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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


When the first long clear whistling notes of the pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, were heard in the groves in the spring of the year, the Maoris said to each other “Listen! The messenger of summer, the bird of Hawaiki, cries ‘Koia, koia!’ (‘Dig away!’) 'Tis time to plant the kumara.” This was in the month of October, or early in November, when the little shining cuckoo landed on these shores after its long flight from the South Sea Isles. Then the villagers made ready the ground for the reception of the sweet potato, which was grown very largely in Taranaki, as in other Maori districts. It is particularly the methods in the Ngati-Ruanui Country, Taranaki, that will be described.

The ancient religious rituals were still used by Titokowaru and his people in the Sixties and Seventies, and everything connected with the planting was conducted with great ceremony, for the kumara was a sacred plant, and not to be treated lightly.

It was the Maori custom to have a big “working-bee” whenever a man wished to lay down a large plot in kumara. Taiporohenui, Turangarere, and Otiaiti, in South Taranaki, were the principal places where my informant shared in the kumara-planting and harvesting. The work was carried on under the direction of skilled men in husbandry, and a tohunga always recited the prayers that were believed to ensure a bountiful crop.

When the people heard that the owner of a cultivation was going to plant largely in kumara, say three or four acres, they would come in a body to help him with his planting (whakatō-kumara). Twenty or thirty, or perhaps forty, men would come page 184 to ko the ground, and with them a number of women and children to plant the seed tubers and to look on. The ko was about seven feet long, sharp at the digging end, with a step or rest for the foot about a foot from the point. The top of the ko was slightly curved, and it was often carved into the form of a head, and adorned with feathers. It was also a custom of the ko-men to decorate the top of the implement, near the head, with aurei, the bone matpins formerly commonly used, crescent shaped, made from the tusks of the wild boar, whalebone, or the bones of enemies killed in battle. These aurei, sometimes six or seven to the one ko, were tied to the implement, and as all the diggers moved in unison, now to right and now to left, the aurei rattled together and made a sound pleasant to the Maori ear.

When the people gathered at the maara, the cultivation plot, the priest karakia'd the field, chanting his incantations to Maru and the gods of the kumara. Then the head man of the visitors, taking his stand in one of the corners of the maara, cried in a loud chanting voice:

Tenei au e tu nei, me taku ko i toku ringa. Keiwhea te tangata nana te maara? Haere mai nei!”
(“Here I stand, my ko in my hand. Where is the man who owns this cultivation? Let him come here!”)

Then approached the owner of the field, and he showed the digging-party where he wished them to work. The diggers gathered in one corner of the field, and worked diagonally across the planting area. They had a peculiar way of advancing, ko-ing as they went. The ground had previously been prepared by being cleared of all grass and weeds and other growth, and was perfectly clean and bare for the diggers. The Taiporohenui soil did not require much digging, for it was very soft and rich, and page 185
A Kumara planting scene of the past: Diggers using the Ko preparing the ground for the Kumara seed tubers. They work in unison, to the sound of a chant. [From a painting by G. Lindauer

A Kumara planting scene of the past: Diggers using the Ko preparing the ground for the Kumara seed tubers. They work in unison, to the sound of a chant.
[From a painting by G. Lindauer

page 186 easily worked. The ko-men worked across from the corner, gradually extending their front as the field opened out; and all kept time as they worked, moving the handles of the ko to the right and left alternately, as they made the holes for the reception of the seed kumara. They kept time with a choric song while they worked; all the bare backs moved as one man to the rhythm of the ancient chant, the feathers and white aurei adornments of the ko-heads dancing in the sun. The white man Kimble Bent worked with these ko-ing parties every season; he had his own carved ko, and he soon became as expert as the brown foresters with whom he lived.

The holes where the kumara were planted were all made facing the east, the warm Rawhiti. Behind the ko-men came the other men and the women, each with a basket of seed-kumara. One tuber was dropped in each hole, with the “eye” or sprout end pointing to the sun rising. The diagonal rows were so designed that the sun as it travelled through the sky went “between the rows,” as the Maoris say. Unless the kumara were planted with a careful eye to the sunny aspect, one side of the lines would be warm and the other cold, and the crops would suffer. The seed-kumara were not completely buried up when they were planted. The point was left just showing out of the ground. After the planters had done their work a man went over the ground to inspect the planting, and to remedy any mistake that might have been made in putting the tubers in.

Some of the seed-kumara were always planted whole. The mononehu kind was never broken; it was put in the ground whole. The kakau variety could be broken into three or four pieces and planted. The mononehu was slightly cracked in the middle; as the planters did this, all together, they cried “Tara-pana” and placed the kumara in the places prepared for them.

page 187

The kakau, which is a red kumara, was the principal variety grown at Taiporohenui and Turangarere in the Seventies. The mononehu and the anurangi are white kumara. The toromahoe, another variety, is also white; it is a small, very mealy kind. The waina is a large red kumara. The “merekena,” the common kind now grown, is the large American sweet-potato, the kind chiefly known to Europeans.

The Ngati-Ruanui, like other tribes, observed certain customs when the kumara were about to be planted. When the maara was being prepared, no kumara—should there be any available after the seed tubers were allowed for—were permitted to be cooked. Afterwards this restriction was removed. Any residue of seed left on the side of the maara after the planting had been completed was carefully taken away and buried, and not allowed to be eaten.

After the kumara had been placed in the ground it was necessary to bring up sand from the river or the seashore and mix it with the earth around the tubers. Hundreds of baskets of sand were brought up from the riverbeds at Turangarere and Taiporohenui and carefully heaped up in the little mounds which marked the resting-places of the seed-kumara.

The Maori were very careful in the selection of a suitable time of the month for planting. Each night of the moon had a special name. The best time was from the 13th to the 18th day of the moon's age. On the 18th of the Maori month (marama) the moon was at its maximum fulness (rakau-nui).

Then came the harvesting. When the Taranaki Maori dug up their kumara they allowed them to lie in the sun for about two hours to dry; then they arranged them in heaps, eight or ten baskets full in each heap. They were laid on beds of fern, very carefully, so as not to break the skin; then they were covered over with fern. There they lay awhile until the rua kumara or pits were ready for their page 188 storage. The rua, which is a pit about four feet deep, is covered over with a sloping roof; it resembles a small house buried to the eaves when it is finished. The sides and bottom of the rua were very carefully lined with fern, and great care was exercised in packing the kumara, so that they would not be bruised or exposed to damp. A rua twelve feet long and four feet deep would hold about a hundred baskets full of kumara. The rua kumara,
Te Karira Ruarangi. A chief and tohunga of Pakaraka, Waitotara, West Coast, in the Sixties. He fought with his tribe, Ngarauru, against the British and Colonial troops, 1864–69.

Te Karira Ruarangi.
A chief and tohunga of Pakaraka, Waitotara, West Coast, in the Sixties. He fought with his tribe, Ngarauru, against the British and Colonial troops, 1864–69.

page 189 once filled, was held as tapu until some manuhiri or visitor of importance arrived in the kainga. Then they opened it, and not until then did the people feast on those stored kumara.

Kao, or dried kumara, was a favourite food of the Maori when on a journey. This was the way the Ngati-Ruanui went about it. The kumara selected—perhaps thirty or forty baskets full—were first carefully scraped with fern, then they were put into large hāngi or steam-ovens in the earth, covered over in the usual way, and allowed to remain in the hāngi all night, so that they should be perfectly cooked. Next morning they were taken up and spread on stages to dry, until they became quite dry and hard. They were then put into baskets and hung up in the pataka or elevated storehouses. In this way they would keep for two years. To prepare them for eating, they were crumbled to pieces and mixed with water; the kumara are very mealy, and the sweet kao kumara is a luxury very palatable to the Maori, and almost equally agreeable to the pakeha who has tasted it.