A Story of Maori Gratitude.
The Maori was punctilious in such matters of social etiquette as the returning of a feast or a gift. The feast was a tribal obligation; the guests could not rest content until they had entertained their hosts at a kai-haukai. Sometimes even individual personal services were taken up by the group of families constituting the hapu, who considered it their duty to make a fitting requital for kindness rendered to one of their members. A pakeha often enough would consider an expression of thanks sufficient. Not so the Maori. He would rack his brains and tax his resources to the utmost to repay a favour in the most generous manner possible. I have known of quite trifling services to people of the older generation handsomely acknowledged, in the form of valuable gifts, sometimes after the original action had all but been forgotten. When the saving of life was involved, gratitude knew no bounds.
This example of native custom and of the intensity of feeling aroused by a deed of humanity was related to me by an old Arawa friend of mine, the venerable woman Heni te Kiri-karamu, who in her young days had fought under two flags, first the Kingite and then the Government. The period was the Waikato War, the scene the Upper Waihou, not far from the present town of Matamata. Many hundreds of people had assembled at Peria and other Kingite villages and camps on the Upper Waihou at the end of 1863, and Heni and her Koheriki sub-tribe rejoiced in the security and rest and food they found there in the fruitful land of the Ngati-Haua after their perils and scanty rations during the months spent on the warpath from the Wairoa Ranges southward. Her brother and sister left Peria to join their compatriots in the great Waikato fortress at Paterangi; Heni remained with her children and her mother. She was about twenty-three years of age at this time; she had been seven years married, and had carried a child on her back all through the earlier part of the war; carried, too, a gun and ammunition. Her husband and she had parted.
One day a party of the Koheriki, Piri-Rakau and other people in the principal village set out to Hangaa, across the Waihou River, on a bush expedition for wild honey. They had to cross the Waihou River, which was high after recent heavy rains in the hills. Heni watched all her companions swim or wade the swift stream. She could not swim, so she attempted to wade it. When she reached the middle of the river the current swept her into deep water. Her friends had passed on out of sight and hearing, but they quickly missed her, and several of them came back to the river to look for her.page 83
By this time Heni was all but drowned. She had been carried under, and came to the surface again some distance down the river. A man named Te Apaapa saw her head appear, and running along the high bank he jumped into the flooded river. She had sunk again, but Te Apaapa dived, got a grip of her, and brought her to the bank. With one hand he caught hold of a koromiko shrub firmly rooted in the bank, and supporting Heni with the other, kept her head out of the water until help arrived.
Heni was apparently drowned when she was lifted up the bank. The Maori had a heroic remedy for such cases that often saved a life that seemingly had departed. The people quickly made a fire of green wood and leaves that produced a thick smoke, and held her over the fire. They shook the water out of her lungs. The penetrative wood smoke was exactly the irritant required to restore her breathing. She was soon able to continue the journey to the bee trees of Hangaa.
Laden with honey-filled calabashes and vessels of bark, packed in flax kits, the party returned to Peria two days later. They met their war company returning from the Waikato after an unsuccessful attempt to join the main body of the Kingites in Paterangi. Little was said about Te Apaapa’s rescue of Heni from drowning until all were assembled at home again. Then, on the marae, the village parade ground, there was a dramatic scene one morning.
Heni’s brother, Te Waha-huka, and the elder people of the Koheriki had decided to offer a gift to Te Apaapa as a reward for saving the young woman’s life. They therefore gathered all their property of value, such as mere weapons, tiki and ear-pendants of greenstone, and the finest decorated mats of flax and feathers. These articles they carried out and laid before Te Apaapa and his kinsfolk of the Piri-Rakau, the bush-dwelling tribe who lived in the hills above Tauranga. They also offered a share in their lands at Rotorua should they survive to reach their old tribal home.
But not a thing would Te Apaapa or his friends touch. “It was but our duty to save the life of one of our people,” said they. “We are your relatives, we of the Piri-Rakau; wherefore then should we be paid for so ordinary an action, one that any one of you would have done for us?”
Everything laid out on the marae before Te Apaapa was carried back ceremoniously and placed in front of Heni and her friends. There was an interval of silence, and then Heni rose. She walked across to Te Apaapa and spoke. “You saved me from death,” she said, “and you have refused to accept the gifts we offer in token of our gratitude. I have nothing else to offer you—only myself. I give myself to you now, as your pononga— your servant. I am here at your feet.” And there she seated herself, her gaze fixed on the ground, her shawl drawn over her head.page 84
This speech and the profound feeling of obligation and gratitude which prompted it, following upon the Koheriki’s preferred gift of their possessions, touched the hearts of the assembled people. One man after another rose and spoke in admiration of Heni’s offer. “It is the act of a chieftainess,” they said, “the behaviour of a true rangatira. It befits one who is a descendant of the great ancestor Rongomai-papa.”
So there the matter rested. The obligation was discharged; the saving of life had been requited by the offer of a life. Gratitude could go no further. But very soon there were other things in the moving drama of life to absorb the attention of the people. There was a call to arms from Tauranga, where the Ngai-te-Rangi were about to be attacked by the British general, and presently Heni and her friends were doing battle for their lives in the entrenchment of the Gate Pa.