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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September 1, 1934)

The Wisdom of the Maori

page 15

The Wisdom of the Maori

The Poetry and Music of Place Names.

“Cape and village and river, and vale and mountain above,

Each had a name in the land for men to remember and love;

And never the name of a place but lo! a song in its praise:

Ancient and unforgotten, songs of the earlier days.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Song of Rahero.”)

THese lines, from the South Sea poems of R.L.S., are descriptive of Tahiti, the last Hawaiki of the Maori. Many of our place names in New Zealand are no less poetical and no less pleasant-sounding than those of the Polynesian Islands, though the latter have been softened by the frequent elision of consonants. A Maori place-name is very often a word or a phrase of great beauty, unlike the usually prosaic nomenclature of the pakeha. What is there in the introduced English names to compare with such names as Onawe. Moehau, Rangiura, Muriwai, Tangi-akau, Hataitai, Rongomai, Taupiri, Morere Taiamai, Tangimoana, Omapere, and a thousand more that could be cited, names of euphony and story? Names that are a poem in a word or two—Piriaka (“The Twining Woodbine”), Tai-haruru (“The Thundering Sea”), Taumata—poroporoaki (“The Hilltop of Farewells”), Komakotangi-ata (“The Bellbird Singing in the Dawn”), Waoku (“The Silent Woods”), Rawene (“The Setting Sun”), Rapahoe (“Blade of the Paddle”), Puatai (“Seafoam”).

The Pakeha's Way.

But much of the beauty of such names is lost by mispronunciation. How often we hear our names mutilated by public speakers. I have heard radio lecturers (not the announcers, who are usually schooled in correct use of Maori names) confidently utter quite atrocious words. People with a University degree, and other speakers with letters after their names, are frequent offenders in this respect. They have a perfect genius for placing the accent on the wrong syllable. I have heard an M.A. pronounce Maketu “Ma-kee-tu,” with the stress on the “kee,” and Orakau as if it were “Orra-kau.” A little schooling in the Maori alphabet and phonetics and the placing of accents should be required before the orators go on the air.

Stories in Names.

The map of these islands is a text on which a book, or several books, could be written explanatory of the nomenclature. Just now I shall take a few Wellington examples, names of places known to many New Zealanders besides Wellington residents. The places are known, that is; very few of the names are current to-day, but they are worth reviving. Many years ago I went to the trouble of obtaining the original names of places on and around the harbour and the hills. My principal informants were three venerable women, persons of rangatira rank in the Atiawa tribe, the people who sold to the New Zealand, Company the land on which Wellington City stands. The oldest of the trio, Ngarimu Mawene of Whakahikuwai, Lower Hutt, was one of the young girls who danced and sang in the festive parties on Pito-one beach when the Tory pioneers landed in 1839, and were welcomed in the vociferous manner of the Maoris. The others were Mere Ngamai (who lived at Ngauranga in the early Fifties), and Rangiwhaea Te Puni. All three were women whose minds were stored with stories and songs without end about old-time Poneke.

One of the first place-names in our talks mentioned by Mere Ngamai was Moera, which means “Sleeping in the Sun.” Moera (an abbreviation of Moe-i-te-ra) was the name of a small hamlet of the Atiawa, a clearing and cultivation in the bush on the hill where Marama Crescent now is, overlooking the steep valley (now Aro Street) through which the little stream Te Aro flowed to the harbour. The kainga was so called because of its situation; it faced the north and caught the first rays of the morning sun, which in summer shone brightly on the camp while the people were still asleep. It also described the sun-bathed slope. The name in course of time came to apply to all that hill-slope extending towards Polhill Gully. There were people living there when the first white settlers came to Wellington.

The refrain of an old-time lover's song of Moera was quoted to me:

E pa ra e te ua,
E pa ki Moera;
Nga roimata mo Te Wehi-riri,
Ka mau na wa.
(The rain pours down,
It pours on Moera;
Even so pour my tears
For my loved one Te Wehi-riri.)

In recent times this name was borrowed and transplanted to the Lower Hutt by the civic heads who established the new suburb of the Lower Hutt, which accordingly is now known as Moera. The Bulletin of the Geographic Board lately mentioned this suburb name and stated that it was apparently of pakeha origin. The Bulletin compiler, of course, was unaware of the facts of its origin, which I have narrated. Out in the Hutt suburb the name is consistently wrongly pronounced as “Mo-eera.”

The stream called Te Aro in pakeha times in Wellington was originally the Wai-mapihi. It was dammed up near the stream-head, and the large pool so formed was used as a bathing place by Mapihi, a chieftainess of the ancient Ngai-Tara and Ngati-Mamoe tribes.

Puke-hinau is the name of the slopes where the old Catholic cemetery is situated, and the vicinity of the Victoria University College; it may also be applied to the land extending from there up to Kelburn heights. This name, like many others, preserves a memory of the beautiful native bush which once covered those places—the Hill of the Hinau Tree.

The Bush Birds' Pool.

Coming to the heart of Wellington City, the place where Willis Street and Manners Street meet was once called Wai-Koko, otherwise “Tui Creek.” A small stream flowed down from the wooded hills along the present line of Boulcott Street, or nearly so, and there was a pool on its course just here, which was a place resorted to by the Maoris for snaring the birds of the bush. It was a shady pool, and here gathered the birds, the tui or koko, the bellbird and the pigeon, drinking and refreshing themselves by splashing and sprinkling the cool water over themselves, as birds do in the heat of summer. In the season, when the birds were in the best condition for food, the Maoris caught them with snares of ti (cabbage-tree leaf) fibre arranged in loops over the pool. The koko was particularly plentiful here, hence the name. There was also a variant of the name used by the Maoris; the water was sometimes called Wai-koukou, which means a bathing pool; it was the bath of the forest birds.