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No. 10 (April 1955)
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Wrap for baby, East Coast. (photo: charles hale.)

maori baby's toilet

As with us the toilet of the infant babe was a vital matter to the old time Maori mother. A special hut termed ‘whare kohanga’ (or nest house) was usually erected for the mother to occupy before and during the birth of the child. When the child at last entered the world of light and life, it was in part smeared with oil from the titoki tree, if that was available. Its little body was then usually enveloped in a bandage made from the beaten soft fibres of the lacebark tree, a New Zealand tapa cloth. Each day it was washed, and dried with the selected soft tow of phormium fibre (muka).

The next requirements of the tiny baby were diapers and some sort of a wrap to keep it warm at night. These items were considered essential, and it is a little curious that all books on Maori life studiously avoid them. Aristocrat or plebeian, high or low they are the necessary heritage of all. Before the birth of the infant, masses of the finest tow (muka) of the flax plant were prepared and separated into bundles to serve as diapers. Sometimes quantities of moss were preferred. Mr J. M. McEwen supplies us with the name ‘kukukuku’ for this soft tow, kuku being the mussel shell used in the preparation of flax fibre. However, the name for the actual diaper, collected from districts as widely spaced as Southland and Te Kuiti, is ‘kope’. This name was also supplied by Mr Rangi Royal, Maori Affairs, Wellington, ‘Rope’ appears to be the Ngapuhi term.

Concerning the wrap which held the kope in place, information is hazy; though it seems that lacebark was sometimes used. Recently Mrs Hetit and Mrs Tumohe told us that at Te Kuiti the wrap is taka or rapaki. In the North Island most of my informants used the word ‘whariki’. However, the most authoritative account which we have comes from Bluff. From here Mr E. P. Cameron (one of Herries Beattie's informants) writes:

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“The cloak was called ‘pokeka’. This cloak took a lot of making. The outside part was of very fine flax, and the inside part made of very fine whitau (fibre) with feathers (aweawe) taken from the inside of the albatross wing. (The wrap was apparently double, for Mr Cameron goes on to say): This was sewn to the other part, made of the very fine flax I have mentioned before.”

A sling of lacebark or hohere, plaited to form a soft band, was formerly used by the mother in some localities to hold the baby in position on her back. This sling went out of fashion well back in the last century, and none can be seen in our Museums today.

Pokeka is a well known southern generic term for fine cloaks. Tiny children appear to have become used to a state of nudity at a very early stage unless the weather was very cold, as it often was in Southland.

About the year 1875, an English child named Florence Rogers was born at Ohanga, on the East Coast of the North Island. Her parents immediately engaged the services of a local full-blooded Maori woman, a gentle person named Heterina. She was greatly honoured to have charge of the child, and to show her esteem for the infant, straightway decided that a wrap must be made for it. This was to be no ordinary garment, but a wrap which a high-born infant of Maoridom well might envy. The weaving must have its appropriate ‘poka’, or shorter weft rows, to make the wrap fit more snugly around the small body. Warmth was not essential for the child had other tiny garments; so the open work technique of the ornamental basket, ‘kete whakawaitara’, was used in the weaving. Lastly, around all was a fringe of European wool.

The wrap was used on all important occasions during the first year of the baby's life, then carefully stored away, until recently Florence Rogers, now no longer young, presented the garment to the Dominion Museum.

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Details of wrap for baby, East Coast. (photo: charles hale)

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Above: Mrs Victoria Butt, wife of the proprietor of Taneatua Hotel, is arranging flowers in the hotel foyer. Once active in the Maori Health League, she understands—and so does her husband—the responsibilities of hotelkeeping in a Maori district.

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Left: The concert party of the Torere Youth Club is putting on a variety act. The club makes tours throughout the East Coast and Bay of Plenty. Its concert party includes vocalists. guitarists, even a hula-dancer.

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Below: Miss Tirahoia Rangiwhakarea Ranginui, aged 12 years, sent Te Ao Hou this photo of herself studying for a typing examination.