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No. 11 (July 1955)
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TRADITIONAL POI-BALLS
are being made to-day

Mrs Rangimahora Reihana, president of the Rakau-Turanga Branch of M.W.W.L., Foxton, has given Te Ao Hou a demonstration of a real traditional way of making poi-balls. Nowadays these are often made of cellophane and tissue-paper, which of course is easier, but the traditional way need not be very difficult and time-consuming and we hope that some groups will try out the method Mrs Reihana has shown us. Incidentally, we are told that this traditional way of making poi has not been recorded fully in any of the textbooks, so that we are able to offer here some quite new facts about Maori material culture.

The demonstration was made with the help of the Otaki League Branch, of the same district (Raukawa). This branch made helpers available, girls to demonstrate the poi dance, and, perhaps, most important allowed the use of the beautiful Raukawa meeting house as a background for our photographs. We are therefore indebted for this story to the Raukawa tribe as a whole.

What is the poi dance? It is, by common consent, the most graceful of dances. There is evidence that in the old days it was sometimes performed by boys and men, but it was always

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Photography by
Charles Hale

mainly a woman's dance performed to delight an audience by its grace, rhythm, gesture and dexterity.

It is not unnatural that many people have thought the poi dance is derived from a ceremonial love dance. Eisdon Best has denied it, saying there is no proof for it. Sir Apirana Ngata has said that the ostensible object of the poi from the first was to give graceful welcome to strangers, but that gradually another object grew up, namely to attract the fighting men from other tribes and so keep the ranks of the ‘taua’ up to their full strength (see Te Ao Hou, Royal Tour Number).

Today, ‘poi’ is again mainly looked upon as part of the ceremonial welcome, but in popular tradition naturally the idea persists that so beautiful a dance must express love.

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Mrs Teihana (right) and Mrs Reihana (next to her) teaching young Otaki women.

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1. Rolling fibre (muka) over the thigh to make twine is called ‘miro’.

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2. When the string is made with the help of the toes, the process is known as whiri or korito. A knot behind the big toe holds the twine in position.

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3. Splitting the blade: butt end of the raupo is in Mrs Reihana's left hand.

Into this category falls the story told to Te Ao Hou by Mrs Teihana, crafts expert of the Otaki League. She was told by her father that the poi was originally a moonlight dance, performed by the side of a river or stream on a moonlight night. The spot selected was usually one where steeplejack grew overshadowing the water. On such a night the young men would first arrive and sit down. Then the maidens came and did a poi dance, using the long poi. The young men would look on and see whom among them they fancied. At the end of the dance the maidens swung into the water from the steeplejacks and the young men pursued the maidens of their choice.

The poi performed by three young women at Te Ao Hou's visit to Otaki is sometimes known as the Shanghai, but is also known as the Raukawa poi. It consists of nine distinct movements: puritai, pakihiwi, keiteringa, pakihiwi, keiwaho, hipeka, keitetaha, kiarua and whakamutunga. Photographically, these movements are almost impossible to record; film is the only useable medium. The Raukawa poi is a military one, dating from the first world war. It ends with a movement representing a military salute. Graceful and

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4. Scraping the pith from the raupo fibre. Scraped leaf is called pakawha.

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5. Loose pith (kahukahu, korino or tahuna) is worked into a ball to form the centre of the poi. Sometimes the ball is shaped round (purutaka) and sometimes oval (koroaroa).

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Cross section of a simple raupo poi ball. Notice the position of the knot anchoring the cord by which the poi is swung. (Drawing by Miss N. Fitchett).

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6. The ball of pith is enclosed in at least six raupo strips and tied above.

rhythmical, this dance has no words to be sung by the leader who only calls out the movements.

Any occasion can produce a poi dance, and the Otaki people know one they call the Station Poi. We were told it was prompted by the train journey from Palmerston North; there is a movement for every station.

This poi is essentially different from that still practiced in the Whanganui and Taranaki districts, where poi accompanies and expresses the secret history of the tribe, sung by all the women. Here profound knowledge is revealed with the help of the poi which heightens the emotion as well as aiding the memory by providing a perfect rhythm. A study of this type of poi, made at Hiruharama, on the Whanganui River, is being prepared.

Our photographs show how a simple traditional poi is made. Valuable guidance in writing the captions was given to us by Mr W. J. Phillipps, of the Dominion Museum.

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7. The cord which swings the poi is anchored inside the pith by means of a knot.

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Two ties are made to hold the poi together, after which the raupo strands at the top are trimmed.

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To make one modern type of decorative poi, four added dyed strips of raupo are tied at the top in the usual way.

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Finishing off a decorative poi.

Decorative Poi

Mrs Reihana showed two other types of poi (see this page). The first was one made of Indian corn leaves instead of flax. The other is a decorated type of poi often seen in modern concert parties. Coloured bands are put round the ball, giving it a brighter effect.

Of course, in olden times the best poi balls were also not the plain but the decorated ones.

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Making poi from outer leaves of Indian corn cobs. A ball of torn-up corncob leaves is prepared and enclosed in strips of more leaves which are knotted at their base.

In museums two main types of decorated poi are found: the taniko ones, and the type made of fine flax netting (ta). They were ornamented with six diamond shaped figures made of narrow red and black strips. Dogs hair tufts were attached to them, and they were called poi awe.

A simpler ornamentation like that shown by Mrs Reihana is, however, also attractive, and probably to be preferred to the cellophane type.

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The poi is held upside down with the knot above and the last strips being pulled into place. The knot will be pressed and hidden inside the future poi ball.