Flax Weavers of the Far North

A recent exhibition of flax weaving at Outreach showed traditional and modem craft-work using flax gathered around Spirits Bay in the far north of the island


Kapowairau was the departing place long ago of our Tupuna Tohe, who named all the bays, rivers and lakes as he journeyed south in search of his missing daughter. At Mangonui he looked back sadly at his homeland in the distance and wept. This place is called Maringinoa nga roimata. (Where the tears fall). Tohe was never to return alive. His last message to his tribe in the event of his death was 'Kapohia taku wairua (catch my spirit on its journey to Te Wairua)'. The tribe then gave the name Kapowairua (catch the spirit) to Spirits Bay. This area is where the harakeke (flax) is collected.(1)

The art of weaving was fundamental to the ancient Maori in their daily lives. From the harakeke was born the tamata for covering the floors of the whare, kete or kono for carrying kai, hinaki for snaring eels, the puipui and the tipare to clothe and adorn the body, and the tukutuku - the ornamental lattice-work between the upright slabs of the walls in a meeting house. This marvellous and various plant grows in abundance at the base of Maunga Piko, the mountain at Spirits Bay.

At the base of Manunga Piko is a prayer written on the back of the coastal map enclosed in a kete and whariki and buried in the heart of the land of Tohe. Our elders put it there and they await the return of their children to these lands to cultivate them again and to build nikau and raupo whare for the tutoring of weaving in this place where flax abounds for the future generations. (2)

They sat, these Maori women of Te Hapua, in laughing chatting groups beneath the rich golden sample tamata, made by Ngawini Abraham . . . a colourful puipui interwoven with speckled maurea topshells, a gay selection of hats (potae) surrounded a delicately patterned tukutuku panel. Nearby hung a bunch of bright golden pingao from which the tukutuku wall panels are woven.

Maunga Piko

A relaxed feeling of warmth and joy infused the space and mingled with the craft-work festooning the walls - an uncommon sight within a usually bare and aesthetically austere art gallery space. I was struck by the strong sensual, visual and aromatic impact of the exhibition . . . the delicious smell - like new mown hay - the silky texture of the glowing harakeke, the subtle and brilliant colours juxtaposed together, the variety of refined traditional patterns formed through variable tensions and spaces: all made with skilled and loving hands in an astonishingly short two month period prior to the exhibition.

I couldn't resist one of the superbly woven kits in black and pale gold, a perfect blend of subtle colour and geometric pattern: but I had to put in an order - all the exhibition pieces had been sold.

Ola Schold, of ACORD (Auckland Committee On Racism and Discrimination), one of the people who have helped and encouraged the weavers of Te Hapua, introduced me to three older kuias from the village. All have examples of their work in the exhibition. Taukiri Neho (Auntie Mary) and her sister Neta Parone, and Hana Romana Murray (Saana) agreed to be interviewed after a long exciting but very tiring week. Taukiri Neho had just given an interview on television in Maori, and preferred to let her younger sister and niece act as spokesperson for the group. The ghost I saw of Wite Ihimaera's Whale faded as I listened to these women, united by a strong sense of aroha, one with the other, talking about the fulfillment of a dream - the right to control their own destiny.

A.N.Z.: Tell me about your childhood. Who taught you to weave?
Neta: The old kuia's who have passed on. I was about sixteen years old when I started weaving. I tried to make a kit, and I tried to make a mat; in those days they were the most important thing. You had to cover your floor; there wasn't any carpet or anything like that. The first mat I made, an old lady taught me, the Maoris call it tamata. I thought I was pretty smart so I tried to make a tangariki, a different kind of weaving - you see it there.
A.N.Z.: Is that the diagonal weave?
Neta: I don't know what you call it in Pakeha, but in Maori it is ranga-tangariki. This is quite a simple pattern, but you have to keep it straight.
A.N.Z.: You traditionally weave sitting on the ground. Do you ever use a frame?

Neta: Yes on the floor. No we don't use the frame, except for the cloaks: these have to be measured. But the mat I did has come down through the ages and it is . . . when I finished it, it went wrong! My Auntie got an axe and she chopped it up! . . . (much laughter from all). Then she said to me, get some more flax and start again. That's how I started.
A.N.Z.: Who was responsible for organising the exhibition?
Hana: The scheme was established through the T.E.P. to create work for our young people in isolated areas instead of letting them come into town where there is a great deal of unemployment. We asked the Labour Department to help our young people find work at home; and the elders became the tutors of our children. We believe that if apprenticeship can be given to other schemes, why not Maori related skills, while our elders are still with us. I believe they are the strength of our whole village. When you think that from the age of our Tupunas (ancestors) it has come down through the ages, and it is now once again the sustenance, or survival of our tribe.
A.N.Z. It is important to you to stop the rural drift of the young people to the cities?
Hana: Yes. It is, because if they do not associate with their land, they will not have that tree of knowledge - that the land first and foremost gives you life. Survival is in the land and in the sea; and they must learn the cultivation of our food, and harvest the harakeke for the works you see around you now.
A.N.Z.: Tell me where you gather the harakeke, and how you prepare it for weaving.
Hana: The gathering of the materials requires a vehicle. In the old days we had to walk, or we went on horse back. We go back to our old areas, about ten miles from our village in Kapowairua (Spirits Bay). It is gathered from around the coastal land and in the bush. It is not only the best flax - harakeke we call it - but there are many varieties. Pingao we gather from round the coastline; this is used in our meeting houses on the marae. Kiekie we make our kits from; it is beautiful and takes a while to prepare. These methods we must learn from our elders now . . . all the different ways of doing it. We want our elders to pass on this knowledge to our children, and there are not so many left now in Aotearoa. Auntie Mary was saying these things in Maori on television.
A.N.Z.: You are working together very positively to help your own people and to be relatively self-sufficient.
Hana: Yes, that is the basic idea, to create work for our people within our community. Our aim is to be self-supporting. It is something very close to me. We have welcomed school groups into our area every year. It is interesting inviting young people to come and visit us. All the schools which have visited Outreach say they want to come and live up North . . . and the solo mothers . . . they all want to come. When the summer comes they can come and visit, and all together they can learn how to make raupo and neko howses. They were the original houses where our Aunties used to stay.
Auntie Mary: I lived in a house made of neko and raupo when I was a girl. I had to make the mats.
A.N.Z. Tell me the difference between the golden and the green mats. What are they used for?
Neta: The green, it stands in the water. We use this mat for sleeping on. The yellow one, it goes on top.
A.N.Z.: The pattern-making is an important feature of the weaving. Some of them have been created by using synthetic dyes?
Hana: Yes, that was the introduction of synthetic dyes for commercial purposes. We introduced this colour so that it would have wider appeal to pakehas. We can still use the traditional dyes: but it takes time. A.N.Z: You have used a variety of shapes for the kits. Are these all traditional?


Hana: Most are the traditional shapes, the green ones we call kete kumera for collecting food - be it sea-food or cultivated food, kumara, puha - an everyday use kit. They are plaited green and when they dry it makes it easier to wash the shell fish. The other shape you see over there - they are wider at the bottom. These were created by Miria Neho.
A.N.Z: How many people were involved in weaving for the exhibition?
Neta: About ten people. Some of our kuias, our elders, they lent us some pieces too for the exhibition, to help us along.
Hana: The whole project of kit weaving is really to get finance to build our Craft Centre, our building in Te Hapua. Then our elders, like Auntie Mary, can have a place to teach our young people, our mokopuna to weave. We asked the Arts Council for a grant to assist our dreams to have this craft centre, so people from different areas of Aotearoa can visit us and learn from the tutors who have been taught by our elders. This, with the assistance of the Labour Department and Tutangata programmes. This will be better than one tutor struggling in the colleges, one here and another there. Our Aunties' dreams may come true!
A.N.Z.: I know very little about your ancient traditions, but I do know that your spiritual life is an important and integral part of your daily lives. Tell me about how this affects your weaving?
Neta: We have always believed that the first thing we should do, in anything, before we start our work, is to ask our creator for blessing. Not just for our weaving, but for all our work.
A.N.Z.: This is also part of your ancient tradition?
Neta: Yes: all our old people too, when they go out, they say a prayer. Before we start anything, we say a prayer. This we learned from our parents; it was handed down to us. Hana: We will sing our song for you.

green flax mat

(Hana wrote the following song, inspired by Neta cutting flax at Kapowairua.)
Nga kete e toru o te matauranga
(This refers to the three baskets of knowledge which contain the supreme knowledge of all . . . from the Creator. This symbolises the truth that through tolerance and perseverance you gain wisdom and know all these things. All knowledge comes from the Creator. This was handed down generation to generation from our ancestors.)
Maunga Piko Te Maunga
(is our mountain at Kapowairua - Spirits Bay - and
Waitanoni te te wairere
(is our waterfall, from where our Tupuna when they are thirsty and about to depart this life, request the pure water for them to drink).
Kapowairua te Kainga
o nga Tupuna e.
(is our home, our land).
Nga kai mahi kete
ko te roopu wahine
(is our kit weavers, our women).
Mama Neta
Te kai ako
Mokopuna e Mama Neta
(Mama Neta refers to the mother, or the tutor, who taught the grandchildren through the centuries).

This poem, written by Hana and sung to me by the three women, strengthened my impression of the unity of their lives - a sense of integration and harmony both physical and spiritual, with the land and its harvest.

1. Hana Romana Murray, introduction to the catalogue for the Flax Weavers of The Far North exhibition, Outreach, June 30 to July 10, 1981.
2. Ibid.

GLOSSARY Harakeke: Flax (Phormium).
Hinaki: Eel net
Hipora: Name in the North for large maurua patterned mats
Kapowairua: Spirits Bay
Kete: Kit
Kono: Food Basket
Piupiu: Flax skirt
Potae: Hat
Tamata: Floor mat-generally for household use, plaited down the centre; single side mats for door steps; usually made of green flax.
Te Rerenga Wairua: Legendary leaping off place of the spirits of the dead
Tipare: Headband
Tohe: The tribal ancestor of the people of Te Hiku o Te Ika.
Tukutuku: Ornamental lattice-work between slabs of the walls in a meeting house.
Tupuna: Ancestor
Whare: House