MAORI MATERIAL CULTURE
The Community – Life and Death
Women in general were regarded as being the inferior of man, though it was possible for a woman endowed with initiative to acquire considerable standing in her own tribe. Children retained an interest in all land, fishing, and seashore rights derived from both parents, and this in many cases elevated the status of women. As Best (1924) stated: “the Maori leaned to agnatic filiation; the male sex possesses greater mana than does the female, for is not man descended directly from the gods, while woman had to be created from earth!”
It was usual for children to be born in the open air or in a temporary building specially erected for the purpose. Children of superior families were received into the tribe after a special baptismal ceremony conducted by a leading priestly expert. Small babies were retained at night in a kit (kete) packed with fine moss or muka fibre. In this manner they were able to survive the crowded conditions of the whare-puni. As they grew older they were carried on the backs of the mothers who wore a large-sized cloak, usually a korowai, to hold them in position.
When a person was taken sick he was immediately transferred to a temporary building set apart from the sleeping houses of the majority of the people. He became tapu until recovery was effected or death intervened in which case the hut would eventually be burned. Most Maoris preferred to die, as they had lived, in the open air. Sometimes sick persons were taken a considerable distance that they might die on their own land. Carved pillars or posts might indicate resting places in the case of a chief.
The powers of memory possessed by the Maori were considerable and highly developed. Schools of learning were established, the scholars being selected youths and young men from superior families. There were various grades of schools, the most tapu being the Whare Wananga, where a knowledge of esoteric lore, ritual, and ceremony was imparted by a tohunga. In such schools, under conditions of intense tapu, the sacred teaching and rites pertaining to the cult of Io the Supreme Being were performed as well as the lore pertaining to the various heavens. Certain stones termed whatu turuki were presented to pupils who gained proficiency in all grades of instruction, a high standard of aptitude being required. In schools of various grades men were taught their genealogy or whakapapa, in most cases reaching back to one or another of the ancestors who came in the “Fleet”.
Death to the Maori was an event of considerable importance and great significance, for it ushered in the rite of the tangi, weeping for the dead, now limited to three days, but once longer. The body of the deceased was trussed with knees up before becoming rigid, the arms being placed across the breast and the body covered with a garment. The hair was oiled, dressed, and adorned with plumes of native birds such as huia and long-tailed cuckoo. The face was adorned with red ochre. Usually after the days of the tangi had been completed, the body was placed in the branches of a tree, a cave, or sacred burial place, several trees being set aside for this purpose in different localities. One such tree at Hokianga Harbour was still tapu because of the bodies placed in its branches. Laceration of the body was a common custom during the tangi, chiefly confined to near women relatives. At a later date it was usually customary to have a bone-scraping ceremony when the bones would be placed in a secure hiding place.
by William John Phillipps, formerly Registrar and Ethnologist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.
- The Coming of the Maori, Buck, Sir P. H. (1949)
- The Moa-hunter Period in Maori Culture, Duff, R. (1956)
- Anthropology in the South Seas (jt. ed.) Freeman, J. D., and Geddes, W. R. (1959)
- Culture Change in Prehistoric New Zealand, Golson, J.