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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 9 (December 2, 1935)

The Lost Tribe

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The Lost Tribe

From time to time, incidents connected with the “lost” Maori tribe of the South figure in the news, and many people are given to wonder what it is all about. A few years ago, the subject received a big revival, following the discovery by a deer-stalking party of a naked footprint, in the sand at the head of one of the remoter fiords. There was much frenzied publicity. It was suggested in all seriousness by one writer that the Government should equip an expedition to make a thorough search of the wild unexplored country, in the hope that some living sign of the tribe remained. Strangely enough, the possibilities of such a quest were officially considered towards the end of last century. For reasons unexplained, no action was taken. The cynic might suggest that the Government of the day was too deeply occupied in another sort of search—for unexplored sources of revenue—or, alternatively that, if the tribe still existed, it was considered better “lost” than facing the trials and tribulations of the topsy-turvy world outside. But this, by the way. New Zealand's greatest mystery, if it can so be called, remains a mystery; and if the heavy bush and rocky gorges of Fiordland do hold the solution, it has indeed been well hidden.

“They captured a young woman who, after being questioned ' was put to death.”

“They captured a young woman who, after being questioned ' was put to death.”

The earliest New Zealand history speaks of the Wild Indians, or Wild Men of the Woods, who were supposed to inhabit Southern Westland, and Maori mothers of the day doubtless employed the bogey in accepted fashion when bed time came along. It was Cook himself who called them Indians. The use of the term is rather singular, for the great navigator's journal clearly shows that he had had a great deal to do with the Maoris further north long before these mystery men were dreamt of in his philosophy. There is, however, no record that any of the ship's company ever saw one of them, and it is quite probable that Cook was relying on information received from the northern people. One writer has rather fancifully endeavoured to prove that they were of negroid type, this coinciding with the idea of other students that a negro race of sorts inhabited New Zealand long before either the Maori or the Moriori. Acknowledged authorities scornfully reject this theory, however, and little known records of seventy or eighty years ago combine with the evidence they have produced to prove that this “lost” or “mistery” tribe was undoubtedly the remnant of the once powerful Ngati-Mamoe. Theirs is an unfortunate history altogether.

Well established tradition has it that the first Maori settlers in the South came with the canoe Horouta, so called because of its reputation as a speedy sailer. There followed migrations from Wanganui, Taupo, and even North Auckland. The Wai-Taha, a people called after a chief of that name who had landed with the canoe Arawa, established a big and highly-productive settlement. In a generous impulse this tribe notified Ngati-Mamoe, then living in the North, of their comfortable circumstances. Ngati-Mamoe, it appears, came down like the proverbial wolf on the, fold, and by inter-marriage and the like literally engulfed their benefactors. This was long before the days of Captain Cook.

The rise of Ngati-Mamoe seems to have ushered in a long period of raiding and killing, resulting in the complete extermination of many of the weaker tribes. A new faction called Ngai-Tahu, whose original headquarters was in the vicinity of what is now Hataitai, Wellington, came into the fray. Their onslaught was strongly opposed and there was much further bloodshed. But the invaders were better led and organised, and, moreover, were quickly reinforced by the tribes which Ngati - Mamoe had enslaved. Ngai-Tahu were successful in fight after fight, and in one big clash simply overwhelmed their foes, who fled in wild disorder. The pursuit was relentless. The defeated people were driven further and further into the mountain recesses of the lower South coast, until only a broken remnant escaped the vengeful conquerrs. In the feasting that followed, as practised in those piping times, Ngai-Tahu forgot all about the fugitives.

Evidence that a few at least of Ngati-Mamoe had managed a practical acclimatisation in their new home was provided many years later—in 1830 to be exact. Rimupara, a Ngai-Tahu rangatira, left with his followers to plunder a sealing station at Kaniwhera, at the south west extremity of the Island. While proceeding along a rocky cliff face, they came on a whare which they surrounded. They captured a young woman who, after being questioned, was rather inconsiderately put to death. Provisions, it appears had run short.

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No trace was found of any companion, of whom the unhappy captive had refused to speak. A few years later, a man named Te Wae Wae, while out fishing on an unfrequented part of the coast, saw two strange men at the edge of the bush by the beach. He paddled shorewards, and endeavoured to communicate with them, but on seeing him they showed every sign of abject fear, and ran away into the forest. It is on very definite record that an old woman named Popokore, who lived with her brother at the edge of the bush near Aparima received frequent visits, always at night, from these strange people up to the time of her death. This took place years after the settlement of Canterbury was formed, and the visitations were well known to the older settlers of the province.

In 1850-51, Captain Stokes, of H.M.S. Acheron was in Bligh Sound. On the beach he came across fresh footprints of several people who had palpably made a sudden and hurried flight inland. Just prior to this, a whaling party careening their vessel at the same spot found a cave which showed signs of recent occupation, and secured a large collection of curios from it. A mere included in the booty is said to be still held by a family at Otaki. In addition to all this, isolated instances are given where smoke from strange fires was seen from time to time, and where people who could have had no connection with any known tribe were discovered gathering shellfish on remote beaches. Invariably, on discovery, they made a quick retreat into the nearby forest. Apparently, the memory of that last disaster, and the deadly pursuit of Ngai-Tahu, had died hard.

Ngati-Mamoe certainly established themselves in a small way in the Sounds country, and were undoubtedly the “Indians” previously referred to. It is pointed out, however, that between the ‘sixties and ‘eighties the whole of the territory was very thoroughly prospected for gold without any living trace of the missing people being unearthed. This, added to other convincing evidence which would take much time to unravel here, enables authorities to place the beginning of the period mentioned as the approximate time when the tribe must have died out completely. The cause of their passing is open to conjecture. No human remains have ever been discovered, but it must be remembered that many portions of this region could effectually hide the bones of an army.

Some of the old time Maori lore has it that the lost people were really supernatural, comprising magic men who chased their mothers-in-law into the sky—wise men!—and wives who evaded domestic upheaval by changing themselves into greenstone. The greenstone is still there, of course. So is further evidence of a magic people in the shape of a big mountain into which a bold young slave was changed because he put his finger in the chief's dinner to see if it (the dinner) was hot enough. This is the sort of conceit that is really far too good to spoil, but—I have a deep and dark suspicion concerning that footprint.

I am a deer-stalker myself, and an angler to boot, you see.

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