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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs

Chapter XI — Daily Life

page 137

Chapter XI
Daily Life

In the daily life of the Maoris, it was the man's work to build houses and canoes; to fish, snare birds, prepare the earth for planting, and to gather in the crops; to fell trees, cut the grasses for thatch, make nets and rope; to collect, work, and store woods suitable for all purposes from house-building to the making of weapons. He cut and prepared stone and other hard materials for tools and weapons, and he shaped and polished them. He was the wood carver and the tattooer. As chief or priest he performed the functions of either, and often of both.

The woman was the home-keeper and the rearer of children. She cooked the food and wove the garments. She was often the carrier of burdens, particularly in times of war, when the right hands of the men were sacred to the use of their weapons. Housekeeping was simple. Each tribe had its one or two houses for large gatherings and for guests. Families had their separate sleep houses—tiny places sometimes compared to dog kennels—one for the men and another for the women, and a cook house was near at hand. There was no furniture in the sleep houses, the inmates sleeping on reed mats or trusses of grass, fern, or rushes neatly made by the women. Earth was piled up a foot or more around the outside of the houses to keep in the warmth and to keep the water out. A fireplace indoors was formed by a hollow flanked by four stones, and embers were carried in from a fire outside. There was no chimney in any house, but a page 138hole at the rear end of the roof, and no window in the smaller sleep houses. The door was closed, and Europeans who have spent a night in these places say that the heat and the closeness was intolerable.

When the family assembled for sleep, they used the garments worn in the daytime as a covering. The dressing for the day was easily and quickly done. There was not the fondness for bathing which is found among the natives of the tropical islands. The water was colder and not always so accessible, although a stream was always to be found near at hand. Clothes were few and simple, generally a woven or fringed garment from the waist to the knees, and always a woven cloak from the shoulders to the knees or longer. A chief might have had several of these, in addition to a handsome feather shoulder cape on the outside. These garments, woven by the women, were soft and pliable, varying in size from a shoulder cape to one falling from the shoulders to the ground. Men commonly wore them in such a manner that the right arm was free and exposed. The women covered the right arm and exposed the left.

The cloaks were tied at the shoulder with cords of braided flax, to which bone or other ornaments were frequently attached. In order to have both arms free, it was necessary only to turn the cloak around so that it fastened in front. For working purposes, when warmth was not required, it was the custom of the men to wear only a girdle around the loins, and the women a triangular apron fastened about the waist. A waterproof cloak was made by inserting thongs of flax leaves in the weaving, so that the outside was page 139covered, row upon row, with these stiff pieces of material. As the leaves overlapped they acted as a tiled roof and shed the rain. Instead of the woven cloaks, there was also a body covering commonly worn, the manufacture of which was not so laborious. Of this Captain Cook, in his "Voyages," after describing the woven garments, says:

"The most common covering, however, is a quantity of the sedgy plant above mentioned (flax), badly manufactured, fastened to a string, and thrown over the shoulders, whence it falls down on all sides to the middle of the thighs. When they sat down in this habit, they could hardly be distinguished from large grey stones, if their black heads did not project beyond their coverings."

Dancing skirts are of two kinds—one with a fringe of twisted flax cords, and the other with a fringe of split flax leaves, so fashioned that at regular intervals the leaf is alternately scraped and left unscraped, making alternately stiff and supple portions. This enables the skirt to fly out with the movement of the dancer, and at the same time it makes a pleasing crackling sound. It is certainly the most attractive of all the dancing skirts of the South Seas. No covering was worn on the legs and feet, except on long tramps over hard ground, when sandals made of leaves tied on with cords of rolled flax fibre were used.

In the matter of the hair, the men were more dressy than the women. All the old chieftainesses whom I met wore their hair cut about four inches from the scalp. That was the original method. Now, however, the younger women have long hair, of which they are page 140very proud, and in New Zealand, as in the South Sea Islands, I had difficulty in persuading them not to unfasten it and let it fall over their shoulders when I was painting their portraits. The hair is black, inclined to be wavy, and rather stiff.

Crozet, in his "Voyages," says: "The married women arrange their hair the same as the men. The girls allow the hair to fall naturally on their necks, and cut it so that it does not grow below the shoulders." The men tied their hair into a knot on the top of their heads. Sometimes it was twisted and sometimes cut a couple of inches above the binding cord, so that it formed a bunch-like knob. Chiefs wore huia feathers stuck into this—black feathers about five inches long resembling cock's feathers, with a white line close to the tip. As the huia is now extinct, these little feathers are worth several pounds apiece. The hair was well oiled, and sometimes powdered with red ochre. Combs of bone, resembling the fancy combs worn by women in Europe and America to-day, were an additional adornment to the head of a chief.

Both men and women had their ears pierced, and they seem to have suspended from them with threads of finely rolled flax such a wide variety of articles as beautifully carved greenstone, bunches of albatross feathers, bones of animals and men, nails, pieces of tin, parts of old gun locks, and small glass bottles. Now one occasionally sees an old chieftainess wearing a fine piece of jade suspended from one ear by a piece of narrow black ribbon. I do not think any attempt was ever made to adorn both ears in a similar manner. page break
A Greeting by Pressing Noses (Hongi)

A Greeting by Pressing Noses (Hongi)

page 141The illustration shows my Maori friend clad in the old-time garments borrowed for the occasion from the Dominion Museum.

With the coming of the white traders, the first great change in dress took place. As they could be worn in the same manner, blankets began to replace the woven cloaks. In Angas's "Atlas," many of the old Maoris are shown to be so attired. In these modern days the women, in their own villages, wear a kerchief over their heads, a faded shawl over their shoulders, and a poor sort of loose dress worn too long to be sanitary, beneath which are to be seen badly shod or bare feet.

Agricultural labour was performed mainly by the men. The seasons for planting and gathering the crops were indicated by the appearance of certain birds, the flowering of certain trees and plants, and by the position of the stars. Thus, the pipiwharauroa, the long-tailed cuckoo, which came from archipelagoes near the equator in December, was said to be the sign for the gathering of the earliest potatoes.

There were two meals a day, one in the morning and the other about sunset, and these were prepared, cooked, and served by the women. Food was cooked in a shed situated at some distance from the sleeping houses. In a model cook house at Whakarewarewa the walls were constructed of removable stacks of wood placed between a double row of upright supports, so that a supply of fuel was always at hand. All the food was cooked in a pit oven, and it was eaten at the cook house or carried by the women in freshly plaited flax baskets to the porch of the whare, where it was served page 142to the men. The women took their meals after the men and by themselves. Certain foods were tapu or forbidden them—human flesh, for instance, and certain birds and fish. At the time of the great feasts, when literally tons of food were prepared and stacked on pyramidal structures, the men assisted in the preparation. When guests were entertained, they were fed first and apart.

When the Maoris migrated to New Zealand, they brought with them seeds of the kumara, or sweet potato. It was well that they did, for the country was not well endowed with edible plants, and was entirely without animal food. The kumara, therefore, became the basis of their food supply. It was planted, harvested, and stored to the accompaniment of appropriate religious observances, and a small stone image representing the god of the kumara was placed in each field, which thus became tapu. These fields were of carefully selected soil on the low-lying areas.

Sometimes the roots were eaten raw, but more often they were boiled in water heated by red-hot stones or baked in the pit oven. If baked slowly, they were more easily crushed into a flour, from which cakes were prepared and baked on hot stones. Another method of preparing the kumaras was to dip them in salt water and then dry them in the sun—really a process of salting. The kumaras were stored in great pits inside the fortified villages, as well as by the roadside, and the entrances were boarded up. Snares were set in the vicinity of the pits to protect the contents from the rats.

At one time the fern root was probably almost as page 143important a diet as the kumara. Its gathering and its preparation entailed much more time and labour, so that, although of indigenous growth, it was largely superseded by the kumara. Three-year-old ferns are usually selected. By that time the root measures about an inch in circumference. It is cut in pieces a few inches long, and kept in an airy place for a year, when it is steeped in water, dried in the sun, and cooked in the pit oven. As the best fern root grows deep in the soil, it was necessary to employ an agricultural implement to obtain it. This was a pointed stick called a ko, which had a transverse piece for foot pressure. In addition to this implement, there was a sort of hoe which men used while they were in a squatting position. With this the earth could be loosened before the application of the ko. I have seen men cutting grass with a small scythe in this squatting position, as well as when actually seated upon the ground, and thus one had a combination of the traditional posture and the use of modern implements.

In another method of preparation, the fern root was dried in the sun for some days and afterwards roasted before a fire. It was then pounded with a stone beater, a work in which both men and women took part. The noise made by this process, as that made by the tapa beating in the South Sea Islands, could be heard some distance off, and fell as a welcome sound on the ear of the traveller, who never carried provisions, so sure was he of hospitality on the road. On trails far distant from a settlement it was the practice to instal kumara pits, the contents of which were at the disposal of travellers. The fern root was chewed and the page 144fibrous parts ejected, the whole of it being eaten only when no other food was available.

As the settlements were mainly on the sea coast or on the banks of streams, fish formed a very important part of the diet. The ancient shell middens found in many parts of the country are a testimony to a well-cultivated appetite for shell-fish. As with the planting and raising of the sweet potato crop, so with fishing, the several stages were accompanied by the recitation of karakias. The first fish caught was thrown back into the water, for the same reason, probably, that even now in the Polynesian Islands, where kava is served in the old manner, a few drops are poured upon the ground before it is partaken of, as a libation to the gods—a ceremony outliving the belief of the gods it was supposed to honour or placate.

There are stories of stranded whales whose flesh furnished a tribal feast. Birds of many varieties abounded, and these were preserved in fat contained in highly carved boxes known as kumete. The early "Voyages" take note of the request of the Maoris for fat, and say they would even eat tallow candles.

"Large quantities of stinking train oil and blubber of seals they would eagerly devour," writes Captain Cook. "When on board ships they not only emptied the lamps, but actually swallowed the cotton with equal voracity. Though the inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land would not even taste our bread, these people devoured it with the greatest eagerness, even when it was rotten and mouldy."

Observations are also made of their taste for sugar and their distaste for salt, the latter of which they were page break
Wife of Te Heu-Heu, Showing Maori Manner of Sitting

Wife of Te Heu-Heu, Showing Maori Manner of Sitting

page 145said never to use. But it must be remembered that their fish was prepared by a process of soaking and resoaking in salt water with successive dryings. This would leave a sediment of salt. The dried fish and the smaller fern roots were the provisions carried in expeditions by canoe, or where enough food was not likely to be available on overland journeys.

As fish was one of the most important articles of food, it was only natural that the natives should have become proficient in procuring it. Their fish-hooks were made of wood ingeniously pointed with bone or shell. Their fish-traps were made of plaited reeds, and were held below the water by stones. Nets and seines varied from those only a few feet in length to those which required a hundred men to drag them through the water. Light-weight wood was used for floats, and small stones bound in rushes were attached to the bottom of the nets as weights. The flax fibre cordage, and indeed other varieties of cordage throughout Polynesia, are as good as any in use elsewhere. Rush was employed in making the seine, and this was tied together with the flax cordage. Smaller nets were made of split flax leaves tied with a knot unknown to Europeans.

Birds were caught in basket-like traps made of straw, or with running nooses over a trough, to which they were attracted by food and water. Concealed close by was the hunter, who lured his prey to the locality by imitating its call, and then, when the victim alighted on the trough and was in position, he pulled the noose. Another method of killing birds was by means of a spear as much as twenty feet in length. The hunter page 146placed the point of his spear near a branch where birds, especially wood pigeons, were wont to roost. Then he patiently waited concealed at the foot of the tree, and with the other end of the spear in readiness to his hands. When a bird alighted on the branch, all that was necessary was a sudden well-directed thrust and the victim was impaled. Considerable ingenuity was also displayed by the hunter in concealing himself, a tent being made of the long leaves of the tree fern or other foliage. Although the Maoris did not know the use of the bow and arrow, they used the sling, and threw arrows by means of the stick and cord, but I have never heard of either of these methods being employed in killing birds.

That the art of pottery was not known to the Maoris is one of those things which puzzle ethnologists, for it would have simplified the home life. Bits of old pottery have been found in river-beds in the South Island, which are said to resemble the type of pottery used in Peru, and their presence has not been accounted for. Crozet, in his "Voyages," translated by King, says:

"In several places I found very good potter's clay, and our master gunner, a very ingenious man, rigged up a potter's wheel, on which, in the presence of the savages, he made several vessels, porringers, and plates, and even baked them under the very eyes of the savages. Some of his essays succeeded perfectly, and he gave the articles to the savages who had seen them turned and baked, but I doubt whether they will profit by such an industry as this, which would afford them a thousand conveniences."

page 147

That the art of pottery making, common in Melanesia, in near-by Tonga, and in Fiji, did not find its way to New Zealand has been accepted by some writers as an indication that the Melanesian races had never settled there.

From the time of the earliest navigators acknowledgment has always been made of the good treatment meted out to the Maori children. After the nursing period, the mother chewed the food herself before giving it to the child, a custom which is to be found in parts of the continent of Europe, and this was done until the child could masticate for itself. Until a baby was able to walk the mother carried it on her back tucked inside her robe. Families were usually small, and adoption was, and still is, a common practice. If a woman has more children than she can attend to, her friends relieve her "to oblige," as one woman told me. This has given rise to the impression that parents have no feelings of strong attachment to their offspring. Be this as it may, there is no gainsaying that nowhere else are children better treated. Like everything else belonging to the Maoris, the children seem to be owned in common, or at least cared for by all alike.

The chief and the rangatira class of boys were educated by the priests in the house of learning, where they were taught the history and genealogy of their tribe, poetry and oratory, incantations and the karakias appropriate to various occasions. On this subject I quote from Dieffenbach:

"The knowledge of the priests is handed down from father to son; and the youths undergo a regular page 148course of instruction. I was present at one of these lessons; an old priest was sitting under a tree, and at his feet was a boy, his relation, who listened attentively to the repetition of certain words which seemed to have no meaning, but which it must have required a good memory to retain in their due order. At the old tohunga's side was part of a man's skull filled with water; into this from time to time he dipped a green branch, which he moved over the boy's head. At my approach the old man smiled good-humouredly, as if to say, 'See how clever I am,' and continued his abracadabra…."

Through their dances and games they were taught sportmanship, agility, quickness of observation and action. There were contests of skill in all their work and games. Tales of their fair race of fairies and of the prowess of their ancestors stimulated their imaginations. There was usually a mythological beginning told of any sort of event or occasion, and a consequent strange mixture of fact and fiction.

The communal character of the dance, which was not only a pleasure, but an exercise, made it an important element in the daily life, and its decay is greatly lamented by the old people, who see in this the real passing of the old life. The individual character of the dances introduced by the Europeans, with their accompaniment of melodious music, appeals to the young "sports," who, after all, are the leading spirits of the tribes. The gatherings during the cold evenings in the communal house of the pa are something of which every old Maori will speak with enthusiasm. A row of shark or whale oil lamps burned down the page 149middle of the floor, and the girls were seated on one side of the house and the boys on the other. Riddles were asked, games played, stories told, and the real and mythical deeds of their long line of ancestors were chanted in rhythmic prose.