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No. 54 (March 1966)
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THE SAMOAN
FINE MAT

Mrs Akuhata-Brown and her husband recently returned to New Zealand after teaching for several years in Western Samoa.

During the period when the Tongans ruled the people of Samoa, the Samoans adopted many of the Tongan arts and crafts, customs and traditions. After the Tongans had left the country many of their customs were still followed there.

Among the most important of the crafts which the Tongans introduced was the making of the fine mat, a large, very finely woven object which is one of the most important possessions that a Samoan can own. Its origin is reflected in its name, ‘ie-toga; the first of these two words refers to a cloth, and the word toga, pronounced ‘tonga’, is the name of the island from which it originated.

A Sacred Task

Today only those women with exceptional skill at weaving, and with a knowledge of the sacred customs associated with it, are chosen to weave the fine mat. They work either in a guest house, out of sight of the people, or else in a house used by the older women of the family. While the mat is being woven no-one is permitted to enter the fale (house; this word is the equivalent of our Maori whare). If anyone should break this age-old custom, they must pay a penalty; usually this consist of a large amount of food.

The leaf used in the weaving is that of the pandanus (lau ‘ie—‘leaf for the fine mat’). This leaf is similar in shape to those of our New Zealand flax, but it is much longer, and is softer and finer in texture. The pandanus leaves are dipped into hot water, then spread out in the sun to dry. This bleaches them until they are white, and makes them more pliable. Then the leaves are stripped into strands as fine as three-ply baby wool. One can imagine the skill and patience required to weave strips of such fineness. It is said that the weavers of such mats sometimes become partially or totally blind as a result of their work.

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Fine mats are among the Samoans' most precious possessions.

Our Maori mats (whariki) have two to four folds, but Samoan fine mats have no folds at all They vary in size from 40in. × 40in. to 150in. × 150in. The larger and finer the mat, the more important it becomes.

When the mat is completed one edge is decorated with the red head-feathers of a local bird, the sega'ula.

Orators Must Know Historical Significance

Then the mat is formally displayed in front of all the houses in the village, and also on the malae (this word is the equivalent of our Maori marae). It is then taken to the high chiefs and orators of the village, to be given a name. After innumerable discussions they agree upon a suitable historical name, and this is duly announced to all the matai (heads of families), who in turn pass the message on to other interested families or persons. Usually these historical names are only memorized, but sometimes they are also recorded in written form.

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The orators (‘talking chiefs’) are spokesmen for the high chiefs (ali'i—this word is the equivalent of our Maori ariki). These orators strive hard to acquire knowledge of the historical events which lie behind the names given to the fine mats, for it is their task, on behalf of their ali'i, to recount these histories when the high chief is being presented with one of these mats. (Incidentally the high chief does not speak at functions unless there is some controversy. Then, and only then, does he show his authority by placing his hand upon the top of his head, and pronouncing the final decision. The matter is thus finalised.)

If the orator is unable to retell the historical event which gave its name to a certain mat, he embarrasses his ali'i, his family and his villagers. Furthermore that mat is not presented to the ali'i.

However the rewards for an orator are numerous, and may consist of food, money, fine mats and ‘ava sticks. (The roots of the ‘ava sticks are pounded to make the ceremonial ‘ava drink. This is known elsewhere in the Pacific as kava.)

Only on Important Occasions

Presentations of fine mats are made only on special occasions. Such occasions are: on the death of a high chief or some other important person; at weddings; at openings of churches, schools and other important buildings; at the christening of children of high birth; as a peace-offering for some crime or offence. The mats are worn only by the taupou (princess) or manaia (prince) during important social functions, or when they are meeting important or royal persons.

Fine mats are of the highest value for the honour and prestige associated with them, and also for their monetary value (this varies from £25 to £50). Such is their importance that a fine mat has been known to free a murderer, and one is quite often given as a recompense for minor crimes.

These beautiful mats are therefore among the most precious possessions that a Samoan can own.

The stone which is reputed to have been the ballast of Kupe's canoe when he landed at Hokianga in A.D. 950 has been erected at Pakanae, one mile from Opononi, as a memorial to the Polynesian explorer.

The photographer Miss Ans Westra, much of whose work has appeared in ‘Te Ao Hou’, has left for Europe on a working holiday. A large book of her photographs portraying the life of the Maori people will be published later this year by A. H. and A. W. Reed Ltd.

The resurgence of interest in Maori culture, and in particular the increase in the number of youth clubs and concert tours, has brought a boom to one of Rotorua's oldest industries—the manufacture of piupiu.

Dozens of women are busy making piupiu to orders as large as 60 at a time; one street near Whakarewarewa boasts as many as 10 home manufacturers busy on piupiu production.

Although piupiu fetch from £3 to £9 each, depending upon size and intricacy of pattern, there seems little chance that the market will be glutted, for making them is no easy job. Despite the fact that a few tools and Pakeha materials have simplified the art a little, it is still basically an ancient craft, performed in much the same way as it was hundreds of years ago, and relying for success on skilled fingers rather than on modern implements.