Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 20 (November 1957)
– 8 –

—Notes on the Clash of Cultures”, he says: “The result of the destruction of the basic force of Maori social life (tapu) soon became apparent. The social system was so weakened that the various forms of discipline under wich the Maori had flourished for many centuries were sorely weakened. Evidence of this lax condition appeared in the social and industrial life of the people, and, ere long it was also evident in the mental outlook of te people”.

Understanding and Sympathy

Peehi set out to help restore some of these supports of Maori society and to adapt these traditional values to the changing times by stimulating racial pride, developing understanding of the Maori point of view, and cultivating sympathy toward the people who were undergoing vast changes by encouraging study of their problems.

He said: “I take an interest in these matters because after a lifetime spent in this land, I can look back with much pleasure of many years of contact with the Maori folk. I know if treated in a sympathetic manner they will respond and that outbreaks of irresponsible and superstitious activities are becoming rarer than of yore.”

Picture icon

Peehi listening to a Maori playing a flute.

So that was why Peehi threw in his lot with the Maori people. He was born at a time which enabled him to grow up among those ancestors of the present generation who had hardly begun to emerge from the Old World into the New World. His earliest playmates were Maori children from whom he obtained his love of the bush and the first few words of the Maori language. Above all, he grew up among their kaumatua, learnt their point of view, and understood how to build on the old way of life in preparation for the new.

He attained manhood at an equally fortunate time. The Maori had reached the depths of that despondent state into which he fell after the wars with the pakeha and “Maoritanga” was at its lowest ebb. Peehi's “hobby”, as he called his interest brought him in contact with Apirana Ngata, Peter Buck and others who were forming the Young Maori Party and who needed the help of pakehas with a little appreciation of the difficulties and the requirements of their people.

Peehi regarded himself as a dwarf among giants. He was then not a great Maori scholar. His education in the pakeha sense was limited. He had only five-and-a-half years' schooling, but that did not mean that he and his parents did not appreciate the value of education. As it happened there was no school where he lived. So his father wrote the alphabet on his bedroom wall before his son was five years' old, and he learnt to read and write by making the most of his parents' teaching and the good books he was encouraged to read at home. The result was that when he did go to school for a short time he was able to pass the Junior Civil Service examination.

But Peehi did not want an office job. He loved the outdoor life. So he decided to go farming in Poverty Bay. At the place where he worked he built himself a hut and concentrated on learnining the Maori language. He also studied Spanish because he wanted to go to South America for a time. The trip did not eventuate but he went to the United States, where he worked in timber camps for five years.

His return to New Zealand and his meeting with Percy Smith, the Maori historian, was another fortunate coincidence. Percy Smith was the Surveyor-General who had the job of making a road through the Urewera Country, the home of the Tuhoe tribe. Smith knew many of the old customs and beliefs were intact among these people who had been isolated right up to that time. So he persuaded Peehi to become an overseer on the roadworks and to collect and record information about the Tuhoe people in his spare time.

Life among the Tuhoe

Peehi accepted the offer and in 1896 built his hut at Te Whaiti, later moving to Ngaputahi, Heipipi and finally to Ruatoki. Altogether he spent 15 years, most of the time alone, among the Tuhoe people. During the last part of his stay he was joined by his wife, who had taught at a

– 9 –

Picture icon

Tutakangahau wearing flax cloak and feather in hair. Standing beside him are his son, Tukua Te Rangi (in hat) and Te Kokau. The woman in the picture is Te Kura. (Photograph taken by Peehi in 1896.)

Maori school, knew the Maori language, and shared his interest. The Tuhoe called her Hinekura because of her auburn hair.

Peehi's sympathetic approach made the people trust him and recognise him as a true scholar. “Greetings to you, the ahua (semblance) of the men of old”, was the way one acquaintance greeted him. Old Tutakangahau, the white-haired chief of Tamakaimoana, at Mangapohatu, once said to him: “Truly do I see that you tread in the footsteps of the men of old and my heart goes out to the man of a strange race who honours the heroes of the great past, be they pakeha or Maori”.

His Deep Friendships

Tutakangahau on his deathbed committed to Peehi's care the karakia and ritual used for preserving the sacred life principle, the mauri, of tribal possessions “His mind was a storehouse of primitive lore”, Peehi wrote about Tutakangahau. “He knew the old native names of every tree, shrub, plant, or fern in the forests of Tuhoeland. His fund of quaint folklore was immense. Above all, he was thoroughly conversant with the modes of thought of the ancient Maori.” A learned man, he was taught to read and write by the missionaries when he was a child. Peehi describes him as “a quiet-mannered and courteous companion, ever ready to allay strife among his tribesmen or to assist the stranger within his gates, be that stranger pakeha or Maori”.

A former warrior dedicated to Tu, his face deeply scarred with tattooing, Tutakangahau was a link between the old world and the new. He knew the advantages of education and when the school opened at Te Whaiti, he asked Peehi to look after his three grandchildren so they could attend there. Before handing them over he gave the children this good advice. “And should the pakeha correct or chide you, you must not be angry or sullen. That is a token of ignorance and low birth. It is by such correction that you shall learn to live well in this world.”

Quite a different personality was Paitini Wi Tapeka, of the Ngatimaru hapu. He and his wife. Makurata, an expert weaver, lived beside Peehi's camp at Heipipi, near Ruatahuna. Whereas Tutakangahau was placid and even-tempered, Paitini was impetuous and fiery. But both men were equally eager to preserve their “Maoritanga”. “We will go down into old age”, Paitini once told the white man, “striving to retain the lore of the old-time people for generations to come. So shall our children know all things, even from the days of Tapeka and of Maui”. Paitini was an expert on waiata and in a single winter he and Makurata gave Peehi the words of more than 400 songs.

His Books are Published

After he left the Urewera Country Peehi worked at the Dominion Museum, asembling the huge amount of information, which he had collected in notebooks, and publishing it in book form. These notebooks, with the manuscripts of the printed books, are carefully preserved in the Turnbull

– 10 –

Picture icon

Peehi's camp at Heipipi on the Te Whaiti-Ruatatuna Road.

Library, in Wellington. It was there, in the later stages of his life that Peehi spent much of his time, part of it with Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa), writing in an attic-like room on the top storey of the building.

It should be remembered that Peehi was working for the Government which was supposed to have voted money to publish his books. But governments in those days did not realise the value of Maori studies like they do today. Consequently, the money was not always forthcoming to produce works like “The Maori”, “The Pa Maori”, and “Maori Agriculture”. These delays aroused Sir Apirana Ngata to some of the greatest heights of oratory in pleading for more funds to publish these books. “We shall treasure the manuscripts of Mr Elsdon Best”, he said, “when all these Hansards are forgotten”. Again in 1923, he stated: “probably 100 years hence he will find our descendants wondering what sort of fools we were when we had the opportunity to provide the money to enable these manuscripts to see the light of day”. In a still later speech he pressed the matter home: “… I think the Maori of New Zealand may be pardoned if they also are anxious to fall in line with other races and promote a fund in order to discover where they came from, who they are, and whether they are connected to the great Nordic race to which other honourable gentlemen of the Chamber belong, or with the Mongols … the Africans, or other primary races of the world …”

Through the pressure brought to bear by Ngata, with the backing of Mr Gordon Coates, and with financial help from the Maori people the Board of Maori Ethnological Research (now the Maori Purposes Fund Board) was formed. Although other difficulties stood in the way, the board was able to resolve them and the books which Peehi wrote began to appear regularly in the bookshops. His only regret was that the delays had meant the loss of valuable time. “Alas”, he said just before his death “there is so much knowledge which possess and which I will never have time record”. The last years were a race against time But he was able to translate nearly all his notes into manuscript form and when he died on September 9, 1931, it was found that the work “Maori Forest Lore”, on which he was engaged, embodied virtually the last extracts from his well filled notebooks.


The recognition of two places famous in Maori history have been approved by the Historic Places Trust. They will be marked by commemorative plaques. The first is at the site of the Matakitaki Pa, at Pirongia, eight miles from Te Awamutu There is very little left of the pa fortifications, but the site is remembered for a great battle many years ago between Waikato and Ngapuhi. The second plaque will be at Kawhia, to mark the traditional resting place of the Tainui canoe after it was dragged up from its landing. Both the King Country and the Waikatos claim descent from people who arrived in the canoe.