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The Story of a Maori Chief

Axe Poised over Corpse

Axe Poised over Corpse

One more incident I shall record to illustrate the fiery nature of my grandfather. My cousin, Mihi Heni, had died at Orutua, and a large number of people came to hold the tangi. The body was laid out on a litter in a large tent, one side of which was raised so that mourners could see the body.

As usual at a tangi, the question of burial of the body was discussed on the marae, and often, as a matter of courtesy, different tribes asked that the foody might be buried in their particular burial grounds. Relatives of the deceased naturally wished to take the body to Rangitukia, and in accordance with Maori custom they were perfectly right, for my grandfather really belonged to Rangitukia. My grandfather, however, would not hear of my cousin's body being taken to page 48 Rangitukia for burial; he wanted it buried at Taumata-aKura, near Horoera. I believe now his reason was because Tuhorouta, his warrior ancestor, was buried there. My grandfather, the autocrat that he was, could never brook opposition, particularly by small men. He lost his temper and broke out into a violent rage. Seizing an axe he walked towards the body and, poising the axe in the air over his head, he cried out to the already scattered crowd: “I'll decide the matter. I'll cut the body into halves. Your half you can take to Rangitukia and bury it there; my half I'll bury here.”

Before he took action my mother flung herself on the body. The old man, not to be baulked in his purpose, threw my frail mother on the ground and the body sprawled out of the coffin. Remembering how gentle and tender my grandfather had always been, I could hardly believe he could be anything else. I did not fully realize the enormity of his intention. I walked quietly to him and looked at my cousin's body spread out on the ground. I believe it was my innocent and childish act that melted by grandfather and brought him to his senses and saved him from committing an act for which he would be sorry all the rest of his life.

During the awful drama everybody except my mother and me scampered into the bush and did not appear until dark. Of course, the question of burial was not further pursued. The old man had his own way and Mihi Heni was buried at Taumata-a-kura.