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No. 49 (November 1964)
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we in the pacific world are heirs to a great literary tradition of which H. and N. Chadwick, in their world survey of oral literatures, could say—

‘A great and very varied amount of cosmological speculation has been recorded from Polynesia. The Polynesians seem to have devoted more attention, and to have exercised greater intellectual activity in connection with the whole subject than any other peoples included in our survey … The Pacific is rich in possession of a vast body of oral prose, which is distributed throughout the whole area … almost every kind of prose narrative is represented in all stages of development … Everywhere we meet with a great wealth of saga, and a high standard of art and technique.’

I hope that you may wish to read, either in the original or in translation, some of the songs and stories with which this article is concerned, and to this end I have added a reading list. Unfortunately many of the source books are out of print, and only obtainable at libraries with good Pacific and New Zealand collections. But some important books are in print and I have included them.


I will begin with a brief outline of the linguistic situation in Polynesia, a situation which makes it possible for the student of any one language to hold the key to the others, and so to what the Chadwicks call ‘one of the two finest oral historical traditions in the world’. Then, after some reference to our sources for Polynesian oral literature, and its scope, I will discuss in more detail some Maori material, illustrating three of the major literary media, namely prose narrative, poetry and genealogical recital.

I will not discuss such minor literary forms as proverbs, riddles, and fables, all of which were popular in some or all of the Polynesian islands. Nor will I discuss oratory, though it was, and is, important everywhere in the area.

The Language of Polynesia

The Polynesian linguistic situation, both historical and contemporary, is reasonably well understood. By the beginning of the Christian era a language called Proto-Polynesian was spoken, most probably in Tonga or Samoa. Proto-Polynesian would not sound particularly strange to the speaker of any contemporary Polynesian language. He would be familiar with its system of five vowels, the total absence of consonant clusters and final consonants, and the rather small inventory of sounds. The almost complete absence of grammatical concordance, and the marking of grammatical categories by particles rather than by inflection would be familiar. And he would recognise much of the vocabulary.

After a time a migration took place, and a colony of Proto-Polynesian speakers was set up in Eastern Polynesia, possibly in the Society Islands or the Marquesas. Whether the migration which occasioned this linguistic split, and the other migrations which succeeded it, was planned or accidental, we are not able to say. But it is clear that after a period of some centuries during which each branch developed independently, colonies of western or eastern Proto-Polynesians were established on practically every habitable island and atoll of the triangle demarcated by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island, and on many small islands far to the west and north of Polynesia proper.

Western-Polynesia speaking people settled in Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Futuna and Ellice Islands; Proto-East Polynesian speakers settled all of French Polynesia, Hawaii, Easter Island, the Cooks, and New Zealand.

All of these linguistic colonies have developed more or less independently for many centuries. The linguistic picture today is as follows. There are two closely related groups of languages called Eastern Polynesian and Western Polynesian. Any two members of the same group share much basic vocabulary, and there is a considerable degree of mutual intelligibility. If the comparison is made between the two groups, the percentage of basic vocabulary differences is seen to be greater and the degree of mutual intelligibility drops sharply, so that the Maori speaker, for ex-

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ample, will understand little Tongan, though he may feel quite at home in Rarotongan.

The possibility of setting up sub-groups within Polynesia does not affect the status of the Polynesian group itself, which is clearly set off, by strictly linguistic criteria, from its nearest relatives, Fijiian, Rotuman, and certain languages of New Hebrides, and the Solomons.

Early Collectors of Folklore

Lacking knowledge of the languages, the first Europeans into Polynesia learned little of its extensive mythology and tradition, and they were unable to judge the content of the songs and dance chants presented for their entertainment. They were unimpressed by the alien and rather uncomplicated music, and saw lewdness rather than beauty in much of the dancing.

Missionaries were the first Europeans in a position to obtain traditional knowledge, and in a few cases we do owe a great deal to the interest of a churchman in the songs and stories of the people among whom he worked. The Rev. Wyatt Gill, for example, having, he tells us, ‘deliberately chosen to study rather than ignore the traditional knowledge of the people,’ collected and published a great number of poetic texts, including a number of the dramatic recitals known as ‘death-talks’, a literary form apparently restricted to the small island of Mangaia in the Southern Cooks.

In Tahiti, William Ellis saw in the legends material ‘rivalling in splendour of machinery and magnificence of achievement the dazzling achievements of the eastern nations.’

In New Zealand, Richard Taylor in the Wanganui-Taranaki area, Colenso in Hawkes Bay, and Wohlers in the South Island made important contributions to our knowledge of Maori lore. But missionaries such as these were rather few. Most were known by their converts to be unsympathetic towards tradition, and to have little interest in what they considered at best ‘puerile beliefs’, at worst ‘works of the devil’.

All missionaries however were concerned with what is quaintly called, ‘reducing the language to writing’. The simple phonology of Polynesian languages presented them with

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comparatively few problems, and within a few years a reasonably satisfactory orthography had usually been established, and the people were learning to write. This they did enthusiastically. In New Zealand, we are told, the grey-beards attended school with the children. Paper was scarce, and the first writing was done on flat boards smeared with grease and sprinkled with ashes, or flax and other smooth leaves.

The Maori and Polynesian Scribes

Before long the newly literate elders were themselves recording traditional lore. They were encouraged in this by interested administrators, who in a number of instances kept them supplied with writing materials. In New Zealand Governor George Grey, Native Secretary Edward Shortland, and Surveyor-General Percy Smith might be mentioned in this connection. In Hawaii Judge Abraham Fornander, and in Samoa the American Consul, William Churchill, played the same role.

The amount of material placed on record by native scribes with or without the encouragement of interested Europeans, is impressive. A Hawaiian published 133 articles on traditional and historical topics in the 1860s. Book-length traditional narratives were written by another Hawaiian and also by a Fijiian. The Grey collection of Maori manuscripts includes about 2,000 pages written by one author, Te Rangikaheke of Ngati Rangiwewehi. And in the Tuamotu Islands, Stimson, who was collecting traditional information there, speaks of informants arriving with bundles of manuscript books.

In New Zealand it was, and is, usual for Maori families to keep manuscript books in which are recorded genealogies, the texts of songs known to members of the family, and local traditions. Many such books have been destroyed accidentally, or through ignorance of their true value, or because they were regarded as tapu, and perhaps malevolent. But great numbers still exist.

In 1893 the interest of a group of amateur ethnographers and folklorists in such material led to the foundation of the Polynesian Society, and a little later the Bishop Museum, in association with the University of Hawaii, began an extensive programme of ethnographic research in Polynesia, a programme which included the collecting and publishing of myth and tradition.

Continued on page 42


continued from page 25

The Journal of the Polynesian Society and the Memoirs and Bulletins of the Bishop Museum were the main publishing outlets for the great body of vernacular texts collected from over all the Pacific during the first half of this century.

Maori Legends

The bulk of this legendary material was in the form of prose narrative. In New Zealand and probably elsewhere it may be conveniently divided into two categories: myth, and tradition. Unlike the traditions, the myths are known widely throughout Polynesia. They are set in the remote past, their characters are gods and immortals, and they include stories concerning the origin of the universe and the genesis of gods and of men.

In New Zealand those earliest myths which tell of the evolution of the world are expressed only in cryptic, genealogical form. A number of these cosmogonic genealogies, as they were called by Elsdon Best, have been recorded. In some a sequence of periods of chaos is succeeded by periods of darkness which ultimately gave way to light; in some evolution is likened to the growth of a tree, or to the development of a child in the womb. In other parts of Polynesia, notably the Tuamotus, supplementary narrative was added in explanation of the genealogies.

The contrast between the evolutionary view revealed in these genealogies, and the Christian belief in an act of creation, was clear to Maori converts. For example, Te Rangikaheke's manuscript entitled ‘The Sons of Heaven’ says, ‘According to European beliefs, God made Heaven and Earth. According to Maori belief however, Heaven and Earth were themselves the source. The Maori people have only one origin, the Sky which stands above and the Earth which lies below.’

The manuscript goes on to explain how from this union of Heaven and Earth there sprang the Departmental gods—the Ocean God, the God of Mankind (who was, appropriately enough, also the God of War), and so on. Next in time came the heroes, such as Maui and Tawhaki, demi-gods known throughout the Polynesian area.

In New Zealand at least, there was nothing particularly sacred or esoteric in the myths concerning these heroes. The Maui stories in

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particular were spoken of as ‘winter nights' tales.’

The Maui Myth

A short extract, literally translated from an early manuscript, will illustrate the nature of these stories. The incident described is the last exploit of Maui, his unsuccessful attempt to pass through the body of the Goddess of the Underworld.

Maui's father said to him, ‘My son, I know that you are a bold fellow, and that you have achieved many things. But I fear that there is one who will defeat you.’

‘And who might that be?’ said Maui.

‘Your ancestress, the Goddess of the Underworld.’

‘Is her strength that of the sun?’ asked Maui. ‘I trapped him, and beat him and sent him on his way. Is he greater than the sea, which is greater than the land? Yet I dragged land from it. Now then let me seek life or death.’

The father replied, ‘You are right, my last born, and the strength of my old age. Go then, seek your ancestress, who lives at the edge of the sky.’

‘What does she look like? asked Maui.

‘The red glow of the western sky emanates from her,’ said the father.

‘Her body is that of a human being, but her eyes are greenstone, her hair is sea-kelp, and her mouth is that of a barracouta.’

Maui took with him the smallest birds of the forest and set off towards the west. They found the Goddess of the Underworld lying asleep, with her legs apart, and they could see sharp flints of greenstone and obsidian set between her thighs.

Maui said to his companions, ‘When I enter the body of this old woman, don't laugh. But wait until I reappear again from her mouth. Then you may laugh all you like.’

‘You will be killed,’ was all the birds could say.

‘If you laugh too soon I will be killed,’ said Maui. ‘But if I can pass right through her body I shall live, and she will be the one to die.’

He prepared himself, winding the cord of his battle-club firmly round his waist, and casting aside his garment. Behold his skin, mottled like that of a mackerel with the black pigment of the many toothed tattooing-chisel!

As Maui began his task the cheeks of the watching birds puckered with suppressed mirth. His head and shoulders had disappeared when the fantail could hold back no longer, and burst into laughter. The old woman awoke, opened her eyes, closed her legs, and cut Maui completely in two.

Now Maui was the first man to die, and because he failed in his self-appointed task, all men are mortal. And the Goddess retains her position at the entrance to the spirit-world.

The Tribal Traditions

Traditions are concerned with mortals, not with the gods and heroes of the myths. They are genealogically placed not more than thirty generations from the present, and knowledge of them is usually quite local. Maori traditions, for example, are not known outside of New Zealand.

The earliest Maori traditions concern the discovery and settlement of this country. The earliest recorded version of such a tradition was told to the missionary Hamlin at Orua Bay, on the south shore of the Manukau Harbour, in 1842. Hamlin published the story in, of all places, the ‘Tasmanian Journal of Science and Technology’. It is an account of the arrival of the Tainui canoe, in essentially the same form that it would be told by an elder of the Tainui tribes today.

By the late 1840's (as I have already mentioned), literate Maoris, realising that the decline of the indigenous culture was inevitable, were themselves recording what they knew of the old beliefs. We are indebted to John White, who collected much of this material in his ‘Ancient History of the Maori’, a magnificent six-volume collection, now unfortunately out of print and prized by book collectors, who will pay forty pounds for a set.

The migration and settlement traditions are thought by many people, including, I believe, everyone who has worked intensively with them, to have much historical value. The wide distribution of much of the mythology is conclusive proof that Polynesians were able to preserve legendary material for many centuries. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that settlement traditions, genealogically dated at only five or six hundred years ago, and of obvious functional importance in the social and political organisation of the people, were maintained with equal fidelity, and reflect actual events.

In the case of those whose organisation was not completely shattered by the inter-tribal and inter-racial wars that succeeded colonisation, continuous traditional records have been recorded, told in terms of great men and great

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battles and tied in with genealogies. It has been demonstrated by Dr Robertson of Kawhia that in some cases the internally consistent and continuous record extends six hundred years into the past; in other cases it is fragmentary and discontinuous prior to about 1600.

The land courts played an important part in eliciting and recording traditional information. Given as evidence of conquest, occupation, or customary title in land claims, the stories were tested in cross-examination by rival claimants, and the proceedings of the court were usually taken down both in Maori and in translation. The resulting very large body of material, stored in the District Land Courts and in microfilm at Wellington, has barely been scratched by the folk-lorist, the culture-historian, or the ethnographer.

The Genealogists

Prose narrative is common to most folk literatures, but the development of genealogical recital as a literary device is a feature peculiar in the Pacific to Polynesian cultures. The social function of genealogies in determining rank and succession was of course important; and when a narrator was telling traditions, the recital of an appropriate pedigree, linking the main character with the narrator, demonstrated his right to tell the story and documented its authenticity.

But as we have seen in the case of the cosmogonic genealogists, what appears at first sight to be a list of names set out in genealogical sequence, is in fact a cryptic literary form (in this case, rehearsing the evolution of the universe).

In New Zealand, and presumably elsewhere, there are several named techniques of genealogical recitation. In one, only a single line of descent is given; in another, marriages are added; and in a third, collateral lines are included. In addition there was a considerable specialist vocabulary concerned with genealogy, which included of course the terminology of kinship.

There is a well-known cartoon which shows an anthropologist, notebook in hand, quizzing an informant from some unidentifiable but savage-looking culture. The informant is saying, ‘I don't know what I would call my mother's brother's daughter's child—and what's more, I don't give a damn!’

The Polynesian genealogist, however, defi-

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nitely did give a damn about kinship terms, and his ability to handle concepts of kinship was commensurate with his interest. In Hawaii he was a professional. His duties included deliberate but subtle falsification of pedigrees to enhance the position of his own ruler. In this capacity he was known as ‘the wash-bowl of the high chief’.

In New Zealand, where a chief's authority was not absolute, but was delegated to him by the adult males of rangatira status, professional genealogists were unknown, and falsification of genealogies was not tolerated. Every adult was expected to know his own lines of descent and to be able to recite them.

The recognised expert, moreover, was expected to be something of a walking de Brett, knowing not only the descent lines of his own group but those of neighbouring tribes, and in particular those lines which, through intergroup marriages, facilitated the social and political intercourse of different tribes. Such an expert delighted in testing his knowledge against that of others in reciting the lines of men, which were said to be ‘as many, and as far-reaching, as the runners of a gourd-plant’.

The setting up of the land-court, where claims were decided largely on genealogical evidence, must have caused such an expert to lick his lips. The case is quoted of a court-sitting at which an old man took four full days to recite the genealogies of a single sub-tribe, and one can't help wondering how much the protracted nature of land-court proceedings owed to the love of genealogical wrangling.

Polynesian Poetry

Now let us turn from genealogical recital to poetry. In Polynesia as a whole, spoken verse was unknown. Poetry was always chanted or sung. In Eastern Polynesia moreover, purely linguistic devices such as rhyme or assonance were not consciously used to distinguish verse from prose. The metre and the line divisions were determined by musical features, not by linguistic ones, and the prosodics of Polynesian poetry can hardly be studied apart from the musical medium.

Stylistically however, the language of poetry differs from that of prose. Extensive use of synonyms, contrastive opposites, and repeated key-words are usual. Archaic words are used, some of which have lost any specific reference, and acquired a religious mystique in poetic diction. Abbreviated, sometimes cryptic utterances, and the use of certain grammatical constructions not found in prose, are also common.

The frequent metaphorical extension of word-meanings, and the widespread use of non-obvious symbolism, adds to the difficulty and also to the charm of Polynesian poetic texts. In Marquesan lovesongs for example, lovers are variously symbolised by night-moths, garlands of flowers, pearl-shells, ripe breadfruit, the masts of ships, the trade winds, coconuts, and so on. Perhaps these symbols are not too strange. We may even be able to hazard guesses as to which are male and which female. But who would guess that the happiness of mutual love would be symbolised by rain, and the heat of passion, by cold night winds? Yet such is the case in the hot dry areas of Hawaii, where rain and rain-bearing winds were more valued than sunshine and blue skies, and where ‘the glories of Hanalei are its driving storms’.

Maori Poetry

As with prose texts, the greatest amount of Polynesian poetic material has been collected in New Zealand. The most important work, both in quantity and quality, has been done by two Maori scholars, Sir Apirana Ngata and Pei te Hurinui Jones. We are particularly indebted to Sir Apirana for the first attempt at a classification of Maori songs and dance-chants.

This is the only useful classification of a body of Polynesian poetry known to me. Its success is due to the complete break-away from traditional literary categories, which are replaced with a classification based entirely on the form and content of the Maori material itself. Some of Ngata's song and chant types are considered in the following sections.


Haka, or war-chants, are well known to New Zealanders. They are rhythmically shouted chants of defiance. The texts are often archaic and obscure, and sometimes obscene. The total number of haka is not large, and while modification of existing texts still takes place, the latest original compositions probably date from the time of the inter-racial wars.


Karakia are rapidly intoned ritual chants. The texts are usually archaic and difficult. In some cases it can be demonstrated that the form of words has been transmitted unchanged from Polynesia. This appears to be the case with parts of the karakia for the house dedication ceremony, one of the few traditional

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rites still performed. It opens with the words ‘Beat the kawa, water the kawa’. This appears to have little meaning, until it is realised that the word ‘Kawa’ refers to the kava plant of Polynesia, the root of which is beaten to a powder and mixed with water to form a narcotic drink which is of ritual importance.

During the nineteenth century a large number of karakia were revealed to the prophets of pai marire, and other religious cults that developed about that time. Some of these are still performed. They probably mark the end of the karakia as a productive literary form, but the particular technique of chanting they employed is still used in the ritual of certain Maori churches.

An an example of karakia, I will quote from the dedicatory ritual for a male child, which translates as follows:

‘Dedicated with the sacred water of the God of War,
May you grow up and capture men, and climb mountains.
Grow up, and fight and rage. Kill men and take forts.
Defeat war-parties. Be fierce and brave to bear the club and spear.
Grant it to this child that it may be so.
Grow up and produce food, and build great houses, and canoes.
Summon the people to make nets for you, and to fish for you.
Grant it to this child that it may be so.’


These fast vigorous chants with impromptu (but conventionalised) gestures and facial expressions, were occasional songs, usually composed to reply to gossip of a slanderous nature. The reply took the rather curious form, not of denying the gossip, but of recounting the lineal and lateral kinship connections of the author. The implication appears to have been that a person with such noble connections could not possibly have been guilty of the charges preferred.

A patere often takes its audience on a tour of New Zealand, with introductions to the principal chiefs of the time and genealogical excursions into the past. It is at once a gazetteer and a Who's Who for the period of its composition. Interspersed with this sort of information are interesting remarks on what the singer will do to her detractors when she meets them. I should perhaps mention that all patere were composed by women.


The chants called oriori were composed for young children, generally by doting grandparents. Typically they commence with some wry reference to the vocal abilities of the child. A well known oriori begins as follows:

‘So the young fellow is crying for food? Just hang on a minute, and I'll send a moa To fetch a whale ashore for him to eat.’

This bantering tone is not maintained. The song continues as a serious attempt to impart knowledge necessary to the education of a wellborn child. Kinship connections, lines of descent, myths and traditions, are all worked into the texts of oriori in a very complex way. As if realising the difficulties of such a text one composer has included a ‘square-off’ to be used by slow learners.

‘When you are asked by strangers the details of your descent, you may reply:

“I am only a child, and forgetful,
But this I do know,
Tainui, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Kurahaupo and Tokomaru,
These were the canoes of my ancestors,
Who paddled across the great sea …”.’

Waiata Tangi

These laments for the dead are set to a short musical theme which is repeated throughout the song, a theme which contrasts markedly in its slow tempo and definite melody with the rapid chanting of the patere and oriori.

Many hundreds of these songs have been recorded, varying widely in their length, composition and content. It is fairly usual for them to begin with a reference to some aspect of nature, often something which is taken as a portent of death:

‘The lightning flashes, and forks above the mountain peak.
It is the sign of death.’

The grief occasioned by death is likened to rain, to the moaning of the sea, or to biting winds. And loneliness is a constantly recurring theme.

The circumstances of the death are often mentioned, and if there is a motive, as in the case of death in battle or by witchcraft, plans for revenge may be outlined.

Waiata Aroha

Waiata aroha or love songs are musically indistinguishable from laments, and indeed their whole tone is mournful, since they are invari-

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ably concerned with lost or unrequited love. The composers were always women. The remembered, or imagined, delights of love may be mentioned frankly or hidden in obscure sexual symbolism which is still incompletely understood.

None of the song types I have mentioned are still composed, though a few laments appear to date from as late as the first world war. At about this time they were replaced by a new dance form, the action song, which is familiar to anyone who has attended a Maori gathering of any kind. The action song owes its actions to the traditional patere, its words to the old laments and lovesongs, and its music to Tinpan Alley. Great numbers of action songs are composed every year. They spread rapidly throughout New Zealand through the Maori residential schools, and through the many gatherings which feature cultural competitions. Whatever reservations one may have about the borrowing of hit tunes, the action song must, I think, be regarded as the only current New Zealand folk art, Maori or Pakeha.

The traditional song-types are still sung at ceremonial gatherings, and several thousand have been recorded either textually or on tape.

Mervyn McLean, a research student at Otago University, has recorded on tape more than 800 items during the last two years, and is working on a musical analysis of this material. Pei te Hurinui Jones is continuing his work of collecting, annotating and translating song texts, and the third volume of ‘Nga Moteatea’ will be published shortly with a preface by Mervyn McLean. So these two scholars, a Maori and a Pakeha, heed the words of their predecessor who many years ago had urged New Zealanders to preserve this material, saying in his characteristically blunt way,

‘These flowers bloom at your doorsteps,

Why don't you pick them?’

A Reading List

The Growth of Literature: Volume 2, Part 3, The Oral Literature of Polynesia. By H. M. and N. K. Chadwick. New York. 1940.

Voices on the Wind (Translations of Polynesian myths and chants). By Katherine Luomala. Bishop Museum Press. 1955 (in print).

Maui of a Thousand Tricks: his Oceanic and European Biographers. By Katherine Luomala. Bishop Museum Bulletin 198. 1949.

Tuamotuan Legends (English and some Tuamotuan texts). Bishop Museum Bulletin 148. 1937.

The Legends of Maui and Tahaki (English and Tuamotuan texts). Bishop Museum Bulletin 127. 1934.

Kepelino's Traditions of Hawaii (English and Hawaiian texts).

Selections from Fornander's Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore (Hawaiian and English texts). By S. H. Elbert (ed.). 1959 (in print).

Ancient Tahiti (English and Tahitian texts). By Te Uira Henry. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 48. 1948.

Myths and Song from the South Pacific (English and Mangaian texts). By William Wyatt Gill. 1876.

Nga Moteatea: he maramara rere no nga waka maha. (The songs: scattered pieces from many canoe areas). 2 volumes. Collected by A. T. Ngata and translated by A. T. Ngata and P. H. Jones (in print).

Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna (The deeds of the ancestors). By Sir George Grey.

Polynesian Mythology by Sir George Grey (in print).

Ancient History of the Maori by John White.

A Treasury of Maori Folklore by A. W. Reed (in print).

Selected Readings in Maori by Bruce Biggs, Pat Hohepa and S. M. Mead. (Obtainable from Secretary, Anthropology Department, University of Auckland.) 1962.

He Kohikohinga Aronui by Bruce Biggs and S. M. Mead. (Obtainable from Secretary, Anthropology Department, University of Auckland.) 1964.

The Lore of the Whare-Wananga by S. Percy Smith (2 Vols.).

Te Wananga Volume 1, and Volume 2, no. 1. (This was a periodical published by the Board of Ethnological Research. The numbers mentioned above are obtainable from the Secretary, Polynesian Society, Box 5194, Wellington. They contain much of the material by Nepia Pohuhu on which ‘The Lore of the Whare Wananga’ was based.)

Te Whare Kura. This Maori-language periodical is published tow or three times a year by the Education Department. It is available from all Government Printer shops.

Professor Bruce Biggs, who is of Maori descent, teaches Maori studies in the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland.

This article is the revised text of a talk he gave some time ago as one of the ‘Winter Lectures’ at the University of Auckland.

Professor Biggs is at present undertaking research at the East-West Centre, Hawaii.

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