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

Chapter VIII — Games and Fishing

page 99

Chapter VIII
Games and Fishing

While sketching out of doors one day, a group of Maori children pressed closely about me. I requested them to stand a little farther back. They complied with my request, but two of the older boys persisted in trying to get at a piece of string which lay beneath my easel. I passed it to one of them, asking him to return it to me when he saw me preparing to leave. He wanted it cut in two, and this I did for him. In a moment or two both he and his companion had started to make a "cat's cradle," or whai as the natives call it. Since then I have found that it is also called Maui, this mythical hero, it is said, having left it as an inheritance to the Maori children.

Each boy played the game by himself, using his teeth where the two hands alone could not manage to change the figures. It is an old native game, with quite a literature describing the various transformations of the string. Each figure bears a distinctive name, and is supposed to have a resemblance to a thing or episode, or be an ideogram of some historical or mythological subject or event. In addition to this, each figure is taken to represent different stages in the creation of man. I was told that through this medium alone the Maori children knew of events in the history of their race which would otherwise have been lost to them. This interested me more than my sketching, and I told the children I would give a small bag of sweets to each one who showed me a real Maori game or pastime. One lad ran off to a farm building near page 100by, and returned walking on a pair of stilts similar to those used by European boys. I knew this to be an old Maori sport, and I had previously seen stilt-walking on some of the other Polynesian Islands. The first prize winner was a generous little chap, and began to share his booty, and I thought the chance of further demonstrations had gone. After much talk and discussion, however, another boy disappeared, taking with him my pieces of string. After a few minutes he reappeared trying to fly a kite—another old Maori game—but he failed to get it to mount. Eventually it was caught in the foliage of a tree, and a boy about twelve years of age, slim and tall, offered to extricate it. He climbed the trunk of the tree as I have always seen boys do it, but when he reached the large branch he did not depend upon it for support, but, in the manner of a monkey, swung himself with great rapidity from one small branch to another. Having reached the kite he grabbed it, and descended in the same quick, light manner, not by way of the trunk, but from small branch to branch, finally dropping to earth from a height of ten feet more in the manner of a gymnast than an awkward boy. As this performance elicited no remark from the children or from the older folk who had by this time joined the circle, I presumed that it was not an unusual one. The kite was made of paper, but in olden times they made their kites of large leaves. They were commonly bird-like in form, and the string was made of strong strips of flax rolled together. Kites were previously used for sending up signals in time of war, and when flying over a pa they indicated that the inhabitants were at peace.

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After awarding prizes to the tree-climber as well as to the kite-flyer, I urged the girls to enter the contest, but they did not seem to know what was Maori and what was pakeha. One girl about nine years of age was standing by a fine type of old Maori woman, whose lips and chin were well tattooed, and whose hair was worn in the old native fashion a few inches long. The woman did not, or would not, speak English, and seemed unwilling to assist the child in recalling any Maori game. She walked off, apparently in a sullen mood, but presently returned with an armful of rushes which she had freshly cut. The girl took them and climbed up an embankment close by. She gathered her skirts to the front between her legs, sat on the rushes, and holding the front end in her hands, slid to the bottom of the embankment. This is evidently the children's form of papa reti, a long narrow board like a ski, which I have seen in museums. On these the men used to toboggan down the hill-sides, and experts could stand on them while in motion, though they were only four inches wide.

Some of the children forgot the lure of the sweets for the moment, and started to play at tobogganing, but the tattooed lady, albeit apparently unwilling, was in reality most helpful. She called them back and started them at a game which, although very simple, seemed as new to them as to me, and having a competitive element we all had a hand in it. Small hoops were made of the young manuka branches, and the game was to roll them over any obstacle which came in the straight course from goal to goal, a distance of fifty feet. The ground was uneven, and two stones had to page 102be passed over, and so we made no worthy records. Both practice and skill are needed to accomplish the feat, and the common failure we suffered made us all better friends and the competition even keener, for several bags of sweets remained as prizes.

Porotiti, mentioned by early settlers, is a similar game, but in this the hoop is beaten with a stick from one opponent to another. In the good old times, I heard, it was the custom to stretch over the hoops the skin, preferably tattooed, from the thighs of a slain enemy. This seemed to complete their repertoire of outdoor games, but they had overlooked two of the commonest, possibly because they did not know they were Maori games—tops and skipping, the latter called piu. The old lady suggested these, and the children explained them to me. Skipping-ropes were made out of the long creepers which are common in the New Zealand bush. Tops were formerly made of hollowed gourds, pointed stones, and sharpened wood and bone, and many examples of these are found in the museums. As is the custom with us, the Maoris had games which were associated with the seasons of the year—moons, as they expressed them. Special songs were formerly sung as an accompaniment to all games, but the majority of these have apparently been lost to the people, though they may be found in the European literature on the subject.

Indoor evening diversions similar to our own "parlour games" were common. For instance, there was the game which was played by conversing in words, every one of which began with the same letter or sound. There was that known as Ti, in which the players had page break
Glimpse of New Zealand Bush

Glimpse of New Zealand Bush

page 103to touch quickly the finger which indicated a number called out by a selected player. There was the game played by tossing up four balls and keeping them all going at once. Another, called tutukai, was similar to the European game of odd and even. Riddles, too, were a favourite amusement. The game of draughts or checkers is common all through Polynesia. In the Bishop Museum in Honolulu there is a stone "checker board" with sunken checker holes. In these days of dance halls and moving pictures, which have penetrated into all but the most remote settlements, such evening amusements have largely lost their attraction.

The late John White, a noted exponent of Maori lore, tells of the game of kanikani, a singular but favourite amusement among the New Zealand natives. It is carried out by making the most hideous grimaces and contortions the human body is capable of to the accompaniment of a noise which is a compound of groans and sneezes. The performers sit side by side, and he who can make the most inhuman grimace is considered the best performer and is the most admired. A contrivance known as the pakuru had a distant relationship with the Jews' harp. This was a piece of matai wood about eighteen inches in length and an inch in diameter. It was slightly flat in the middle, which was left smooth, while the ends were tapered and carved. It was suspended from the thumb of the left hand by a piece of string tied to each end, and in such a way that one end was a little within the teeth when the mouth was partially open. Interlaced between the three middle fingers page 104of the right hand the performers held another piece of matai wood about ten inches long and about as thick as a man's middle finger. With this he gentlystruck the suspended stick while he breathed the words of a chant, producing the higher or lower tones by closing or opening the lips.

Amongst the youths and men recreation took the form of contests of strength and agility as a preparation for the career of a warrior. This preparation began at an early age, and it was a common sport for both boys and men to form in opposing ranks and hurl spears at one another, which had to be parried or caught and thrown back. Attack and defence with reed darts and even weapons took the form of a game. Target practice with darts taught a nicety of aim, while its competitive possibilities gave it the nature of sport. Practice in running was often acquired by throwing small bundles of grass into a strong wind and following in pursuit of them. Sham fights called for all the attributes of a warrior, and the most agile and skilful in these contests were singled out as the warriors for future campaigns.

Writing of an evening devoted to public sports on the sea beach, Ellis says:

"No part of the sports, however, appeared so interesting to the natives as a sham fight, in which the warriors wore their full dress, bore their usual weapons, and went through the different movements of actual engagements."

Little or nothing is known by the Maoris of the origin or the significance of their games. Indeed, much the same may be said of the well-established page 105games of the white races. Those of the Maoris, for the most part, had their origin in religious observances. The bull-roarer, for instance, two forms of which are mentioned by Hamilton, is said to have been used at the tangi or mourning ceremony held at the death of a chief for driving off evil spirits. A form of top which gave off a mournful sound when spinning was also used on these occasions.

Of aquatic sports so common in the other Polynesian Islands I saw but little, and that merely diving, which, however, has the peculiarity of being done feet foremost.

It will be seen that many of the old games of the Maoris and those of the European children of the present day are closely related, a circumstance which is no doubt due to the conservatism peculiar to women and children of primitive races, and which may some day be of assistance in revealing from which portion of the earth's surface these people originally migrated.

Fishing was one of the pastimes as well as one of the serious occupations of the men; none of the work relating to it was menial. It was the work of the upper classes. Great expeditions used to come down to the coast from the interior, and their catches of fish were dried and stored. Shell-fish of various kinds found in the sand of the beaches and on the rocks were a favourite form of food, and the rivers and streams provided eels, crayfish, whitebait, and one or two other varieties. Lines, hooks, and nets were all made by the men. The work was strictly tapu, and karakias were said at the various stages, as in carving, canoe building, or weaving, or, in fact, in all the occupations page 106necessary for the maintenance of life. After a haul of any considerable size the fish were cooked in three ovens—one for the gods, one for the chiefs, and one for the common people.

Fish had a religious significance, as they have in many of the ceremonies of the ancient world, and in Christianity as well. The first enemy killed in battle, whose fate it was to be the victim of a cannibal feast, was called "The Fish of Maui." That, too, is the name for New Zealand itself, after the mythical hero who figures so prominently in the folk-lore of the country. It was Maui who caught the sun in a noose, preventing him from travelling too fast, thus causing the days to be longer. He made a fish-hook of his grandfather's jawbone, and, with his brothers, he went far out to sea. Then he dropped his hook and his line to the bottom of the ocean. There it caught in the house of Tonganui, the grandson of Tangaroa, the god of fish. Maui pulled as only a super-being could, and caused great waves to rise. His brothers pleaded with him to desist, but Maui persisted. He pulled and pulled until he had dragged up Tonganui's house and the land on which it was built. Thereafter the land was known as "The Fish of Maui." This tale is told with many variations.

Another fish story, showing the power thought to be wielded by the god of fish life, is told by John White.

"At this time (the beginning of all life) the fish were of one shape and colour. That which gave rise to the many varieties now known is believed by the Maori to have been occasioned by a man who, on account of continued provocations, left his wife and child. The page 107wife went to Tangaroa, the god of fish, and desired him to punish her husband. Tangaroa collected his forces and made an attack on the settlement in which the deserting husband resided. The fish gained a victory over the men of the settlement, and as a recompense for their valour Tangaroa granted the request which any of the fish might make. The gurnet wished to be red and be able to groan like a dying man; hence the colour of this fish, and the groan which it makes when caught. The skate saw a boy's kite and became, by request, like it. The swordfish saw a spear, and asked for a spear to his nose. All the fish, having been transformed by their own request, became the propagators of the many varieties now known."

Nets were of all sizes, from small hand nets to huge seines, which had to be drawn by as many as fifty people. Fish traps were made with the mouth narrow and widening out to the base, somewhat after the shape of the unspillable ink-bottle, so that when the fish got inside escape was impossible. Eels, found in the mud banks of the rivers, were plentiful and well liked as food. The Maoris dragged them out of their burrows in the bed of the rivers by hand, and killed them by pressing the thumb-nail into the back of the head. Another method was to hunt them with torches. Attracted by the light, they came out of their mud holes and were easily caught. Each eel was then cooked by attaching it to the end of a stick, which was inclined over a fire. The mental attitude of the Maoris towards eels may be judged by the fact that in one myth Maui is said to have one eye like that of an eel and the other of greenstone. A relationship is also page 108found in mythology between the valuable greenstone and the fish. One story is to the effect that this stone was originally a fish which, when with much difficulty caught, hardened into a stone. It is also said that a great monster of the deep causes the ebbing and flowing of the tides by his heavy breathing, and thus influences fishing operations.