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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)

The Wisdom of the Maori

page 40

The Wisdom of the Maori

Passed to the Reinga.

Every old Maori whose life has been spent wholly or chiefly in a purely native environment is a mind-store of folk-lore and poetry, tradition and mythology, and every one on his departure from this world takes with him into the shadowy land much that the younger generation will never know. I heard with regret the news of the death lately of Tutanekai Haerehuka, who was the last of the old men of the tohunga class in the Arawa tribes. I knew well that with his passing hence, at the age of over eighty, a vast amount of priestly knowledge, the ancient wisdom, perished with him.

Many years ago it was my fortune to see a good deal of Tutanekai—excellent name, his forefather's of romantic fame twelve generations ago—and to be admitted by him to some of the secrets of the tohunga craft. We had many days together, out in the open where we could talk freely apart from the others. (Mokoia Island and Rotoiti were two of the places where I gathered these stories and chants of the past.) The old man was a philosophical soul. He used to say that he believed the Maori would have been wise to have adhered to the olden religion of the race and to the old and simple life that best suited him. “As for me,” he said once, “I do not know much about the new ways; I only know the old things, the karakia Maori, and my work is the tilling of the soil.”

Tutanekai was a farmer, he worked quietly and industriously with his family on his small farm on the Wai-o-whiro stream, which flows from the celebrated Fairy Spring into Lake Rotorua. Between his food-growing toil and the practice of his tohunga craft his activities were divided. His knowledge of the ritual of old in such ceremonies as those attendant on the opening of new carved houses brought him many requests to perform those rites, known as the whai-kawa, or taingakawa whare. Very, very few, indeed, of the Maori race living to-day possess anything like Tutanekai's knowledge of legendary and ritual. Much as I heard from him, and noted down at his dictation, it was only fragments from his mental treasury.

The Things that are Maori.

One of the Franconia tourists who visited Rotorua and other show-places on the recent visit of the Cunard luxury liner to New Zealand, was delighted with most of the things she saw and heard, but there was one little complaint, or rather not so much a complaint as a polite hint. She said she and her friends would have preferred to hear the Maori women entertainers at Rotorua sing their own songs and use their own music rather than that of the pakeha. Her remarks are, in effect, those which have been made by many visitors. They come to New Zealand for the features which they cannot get in other countries, and they are always pleased with the purely Maori side. They don't want to listen to “Home Sweet Home” and “Sally Horner” from Maori singers. That sort of thing can be done much better by English or Americans. “We want something thoroughly Maori.”

That, too, is the burden of the views expressed by many New Zealanders as well as passing visitors. The charm and novelty of Maori singing and dancing should not be spoiled by the introduction of the pakeha element.

The Fish Talisman.

There are several tribes, or sections of tribes, which still preserve fragments of the old-time customs relating to the fertility of the soil and the fishing waters. A few of the old people in certain districts observe the ancient practices of offering the first-fruits to the spirits of soil or sea. Certain emblems called mouri, or mauri, are treasured at the mouth of the Motu River, beyond Opotiki, where they are supposed to ensure an abundance of kahawai and other fish; and a few years ago offerings of fish to the deity of the sea-harvest were hung up on the lowest branch of a great pohutukawa tree there. Such traces of those customs as still persist are of particular interest because they are part of the ancient worship of the powers of Nature. Tangaroa, the god of the sea and of the fish, was invoked by all fishermen in old Maoridom, and it is well that this respect for bountiful Nature should be retained in an age which is too forgetful of its debt to the all-providing spirit of life and plenty.

In South Taranaki some years ago I noted an instance of these survivals of old-time custom. Tu-patea te Rongo, the chief of the Pakakohi tribe, of Patea, a veteran of the Hauhau wars, discussed with me sundry customs of his people in war and peace, and our talk turned on the mouri (or mauri) ika, which concentrated and preserved the fishing of his river, the Patea. I mentioned that I had seen at Hawera a sacred stone, of heavy quartz-like flinty substance, such as were formerly used as mouri.

Tu-patea said that near his home he kept in a secret place a relic of that kind, a whatu-kura or sacred stone, circular in shape, with a hollow in the centre. Its special mana was shown when the season came for catching the piharau (lampreys) in the Patea River. He took it down and placed it in the river at the fishing place, and there was a large catch of piharau every season. Its virtue never failed.

Far-travelled Names.

A great many Maori names of places on our New Zealand coast are of peculiar interest because, like many introduced English names, they have come a long way from their original homes. They link up this country with ancient Hawaiki, the tropic homes from which the Polynesian ancestors, of the Maori came to New Zealand; such islands as Tahiti, Raiatea, Raro-tonga, Mangaia, and other coral and volcanic lands in the Great South Sea.

Some of the names of this kind I have previously noted in these pages. Down at Kaikoura I obtained two names, not previously recorded, and not given on any map, which date back at least six hundred years. One is Te Rae-o-Tawhiti (The Headland of Tahiti), the high cliff which bounds Kaikoura South bay on the east, with a remarkable pinnacle at its base shaped like a gigantic shark's tooth. The other is Atiu, the name of one of the Cook Islands; this is a headland to the north-east of the one first mentioned and not far from the Kaikoura wharf.

As for Kaikoura itself, its full and ancient name is Te Ahi Kai-koura-a-Tama-ki-te-rangi, which commemorates the arrival here of a Polynesian navigator and explorer, Tama-of-the-Sky, whose crew kindled a fire (ahi) on the South Bay beach to cook a meal of the crayfish (koura) which they found abounding here. And from Tama's day to the present Kaikoura has been a wonderful place for crayfish.