This article was written by Michael King, who has just had a book published about moko in the twentieth century. The book was the result of four years of research throughout the North Island and involved interviewing over 70 kuias with moko and other people with first hand knowledge of the custom.
Life, thank goodness, is full of surprises.
When the Maraeroa Marae Association held a fund-raising day at Khandallah in Wellington this year, somebody asked me if there would be any kuias with moko there.
I laughed. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Khandallah's full of moko.’ It was a good joke. I didn't even know any Maoris who lived in Khandallah. And, as everybody knows, the kuia with moko is rarely seen these days, even in rural communities.
Well, the joke was on me. A group of manuhiri from Te Puke was called onto the Cashmere School playing fields and it was led by a kuia i mokotia, Ramariki Rangawhenua Kerei.
It was exciting to see her come down the
driveway and hear her answer the karanga. The incongruity of the surroundings was symbolic of the efforts that groups like Maraeroa are making to fuse previously disconnected elements of New Zealand culture.
But in spite of our experience at Khandallah, the scarcity of the moko is no illusion.
In four years of searching for information throughout the North Island on how the practice of moko adapted in the twentieth century to meet new needs, I found 72 women with the chin tattoo. Fewer than half of them are alive today.
I was encouraged to attempt this project because I was aware of the custom's imminent extinction, and because I discovered that nothing had been written about it in any detail since the nineteenth century.
The high point of my quest was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Turangawaewae Marae at Ngaruawahia when a large group of kuia i mokotia came together for perhaps the last time.
Before I moved from Waikato to Wellington that year, I left my list of names and addresses of tattooed women with Queen Te Atairangikaahu and spoke to her of a personal dream. The dream was that once again we should see a group of old ladies with moko clustered around a meeting-house porch as they did in former times. In recent years, I had seen them only as individuals, usually the last in their districts and often not going out much any more.
Such an occasion, I suggested, would also be an opportunity for the country as a whole to pay a tribute to these old people who had carried on the values and rituals of Maoritanga from the days when people believed the race and culture would die out. The moko was an emblem of those values.
The Arikinui agreed. The kuias were invited and many of them came. The anniversary activities were both a tribute to the moko and a requiem for its passing. I shall never forget the proud manner in which they carried themselves when they were called onto the marae, the special function in their honour in Mahinarangi, and the sight of them on the meeting-house porch through-out the weekend.
They came from the last districts to retain the custom as a symbol of the strength of their Moritanga and as a diploma for accomplishment in the arts and crafts of their culture.
They came from Waikato, Auckland, Bay of Plenty, the Ureweras, and Taranaki. They displayed the work of the last of the tohungata-moko: Anaru Makiwhara, Kuhukuhu and Ngakau of Waikato; Te Tuhi of the King Country; Hikapuhi of Owhata; Raro Aterea of Tauranga and Ruatoki; Hokotahi and Taiwera of Tuhoe; and Tame Poata of Ngati Porou.
We may never see another function like it again. After another generation has passed, we may never see the moko again.
But I count it a privilege that I had some association with the custom before its dis-appearance, that I was able to record something of its beauty and significance, and that I was able to know some of the women who wore it.
Haere ra e kui ma. Haere, haere, haere.