him. The affectionate strain in which Tennyson sang of his “Talking Oak” that “circled in its grain five hundred rings of years” was merged in the Maori mind in the deeper mystic feeling of awe and dread of the consequences of offending or in any way meddling with the life and sanctity of his spirit-tree.

page 168

All through native districts, in fact, one comes across instances of this tree-veneration, sometimes in stories, sometimes merely hints or stray allusion, William Cullen Bryant and Longfellow could have well appreciated this aspect of the Maori nature worship. Bryant, in one of his poems, expressed just the idea of a Polynesian when he speaks of strange shudderings that run through the tree's fibres when the axe is raised against it, and of the faint, dream-like, yet real existence beneath its thick, rough bark.

The most ancient story pertaining to any of our trees is the legend of the origin of fire. The kaikomako tree, which usually is not more than thirty feet in height, is a famous tree and a most important one, for it was the principal wood from which the Maori obtained fire by friction before the pakeha came with his flints and steel, and later with his phosphorus matches. In mythology Mahuika, the Polynesian Pluto, who had fire in all his fingers and toes, was wheedled out of most of his wonderful fiery sparks by the demi-god Maui. To save what was left, it was thrown into the woods, and it entered into the kaikomako, the mahoe, and the totara, and it is these trees, but more particularly the kaikomako, that preserve to this day the hidden flames of Mahuika, and from which the God of Fire may be coaxed again for the use of man.

The centuries-old methods of spearing and snaring the forest birds are illustrated in some curious primitive paintings in the large carved meeting-house “Te Whai-a-te-motu,” at Mataatus, in the heart of the Urewera Country. On the broad tawa rafters there are paintings in black and white, representing rata, maire, toromiro, papauma, and other trees, with quaintly-figured hunters of old in the act of killing with their long spears the koko page 169 (tui), kuku (pigeon), and kaka (parrot), which were such an important item of food in this region. On one rafter is a picture intended to represent the famous ancestor Toi, standing beside a mamaku fern-tree. The pith and tender shoots of the mamaku, and other forest products, were Toi's food, say the local Maori in explanation of the picture, hence his name, Toi-kai-rakau (Toi-the-eater of forest foods). On other rafters you see pigeons flying from tree to tree, and resting on the branches of the toromiro tree, on the berries of which they feed; a papauma tree with koko-birds in its leafy boughs; and rata with famed chiefs of old, Te
Tukukino, a warrior of the olden type; Ngati-Tamatera tribe, Ohinemuri. In his right ear he is wearing an unusual ornament, the skin and beak of the female huia bird. [From a painting by G. Lindauer

Tukukino, a warrior of the olden type; Ngati-Tamatera tribe, Ohinemuri. In his right ear he is wearing an unusual ornament, the skin and beak of the female huia bird.
[From a painting by G. Lindauer

page 170 Umu-ariki and Te Kurapa, perched in the branches with their bird-spears awaiting the approach of some unsuspecting “flapping child of Tane.”

The long, slender limber spears used in killing the pigeon and the tui were still in use in the Urewera Country when I first visited that mountain region, and they were also used until recent times in the remote parts of West Taupo, where the Tuhua Ranges and other mountains were renowned for the abundance of bird life.

In making the bird spears, the pole from which each was cut was scorched with fire till very dry, then it was shaped and scraped down with shell, and scorched again, and once more scraped and shaped with great care and industry, until it had been reduced to the size desired and was perfectly smooth. I have seen spears fully 30 feet in length at Ruatahuna.

Snaring the forest-birds was an industry and sport combined, in which considerable technical skill as well as forest-craft was employed. The snares fixed in the tops of trees—usually rata trees—for the kaka, were ingenious contrivances consisting of a perch—usually carved—and a running noose which led down to the fowler concealed in the lower branches. There was also the kaka mokai method, in which a decoy parrot was used. This was a bird hunting practice in every bush district of New Zealand.

A Maori fowler selected an open space in the forest, usually on a hill. He there prepared a screen of branches, behind which he concealed himself, after fixing a slanting rod in front of him. He slipped a bone or greenstone poria or ring over the foot of his tame kaka, used as a decoy for other kaka. A cord was attached to a smaller hole in the poria. One end of the cord was held by the fowler, and the decoy was allowed to play on the ground near the page 171 slanting rod. When the cord was pulled, or gently jerked the decoy screeched. This attracted the parrots in the vicinity, which flew up to the place to investigate and alighted on the convenient rod. The fowler waited with his right hand raised against the side of his ear, the most convenient attitude for snatching downwards. When the kaka came down the rod, screeching, he was soon within reach of the hunter's hand, and the rest was quick silence for that inquisitive bird.

Bushmen and settlers sometimes find small canoeehaped wooden troughs in the heart of the forest, especially on high places remote from streams. The use of these waka-whangai, or waka-manu, continued till recently in certain Maori districts. They were placed under such trees as the miro, and were filled with water. Rows of running-loop snares (héré), of flax or cabbage-tree leaves, were arranged above them, and in these snares the thirsty pigeons and tui were cautht when they flew down to drink after feeding on the miro berries or other fruits of the forest. The first bird caught was left by the side of the waka as a thank-offering to the gods.

When using the long spear, usually barbed with bone, or, in these later days with iron, the hunters were careful not to allow any blood to touch their hands, in pulling out the point from the bird's body. Should the blood of “Tane's flapping children” stain the fowler's hands, the spear would lose its mana and could no longer be used with success.