Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter XIV — The Fisherman's Lore

page 177

Chapter XIV
The Fisherman's Lore.

The Maori was, and is, a great fisherman, especially along the food-teeming east coast of the North Island from the far north to the East Cape. He often went well out to sea on his canoe expeditions after shark and hapuku, but his skill and industry were chiefly devoted to hauling the seine in near the shore. Nets of enormous size were made, and catches of huge dimensions were got in the summer months. The largest net of which I have heard was one made by old Pokiha Taranui (known to pakehas as Major Fox) and his tribe, Ngati-Pikiao, of Maketu, It was just over a mile in length; its manufacture and handling engaged the full strength of the tribe, about 400 people. It was used only once, that was at the beginning of January, 1886, to secure fish for a great meeting of the tribes. The net was taken out by canoes, and the crews encircled a vast school of kahawai. Tens of thousands of fish were taken, chiefly kahawai. In the ancient days nets of such dimensions were quite numerous along the east coast. Even in southern districts, where conditions were less favourable, the people made nets of very considerable size. I have been told by old Maoris that seines that must have been a quarter of a mile in length were used in Wellington and Lyttelton harbours.

The subject of fish and fishing customs would occupy a book in itself. Here there is but space to mention some survivals of ancient practices associated with the tapu which pertained to the important business of catching fish for food. (The Maori did not kill animals, birds, or fish for the fun page 178 of the thing; he was no devotee of the art of whole sale slaughter which the pakeha calls sport.)

The Mauri of the Fisheries.

Some of the mauri-kohatum, or stone emblems sacred to the gods of the fisheries, are preserved and are used to-day as they were centuries ago. At Taumaha, in South Taranaki, in 1921, the veteran warrior, Tu Patea te Rongo, head of the Pakakohi tribe, told me that he had two of the sacrad stones called “Nga whatu a Turi” which were brought from Hawaiki in the canoe Aotea. Thes small stones of power, rounded and hollowed, were hidden not far from his house. He made use of the when the fishing season came round. When it was time for the piharau or lamprevs. he took the marui down to the bank of the Patea River, to ensure the success of the fishing. These whatu, sacred to Tangaroa, had never been known to fail in bringing large catches if they were used with the proper forms of invocation.

At the mouth of the Motu River, in the Bay of Plenty, the local people, the Whanau-a-Apanui tribe still treasure as a sacred and most potent fishing talisman a very ancient stone called “Te Whatu kura-a-Tangaroa” (“The Sacred Red Stone of Tangaroa”). It is a small carved red stone, des cribed as about two inches in length and half an inch broad, with a piece of human bone attached to it for a hook. It was brought to New Zealand by one of the canoes from Hawaiki (Tahiti) about six centuries ago, one statement I have received says the canoe Tauira. This whatu (locally called a puna in allusion to the Puna-i-Rangiriri, the legendary source of all fish) is believed to have the power attracting great shoals of fish to the Motu River tidal waters. It is the mauri of the fisheries. Great page 179 quantities of the kahawai are taken at the Motu, and the Maori are careful to observe the ceremonies of thanksgiving, in recognition of the abundance of fish, the good things of the gods. Offerings of the first catches of the season are made to Tangaroa, and some of the largest of the kahawai are hung on the branches of the pohutukawa trees, near Maraenui village. The kahawai are caught with hook and line along the beach and the river-side; no bait is used;
A tapu relic at Mokau Heads: Maoris of Ngati-Maniapoto tribe transferring the Punga-o-Tainui from the beach to the tribal burial-place. [From a photo, 1926

A tapu relic at Mokau Heads: Maoris of Ngati-Maniapoto tribe transferring the Punga-o-Tainui from the beach to the tribal burial-place. [From a photo, 1926

page 180 the hook is inlaid with glittering pawa shell, or, in these days, a brass hook takes the place of the olden lure.

The Whatu-kura-a-Tangaroa is preserved as a holy relic; it is very seldom that it is revealed to public gaze by the Ringa-tu folk of Maraenui, who have it in charge.

At Mokau Heads the mauri of the fisheries lay on the beach until recently. This was the historic punga or mooring stone of the canoe Tainui, which came to Mokau six centuries ago. In 1904 I saw this punga lying on the northern bank of the Mokau, below the cliffs on which the township stands. It was popularly believed that its presence there assured the abundance of fish of all kinds for which Moka in mouth was celebrated along the coast. Once it was surreptitiously taken away to Waitara by the master of a cutter, who intended selling it to a museum. The Maori declare that the fish deserted the river until the cutter-man was compelled to restore it to its ancient resting-place. In 1926 it was suggested that the relic should be transferred to the Auckland Museum for safe-keeping as an ethnological exhibit, and some of the Mokau Maori favoured this proposal. But most of the Ngati-Maniapoto objected to this manner of disposal of the sacred mauri, and accordingly a party of men one morning took a cart to the beach at low-water, loaded it with the heavy treasure—it is a smoothly-rounded boulder like an hour-glass or dumb-bell in shape and about four feet in length—and took it to the tribal cemetery, between Mokau and Awakino Heads. There it was cemented into a concrete canoe representing the Tainui, so there is no danger of anyone making off with the punga now; and from its permanent resting-place it can still look out over the fisheries it guarded, in local belief, for centuries. Our illustration on page 179 shows the natives of Mokau Heads removing the page 181 mauri from the beach to the burying ground. There is a part of the beach called Te Naenae, near where the punga formerly lay; this is where the fishermen until recently placed their offerings of tamure and other fish to Tangaroa, the Maori Poseidon.

Eeling Customs.

When our people go out eel-fishing at night—my informant is speaking of the customs of his young days in the Ngati-Ruanui Country, Taranaki—the old man of the party, the kaumatua or tohunga, divests himself of his clothes and goes first to the river-bank. Scooping some water up in his hand he throws it into the air, crying out “E hura, e hura Tangaroa! Tenei au e tu nei.” (“Uncover thee, O Tangaroa! Behold me standing here.”) (Tangaroa, the god of the sea, is also the god of all fish, including eels). Then the kaumatua enters the water, his five-pronged matarau or eel-spear in his hand. This matarau—each of the fishing-party carries one—consists of a manuka pole about five feet long and an ingenious arrangement of prongs at the business end; these prongs, which are of the hardest part of the rimu wood, are about a foot long, hardened in the fire, and made very sharp, and fastened to the handle with kiekie fibre. The first eel transfixed by the kaumatua's matarau is hung up in a tree, as an offering to Tangaroa; it is tapu and cannot be eaten. The rest of the party are by this time in the water, and jabbing dexterously at the swarming eels. It is usual to wait until after midnight before commencing the work of spearing; the eels have then ceased to move about and are lying quiet. Torches are used in this fishing work. Eels are not cooked for food during the night's fishing; this, say the old men, will bring on rain.

page 182

The Lakes Fisheries.

In the Rotorua-Rotoiti district the fish of the lakes were a more important source of food supply than even the food of the land. So say the old men of the Arawa. The inanga (whitebait), toitoi, and koura (crayfish), also the kakahi (shellfish) were taken in very great quantities, and consequently the fisheries were jealously guarded.

The various parts of Rotorua and Rotoiti and other lakes had their names, and the boundaries of the various hapu were carefully defined by leading marks. Every yard of each of these lakes had its owners. In the principal lakes there were hundreds of tau-koura or lines of stakes to which koura nets were fastened, and every important tumu or post had its name. These posts, driven into the bed of the lake, were sometimes carved at the top into the semblance of human heads. Sometimes a rahui or close-season mark, or a post indicative that such a place was tapu, was set up; occasionally these figures had arms attached to make them look like human figures.

The introduction of the pakeha's trout to the lakes resulted in the depletion of these supplies; and in complications with the Maori over the fishing laws. The Native Land Court and the Supreme Court were appealed to to decide the long-standing question of Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi. The outcome was the vindication of the Maori cause.