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The Coming of the Maori

Games of Dexterity and Agility

Games of Dexterity and Agility

Jackstones (ruru, koruru, kai makamaka, etc.) is played throughout Polynesia and corresponds to the English game of knuckle bones. It was played usually with five pebbles which were placed in various positions, one thrown up in the air, and the others picked up singly while one was in the air. There were various movements, each with its name, the name being called as the player commenced the movement. One movement consisted of throwing up the five pebbles and catching all or as many as possible on the back of the hand. The various movements were in ordered sequence and when a player failed in one of them, the opponent took over. The one who went furthest scored a point. If a player completed the sequence, a second sequence was commenced and carried on until a movement was missed. This established the mark which the opponent strove to beat. A variation of the game consisted of using fifteen pebbles instead of five, a variation which is played in Samoa. The term ruru and koruru evidently applies to the action of bringing the stones together, kai page 242applies to the stones, and makamaka refers to the action of throwing the stones into the air. The game required quickness of eye and dexterity of hand to be successful. Best (18, p. 29) describes the various details of the game.

Cat's cradle or string figures (whai) is world wide and known throughout Polynesia. A six-foot cord with the ends spliced was stretched between the hands and various figures were set up. The figures were given names and many of them were supposed to represent some object or incident in mythology. Some required the assistance of one or more helps to hold some of the loops and single individuals sometimes used the toes and teeth as well as both hands to hold the multiple loops of a complicated figure (Plate XIX). A series of figures were produced from some initial figures, each change having its distinctive name. Women were usually more expert than men, probably through devoting more time to the pastime. In competitions, two persons sat back to back and started to make the same figure at a given signal. The one who finished first turned round and flaunted the completed figure in the opponent's face. A study of string figures among various tribes was made by Johannes C. Andersen (1) and from his experience he was able quickly to detect what the figure would be although a different tribal name was given beforehand. During a Dominion Museum expedition at Koriniti on the Whanganui River, I asked a group of women if they could show the pakeha visitor some string figures. The local speed artist assented and smiled somewhat superciliously as Andersen produced two strings from his pocket. She started off with her first figure with Andersen closely following her movements, He recognized the figure she was about to produce and completed it before her. She became serious and tried some others but Andersen recognized them all and finished each one before his instructress. With a look of chagrin on her face, she exclaimed, "Aue, kua mate au i te pakeha nei!" (Alas! I am beaten by this white man). In justice to my countrywoman, I may say that she had probably not touched a string for years.

Dart throwing (teka, neti, niti, pehu) is known throughout Polynesia and I saw it played in the Cook Islands and Samoa. The method throughout is practically the same, the dart (teka) being a straight rod about as thick as the little finger and somewhere about three feet long. The Maori dart was usually a length of dry fern stalk (Pteris aquilina) with the thicker butt end bound with a piece of green flax to form a knobbed front end termed poike. A stretch of clear ground was selected and a hard mound of earth formed at one or either end of the field. The player held the dart between the thumb and middle finger of the right hand with the forefinger over the smaller end. He took a run up to the mound and cast the dart with an underhand throw so that the poike end just grazed the upper end of the mound. The dart, if cast properly, ricochetted off the page 243mound and rose in the air with a long trajectory something like the flight of a golf ball but not so far. Skill was required to direct the dart at the right angle to the mound for if too low, it did not rise, or, in some throws, it rose too high and lost distance. In the competition I saw at Aitutaki, the darts were bounced off the level on a hard part of the village street and the longest throw was 86 yards. The game was played by any number and each round counted one to the longest throw. The competitors picked up their darts and usually threw back from the other end. The first to score ten was the winner and this number also applied in the Cook Islands. The dart occurs in historical narratives; and in the story of Wharematangi, a dart imbued with mana was the means of locating his father.

An interesting accessory to the throwing dart was the use of a throwing cord to lengthen the purchase on the dart. In parts of Polynesia, a short cord with a knot at the end was passed around the dart to cross over the cord near the knot so that the strain kept it in position. The other end of the cord was wrapped around the right forefinger and the dart with the cord kept taut was held between the thumb and forefinger. The arm was stretched back to full length, shoulder high, and the dart was cast with an overhand throw. As the dart passed forward, the end of the knotted cord was automatically released.

A variation present in Hawaii, Cook Islands, and Samoa consisted of tying the short knotted cord to a throwing stick. The knotted end was fixed to the dart as described above and some spaced spiral turns made around the dart which was laid on the ground, the cord being kept taut to hold the knot in position. The throwing stick was then jerked forward and the dart sped through space. In New Zealand, the dart was stuck lightly in the ground at a forward angle and the throwing stick (kotaha) with the knotted cord jerked to propel the dart forward. This method was utilized in war as described on page 273.

Posture dances (haka) were included by Best (18, p. 46) under games requiring manual dexterity and they are too well known to require much description. They required no apparatus; the energetic movements of hands and feet with the accompanying ferocity of facial expression heightened by glaring eyes and protruding tongue needed no adventitious aid. The words that gave time to the action were composed to meet various social events but, though the performances were peaceful in intent, they had to be demonstrated with energy and sound to make the welcome truly hearty.

The women's poi dance, however, used an accessory in the form of the poi ball which is unique for Polynesia. The poi balls in common use in modern times are made of dry bullrush leaves (raupo), about the size of an orange but slightly elongated, and with a short string. A better class page 244of poi to be found in museums are works of art. Some were made of close netting with the interior stuffed with raupo down and others were made with the taniko technique and also stuffed with soft material. They were usually decorated with tufts of dog's hair (awe) and hence were named poi awe. Usually they had a long string and the movements with the long poi were slower than with the modern short poi. The string of the poi was held in the right hand and the ball was twirled and beaten back with the left hand while various movements were made over the shoulder, to the sides, the thighs, the knees, the head, the poi balls being kept twirling in perfect time to the songs sung by the leaders. The poi dance performed by a well-trained team of young women is the most graceful of all Polynesian dances.