The Gift of His Fathers
Te Apanui, the old chief of Ngati-Awa, lay dying, in his village on the tidal riverside at Whakatane. He was a man of wisdom and much curious knowledge; he was, for one thing, a skilled artist in wood-carving, an art for which his forefathers had been famed. Skill in such a craft, which the highest rangatira did not disdain, was often to a large extent hereditary; there are families in which the eldest sons have been noted for their beautiful wood-carving for one generation after another. The art of the whao, the carver’s chisel, descended from father to son in that small tribe of well-schooled artificers Ngati-Tarawhai, of Okataina and Rotoiti, in the Arawa country. In Ngati-Awa Te Apanui’s father before him had been a tohunga-whakairo, and the son, Wepiha Apanui, hoped to inherit the ancestral talent.
Wepiha intended to be by his father’s side when the old man died, but as that moment seemed long delayed, he agreed to go out for a morning’s fishing near the heads with a pakeha friend who was on a visit to the village. The pair anchored their canoe just inside the bar and began their fishing, but scarcely had they dropped their lines overboard before they were startled by the bang-banging of double-barrel guns and the crack of rifles in the village.
“Aue!” exclaimed Wepiha. “Kua ngaro te whao!” (“The art of the carving-chisel is lost!”) In great agitation he pulled in his line at once and in furious haste hauled up the stone anchor. “It’s all your fault!” he cried to his companion. “You would insist on coming out fishing, and now the old man’s dead!” Seizing his paddle he sent the spray flying, his pakeha friend plunging in his blade just as vigorously, urging the light canoe towards the beach.
Dashing ashore at the village waterfront, Wepiha rushed up to the chief’s house, thrusting the people aside right and left.
“I may yet be in time!” he exclaimed to his companion.
The old man lay under an awning spread in front of the house. Was he dead yet? Wepiha, with one glance, saw that the gun-firing in announcement of death was premature. The kaumatua was still breathing, but he was at his last gasp. It may be that he rallied his fast-ebbing forces until his beloved eldest son had reached him.
Wepiha instantly stooped down at his father’s side and seized the old man’s right thumb. He bent down and put the thumb in his mouth, page 161 and closed his teeth on it, then released it. The next moment, with a long expiring sigh, the chieftain’s spirit passed.
“He is dead!” said Wepiha to the people around him as he rose. The tears flowed from his eyes and that was the signal for an outburst of grief and gun-firing from the assembly. The women gathered about the low couch of death to raise the tangi wail. Wepiha, after a fitting display of filial sorrow, walked away secretly elated. The art of the whao was his. He had just been in time to receive the silent gift, to imbibe the sacred wisdom of the whakairo from his father’s well-skilled hand. He had been taught carving, but only in this way could the full and peculiar knowledge of the tribe-head be passed on to him. And that afternoon he cheerfully began work in his carving shed, on a paddle for his pakeha fishing mate.