Oceania: Aotearoa, Hawai’i, and Rapa Nui


Map of Polynesia


Map, Aotearoa

The Maori of New Zealand, which they call Aotearoa, were a militaristic, village-dwelling group with chiefs governing the socially stratified communities. Territorial boundaries led to intertribal conflicts, and most groups were semi-nomadic. War canoes were launched from fortified coastal villages, and held 40-80 warriors. These were protected by symbolic carvings on the prow and stern, which included protective ancestor figures and small birds with curved beaks called manaia, which may represent the backbone of the sky-father, Rangi. Both of these images were symbolic of life and death. The figure at the prow may represent Tumateuenga, the god of war. The intricate patterns carved had both symbolic and decorative functions. The canoes were seen as metaphors for the ancestors and the cosmos. 


David Henry, image from An historical account of all the voyages round the world : performed by English navigators ; including those lately undertaken by order of His present Majesty ; the whole faithfully extracted from the journals of the voyagers ; Drake, undertaken in 1577-80 ; Cavendish, 1586-88 ; Cowley, 1683-86 ; Dampier, 1689-96 ; Cooke, 1708-11 ; Rogers, 1708-11 ; Clipperton and Shelvocke, 1719-22 ; Anson, undertaken in 1740-44 ; Byron, 1764-66 ; Wallis, 1766-68 ; Carteret, 1766-69 ; and Cook, 1768-71 ; together with that of Sydney Parkinson … and the voyage of Mons. Bougainville … to which is added, an appendix ; containing the journal of a voyage to the North pole, by the Hon. Commodore Phipps, and Captain Lutwidge, 1773 and Maori, prow of a war canoe, n.d. (photo by https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/46/An_historical_account_of_all_the_voyages_round_the_world_-_performed_by_English_navigators%3B_including_those_lately_undertaken_by_order_of_His_present_Majesty%3B_the_whole_faithfully_extracted_from_the_%2814758964636%29.jpg and By Szilas – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49333715)

Maori, Canoe prow, c. 1860 and war canoe post, c. 1890 (photo By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-31343973-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/215725, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27332262 and By Daderot – I took this photograph., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15690114)


Maori, Whakapakoko rakau, n.d. (photo http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/APICollection/media/248096/640)

Koru designs, or curved lines turning in on themselves becoming circles, were key elements in Maori art, from tattooing to painting and sculpture. These designs may be based on a growing fern frond, and the element pf growth and life seem to be important to the koru. The whakapakoko rākau or god stick had a pointed end so it could be stuck into the ground. It was used as a temporary shrine for an auta (deity) by tohunga ahurewa (priestly experts). Tohunga were often responsible for healing people, and sometimes used god sticks to concentrate the power of a particular deity. Even functional objects were decorated with images of deities and ancestors.

Maori, Waka hula, 19th century and Hei tiki, n.d. (photo By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37182037 and By Szilas (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Maori, Pataka (photo By daryl_mitchell from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada – Maori Buildings, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49439293)

Important objects, foods, and other valuables had to be stored in specific ways. Treasure boxes, called papahou or Waka huia, were used for storing valuables. They were hung from the rafters of the house, and were elaborately carved on their undersides. One of the objects stored in them were the Hei tiki, greenstone ornaments that represent ancestors. They were heirlooms that reflected the transmission of authority and sanctity to descendants. Storehouses, called pataka, were used to protect precious foods, seed tubers and treasured objects. Pataka were elaborately carved with figures that represented plenty and fertility, and enhanced the prestige of the village.

Maori, Waiwhetū Marae in Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt, New Zealand and Interior of the Whare Runanga Marae (photo By Stuartyeates – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44379722 and By Sids1 from New Zealand – The Maori Whare Runanga (Meeting Place), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37286245)

The Marae, or the meeting house, because larger and more important after colonization, as the Maori attempted to hold on to their culture in the face of pressure. The building represents a sacred ancestor. Every part of the marae, from the carved panels to the lintels, is carved with symbolic imagery relating to the ancestors and clan history. The interior has pou tokomanawa in the center that support the roof, and pou pou and tukutuku on the sides. The ceiling has rafter paintings with images of koru. Many of the pou pou represent specific ancestors, identified by their facial tattooing. Tukutuku panels are typically women by women with designs that related to ancestor images or their names or plant imagery. The rafters were carved with kowhaiwhai designs. Tekoteko figures were attached to the gable of the marae. They are meant to ward off intruders. Gable masks represent the face of the ancestor the structure represents.

Maori man with a tattooed face, 1860-89 and Gottfried Landauer, A portrait of Te Rangi Pikinga, 1880s (photo By Non identifié/Unknown – Photothèque du Musée de l’Homme via French National Library URL [1] Reference No. Cote :1998-3171-139. Acq. : Museum national d’Histoire naturelle . – Collection Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero, Notice n° : FRBNF38438431, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4323578 and By Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) – http://www.lindaueronline.co.nz/maori-portraits/kuinioroa-daughter-of-rangi-kopinga-te-rangi-pikinga, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17537787)

Tattooing among the Maori was linked to status, and they were considered tapu during the operation, meaning they were spiritually dangerous, and had to be fed by funnels. Maori facial tattooing was called moko, and the faces were individualized. These designs were used as signatures in the nineteenth century. Women’s facial tattooing was simpler. Other parts of the body were also covered in traditional Maori tattooing, with similar swirling forms.

Hawai’i, ‘ahu ‘uha, late18th-early 19th century and Lerouge and Forget after S. Leroy, after Jacques Arago, artist with French captain and navigator de Frecycinet,. An officer of King Liholiho (Kamehameha II) in full dress, 1819 (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28960430 and By Jacques Arago – National Library of Australia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17260495)

The native people of Hawai’i are a Polynesian people, who settled the islands between c. 1200. The feather cloak, the ‘ahu ‘ula, was held in high esteem in Hawai’i. The designs on the cloaks were composed of abstract shapes of solid colors. The crescent shape that was the typical design was formed by the woven coconut fiber lining to which the feathers were attached, and was further repeated by the colors of the feathers. Usually red, black, and yellow feathers were used. The red was a symbol of royalty, and the rainbow, which was another royal symbol. The cloaks were conceived of as rainbows, which symbolized the presence of a chief. The name ‘ahu ‘ula means red cloak. The use of these cloaks were restricted to men of the royal class, the ali’i, and one could only be admitted to this class through birth, but never lost the prerogatives of this class. The material value of the ‘ahu ‘ula lay in the vast expenditure of labor required for collection. The amount of labor involved in collection gave value to the feathers, which yellow being the most valuable. One’s position at court gave greater access to feathers, and the cloaks were worn on ceremonial occasions and into battle. They demonstrated political power and offered protection according to one’s value in the social hierarchy. Along with the capes, chiefs would wear wicker and feather helmets into battle, which mimicked the shape and coloring of the capes. Fly whisks, called kahili, were used at the royal court as well, emphasizing the ka mo’i’s claim to the feathers. Hawaiian ornaments may have carried metaphorical social and sacred power, derived from the materials from which they were made as well as the process of making them.

Class was based on birth, whether you were royal, a peasant (maka ‘ainana), or slave (kuawa) with no land or rights. The ka mo’i was the supreme and absolute chief. This was a position held by men, and was based on rank and the ability to rule, which was in turn based on the number of followers you had and the ability to declare what was kapu (taboo). Kapu was the external and internal force for order in the social and religious life of the community.

Hawai’i,  Reconstruction of ceremonial structure at Kamakahonu known as ʻAhuʻena Heiau and Hale o Keawe (photo By No machine-readable author provided. Sasquatch assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=806139 and By Gillfoto – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21217776)

Outdoor temples, called heiau, were religious precincts that held carved images of the gods. Hawaiian deities and their conceptualizations about them express the importance of genealogy, the family, and the elevation of individuals by virtue of their descent from specific ancestors. Small stick gods, called akua ka’ai, were used for personal devotion.  Images of the gods were also made in the same feather-working techniques as the helmets and cloaks. These can also be related to the war god. Some images represented other deified ancestors or lesser deities. These are often called ki’i ‘aumakua.


Map, Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is geographically the furthest east of the Polynesian islands. It is believed to have been settled between 300 & 1200. Moai probably commemorate elevated ancestors. These were placed on elevated stone platforms called ahu, and had hat-like pukao on top of their heads. After the moai were no longer being carved and erected, the Birdman Cult achieved ascendancy. The moai kavakava may represent deceased ancestors or demons, and may have been hung around the neck or from the rafters of the home. Male and female figures, called moai tangata and moai papa, were also sculpted.

Rapa Nui, Moai on ahu platform and Ahu Nau Nau (photo By Bjørn Christian Tørrissenderivative work: George Tsiagalakis – original work by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36590098 and By TravelingOtter – Ahu Nau Nau – Easter Island, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28473627)

Rapa Nui, Petroglyph related to the Birdman Cult, the Make Make god and Moai kavakava (photo CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=681929 and By WereSpielChequers – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7788990)


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