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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


In the old-time Maori kainga there was no lack of what may be called indoor games, for the diversion of the community in long evenings and in wet and stormy weather when the people were disinclined to venture abroad. Chief among the amusements in the whare-tāperé, the hall of pleasure and song, were the poi action song and the haka dance. In the poi the girls of the village delighted the people with dexterous rhythmic ball-whisk and tap-tapping of which the eye never tired, to the music of pretty and harmonious chants. The poi is as charming to eye and ear as ever it was, though the rangi or airs have become modernised and the Hawaiian ukulele has become the favourite instrument of musical accompaniment. The action song, as it should be called rather than dance, is infinite in its variety. In some poi performances the girls imitate the action of paddling a canoe; others are descriptive of the fluttering of wild birds and the pretty fantail; many are a series of lissome beautifully-timed swinging of the “tiny ball on end of string” to the sound of melodious and plaintive love songs. Some are rather mournful waiatas, chants of affection and longing; again there are ditties gay and sometimes Rabelaisian of words. The poetry of the poi is quite a branch of Maori folk-lore—mostly unwritten—in itself. The Arawa have a special facility in the composition of little lilting poems for this greatly favoured amusement; Ngati-Porou and Ngati-Kahungunu, too, have their resourceful poets, and they have skill in adapting pakeha tunes to the needs of the dance.

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In Taranaki I have watched and listened to poi acts of a quality differing greatly from the action-songs of other tribes. When I stayed at Parihaka one night the venerable Te Whiti, the one-time renowned prophet and leader of the Maori national party, invited me to accompany him to his meeting-hall and see his poi parties rehearse their songs and dances for the coming March assemblage of the faithful. The women and girls, numbering about thirty, wore a profusion of white feathers—the raukura, Te Whiti's badge—in their dark glossy hair. They gave one poi after another, some with long strings, an art requiring great skill and precision; they chanted and swung the poi, and swayed their supple forms for nearly two hours; and the earnestness and fire with which they chanted their songs made it seem more like a sacred religious ceremony than anything else. And that indeed was what it was; the poi chants were legendary, historical, and ritualistic; they recited the coming of the Taranaki people's ancestors from Hawaiki in the traditional canoes, they described the grievances of the Maori under pakeha rule, the tragedy of the war, the con-
A party of poi dancers, welcoming visitors to the meeting-house at Manukorihi, Waitara, North Taranaki.

A party of poi dancers, welcoming visitors to the meeting-house at Manukorihi, Waitara, North Taranaki.

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of the land, and they embodied some of the figurative utterances and cryptic “sayings” in which Te Whiti delighted. One long chant, as the grey old prophet told me, was one of his speeches or sermons delivered to the gathering on the Parihaka marae. There was something almost fierce about the delivery of this kind of poi, and the flashing black eyes, the tossing feathers, the high wild chant, combined to give a thrill to it all that the ordinary poi of the Maori amusement halls does not hold. Te Whiti's spirit has passed to the Reinga, but the old chants are not forgotten, and the raukura still on occasion is proudly worn by the Taranaki poi parties as they toss and twirl the rap-rapping ball of raupo, and raise the wild melodies again.

This is one of the legend-poems chanted by the Taranaki poi women; it is a paddling song traditionally handed down for six centuries, the chant of the chief of Aotea canoe to his crew on the voyage from Raiatea Island, in the Eastern Pacific, to New Zealand:—

Ko Aotea te waka,
Ko Turi tangata ki runga,
Ko te Roku-o-whiti te hoe.
Piri papa te hoe!
Awhi papa te hoe!
Toitu te hoe!
Toirere te hoe!
Toi mahuta te hoe!
Toi hapakapa te hoe
Kai runga te rangi.
Ko te hoe nawai?
Ko te hoe na te Kahu-nunui;
Ko te hoe nawai?
Te hoe na te Kahu-roroa.
Ko te hoe nawai?
Ko te hoe no Rangi-nui-e-tu-nui.
Tena te waka,
Ka tau ki Tipua-o-te-Rangi,
Ki Tawhito-o-te-Rangi,
Nga turanga whetu o Rehua.
Hapai ake au
I te kakau o taku hoe,

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I te Roku-o-whiti.
Whiti patato, rere patato,
Mama patato.
Te riakanga, te hapainga,
Te komotanga, te kumenga,
Te riponga, te awenga
A te puehutanga
O te wai o taku hoe nei.
Kei te rangi, hikitia!
Kei te rangi, hapainga,
Kei te aweawe nui no Tu.
Tena te ara ka totohe nui,
Ko te ara o tenei Ariki,
Ko te ara o tenei matua iwi,
Ko te ara o Rangi-nui-e-tu-nei,
Nguaha te kakau o taku hoe nei,
Ko Kautu-ki-te-Rangi.
Ki te rangi, hikitia;
Ki te rangi, hapainga;
Ki te rangi tutorona atu,
Ki te rangi tutorona, mai.
Ki te rangi tu te ihi,
Ki te rangi tu te koko,
Tu te mana, tu te tapu,
E tapu tena te ara,
Ka totohe te ara
O Tane-matohe-nuku,
Te ara o Tane-matohe-rangi,
Ko te ara o te Kahu-nunui,
Ko te ara o te Kahu-roroa,
Ko te ara o tenei Ariki,
Ko te ara o tenei tauira,
Tawhi kia Rehua,
Ki uta mai, te ao marama;
E Rongo-ma-Tane,

Aotea is the Canoe,
And Turi is the Chief.
The Roku-o-whiti is the Paddle.
Behold my paddle!
It is laid by the canoe-side,
Held close to the canoe-side.
Now 'tis raised on high—the paddle!
Poised for the plunge—the paddle!
We spring forward!
Now, it leaps and flashes—the paddle
It quivers like a bird's wing
This paddle of mine!
This paddle—whence came it?
It came from the Kahu-nunui,
From the Kahu-roroa,
It came from the Great-Sky-above-us.
Now the course of the canoe rests
On the Sacred Place of Heaven,
The dwelling of the Ancient Ones
Beneath the star-god Rehua's eye.
See! I raise on high
The handle of my paddle,
Te Roku-o-whiti.
I raise it—how it flies and flashes!
Ha! the outward lift and the dashing,
The quick thrust in and the backward sweep
The swishing, the swirling eddies,
The boiling white wake
And the spray that flies from my paddle!
Lift up
The paddle to the sky above,
To the great expanse of Tu,
There before us lies our ocean-path,
The path of strife and tumult,
The pathway of this chief,
The danger-roadway of this crew;
'Tis the road of the Great-Sky-above-us,
Here is my paddle,
To the heavens raise it;
To the heavens lift it;
To the sky far drawn out,
To the horizon that lies before us,
To the heavens, sacred and mighty.
Before us lies our ocean-way,
The path of the sacred canoe, the child
Of Tane, who severed Earth from Sky.
The path of the Kahu-nunui, the Kahu-roroa,
The pathway of this chief, this priest.
In Rehua is our trust,
Through him we'll reach the Land of Light.
O Rongo and Tane!
We raise our offerings!

At the final word “Whakairihia!” the dancers raise their twirling poi balls above their heads at arm's length; this is in imitation of the olden custom of the priests in lifting up the first-fruits offering of kumara to Rongo, the god of cultivated foods. Rongo and Tane ranked high in the Maori pantheon. Rehua, another atua mentioned in the chant, dwelt, according to ancient belief, in the tenth or highest page 203 heaven; he was a beneficent deity. Rehua is also the name of the star Sirius.