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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter IX. — Whakatauki. — Some Maori Proverbs and Aphorisms

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Chapter IX.
Some Maori Proverbs and Aphorisms

Maori literature, written and unwritten, abounds in proverbial sayings embodying the wisdom of the elders, and couched in language terse, forcible and often highly poetical. There are hundreds of such proverbs, tribal sayings, injunctions to industry, ironical allusions to vanity, display, laziness. Those which follow are selected from a large number I have gathered from the Maori, and are typical of this rich field of native lore:—

He kokonga whare, e kitea;
He kokonga ngakau, e kore e kitea.”
(“A corner of a house may be seen and examined; not so the corners of the heart”).
He tao huata e taea te karo,
He tao na Aitua, e kore.”
(“The thrust of a spear shaft may be parried, That of Death never.”)

There are plain-spoken proverbs in praise of industry, and holding laziness up to opprobrium; such as this specimen of housewives' wisdom:

Tane rou kakahi, aitia te ure;
Tane moe whare, kurua te takataka.”
(“The husband who is diligent in using the dredging net for shellfish, love him well; As for the lazy fellow who sleeps away the hours in the house, punch his head.”)

A humble person in his home-village is often boastful and makes quite a noise and show abroad, as this alliterative distich emphasises:

He kuku ki te kainga,
He kaka ki te haere.”
(“A wood-pigeon when he's at home, a noisy parrot when he's on his travels.”)

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Military fame is fleeting; the soldier's calling is a precarious life:

He toa taua, he toa pahekeheke;
He toa mahi kai, e kore e paheke.”
(“The daring warrior's life is insecure; his is a slippery path;
The vigorous cultivator of the soil is secure; he will not slip.”)

Every tribe has its pepeha or peculiar saying, indicative of characteristics or attributes of the iwi or hapu. The following are examples:

Waikato taniwha rau.”
(“Waikato of a hundred water-monsters, i.e., chiefs”—a reference to the strength and importance of the tribes of the district.)
He piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha.”
(“At every river-bend a chief.”)
Tuhoe moumou tangata ki te Po.”
(“The Tuhoe people are wasteful with the lives of men”—an allusion to the warlike proclivities of the tribe.)

This proverb was quoted very appositely by the Kingite warrior chief Whitiora te Kumete, of Kawhia, when he and his fellow-prisoners of war, after escaping from Kawau Island to the mainland near Mahurangi in 1864, were visited by a Government agent and urged to return to their isle of captivity:

He manu ka motu i te mahanga e kore e taea te whai.”
(“A bird which has once escaped from the snare will not be caught again.”)

The following proverb, denoting finality, unalterable purpose, destiny, has even been sent over the telegraph wires. When Hone Toia, the chief of the Mahurehure hapu, of Waima, Hokianga, organised his little rebellion against obnoxious pakeha authority in 1898, he replied in the words of the ancient whakatauki to Hone Heke, the member of Parliament for Northern Maori, who had tele- page 112 graphed to him from Wellington urging wiser counsels:

He rangai maomao ka taka ki tua o Nukutaurua, e kore a muri e hokia.”
(“When a shoal of maomao fish has passed to seaward of Nukutaurua rock (off Mangonui harbour) it will never return.”)

Paeko was a famous fighting man of the Bay of Plenty in ancient days. His friends never failed to send for him when they became involved in a dispute that necessitated the use of club and spear. He could be trusted to turn defeat into victory by the weight of his own right arm. One day a feast was given at a pa in Paeko's country, and the warrior was there, waiting with the other rangatiras to be called by name at the apportioning of the piles of food. He sat silently while those who were in the marae were named, and at last he realised that he had been forgotten. He was too proud to join in the festivities without being formally karanga'd, and he turned to go home. But before he left he stood forth, spear in hand, and hurled this alliterative reproof at his hosts:

Karanga riri, karanga kia Paeko!
Karanga kai, ka kapa Paeko!”
(“Midst war's alarms, the cry is for Paeko!
When the feast call comes, forgotten is Paeko!”)

It is an equivalent both in matter and form of the old English soldier's complaint:

When danger threatens and the foe is nigh,
“God and the soldier” is the nation's cry;
But when the war is o'er and wrong is righted,
God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.

A Ngapuhi saying from Hare Hongi:

Tatai whetu ki te rangi, mau tonu mau tonu;
Tatai tangata ki te whenua, ngaro noa, ngaro noa.”
(“The starry hosts of heaven abide there for ever, immutable;
The hosts of men upon this earth pass away into oblivion.”)

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This fine sentiment is my favourite out of a long list of whakatauki I have collected:

Whaia e koe te iti kahurangi;
Ki te tuoho koe, me mounga teitei.”
(“Seek you the little treasure of your heart;
If you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.”)

The American philosopher expressed very much that idea, in more colloquial language: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

Ngati-Tuwharetoa veterans at Tokaanu, Lake Taupo, parading for peruperu (war-dance).

Ngati-Tuwharetoa veterans at Tokaanu, Lake Taupo, parading for peruperu (war-dance).