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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


The Maori was not only a warrior and a farroving sailor, a skilled craftsman and an artist in decorative craft. He was a poet and a mystic. No other primitive race had evolved such a treasury of poetry and folk-song, revealing a soul and a mental culture that removed the Maori high above peoples still in the savage state. The poems, love-ditties, war-songs, dirges, canoe-chants, sacred charm-songs, constitute a field of native art which it would take a lifetime to record fully and interpret and elucidate. Much of the religion and mythology of the race is embodied in these long rhythmic recitals; much of history, and romance and social customs; and the elegiac chants form a very large section in which pakeha poets have found themes of great beauty and striking imagery. More and more the world's writers and singers are coming to recognise that some of the best sources of poetry are to be found among people who have lived and still live very close to nature, whose souls have absorbed the music and the mystery of the forest and the mountains and the sea, the song of primitive emotions. Maori songs are strongly tinged with sadness, like the sweetest songs of Scotland and Ireland; with melancholy “all noble things are touched.” Some great Old-World poets went to primitive folk for inspiration; in America Longfellow, Whittier and Joaquin Miller did the same.

“While I love the classic poets,” wrote an American modern-day poet—John Neihardt, author of “A Bundle of Myrrh”—“and am lifted by the page 92 wonderful tonal quality and metrical intricacies of the stylists, I find myself lifted much higher into the upper air by the ruder chants of the Hebrews and the rhythmic prose songs of my friends the Omaha Indians. I believe the greatest trouble with the modern writers of verse is that they perfect their vehicle without having anything to carry it in. They learn forms, and do not let their passions lead them enough. They have not the Rabelaisian spirit.… . The chant is the oldest form of verse. I think it was taken from the sounds of Nature. You can hear it in the ocean or in the prairie winds; and surely the movement of the first elegy was taken from the moaning of the gusty wind through primeval forests. Yea, verily, Poetry is a savage, and our moderns have tried to adapt it to evening dress!”

What that American poet wrote of the Indians, we can apply to our Maori. But we have a far richer field amongst the Maori than ever Neihardt or the author of “Hiawatha” opened in America. It is an inexhaustible field; only a part of it has been explored effectively. Old songs, old tales, are treasured among every tribe; and new poems, sometimes adapted from ancient sources, often find oral circulation among the people.

In many years of field work in all parts of New Zealand in the gathering of Maori folk-lore, history and the traditional word-of-mouth knowledge that is described by the all-embracing word whakapapa, I have collected some hundreds of songs and chants, besides notebooks-full of karakia or prayers and charm-songs and rhythmic recitatives. In this chapter, a few have been selected as typical of the various classes of waiata, the general term for songs.

In my experience some of the best sources of bardic lore are the small settlements, such as the page 93
A singer of many tangi-chants. Hera Puna, widow of the Chief Hori Ngakapa, of the Ngati-Whanaunga and Ngati-Paoa tribes, Hauraki Gulf Coast.

A singer of many tangi-chants.
Hera Puna, widow of the Chief Hori Ngakapa, of the Ngati-Whanaunga and Ngati-Paoa tribes, Hauraki Gulf Coast.

page 94 kaingas in the Urewera Country, the West Taupo district, and the little villages around Lake Rotoiti. In such places away from the distractions of the large townships the old people have great funds of wonderfully memorised whakapapa in poetic form. In the same way recorders of ancient Gaelic poetry have found their greatest unwritten literary treasures in tiny shielings in the Highland glens.