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Friday, 08 June 2007

On the Marae: A Maori Ritual of Encounter - Page 4

Written by Stephanie Henck
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In the beginning there was darkness, te po--the domain of the gods. Here, Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother were joined in an intimate embrace that left the world void of light. They begot many sons who dominated aspects of the natural world: they controlled animals, the forests, the weather, and the seas. The sons of earth and sky suffered from the eternal darkness of the tight hold between Heaven and Earth and resolved to separate their parents.

diggingWe were to spend the night on a floor of mattresses in the open-air meetinghouse. Nylon sleeping bags lined the tops of the mattresses. The three walls that made up the meeting room were covered in framed photographs of the tribe’s ancestors. Tall men with tattoos, or moko on their faces and feathers in their hair stood next to children and mothers standing in front of their totems. The facial tattoos of the Maori symbolized status and honor for warriors. Traditionally black and made of swirling patterns that represent natural phenomenon like wind and water currents, the tattooing process was extremely painful. A warrior would lay down and receive cuts in his face in the desired patters and then ink was rubbed into the bloody wound. The cuts left ridges and contours of skin that softened their appearances and the outlines of their faces. It was a mark of strength not to make a sound or flinch during the process. Now the tattoos are done with modern techniques and are more emblematic of a return to one’s heritage, culture and ancestry.

Where the fourth wall would have stood there were instead two carved columns marking the entrance to the room, for nothing stood between the portraits on the wall and the courtyard outside. We were not on our sleeping bags but ten minutes when we realized why the din of crickets seemed so loud. They were inside with us. Small, black crickets hopped over legs and arms sticky from the humid air, chirping and clicking against the walls. I was afraid to crunch them if I rolled over and many girls locked themselves away in their sleeping bags despite the thick heat.

Sleep came easily. One of the elder women sat at the opening, her long, black hair sticking to the sides of her head and catching any bits of wind that would make it through the totems. She serenaded us with songs of the past. Perhaps I was awake, listening. Or maybe I dreamt her songs and lullabies, her voice a ceaseless chant in words I could not understand. I felt flighty touches of crickets as they caressed my face and legs, jumping from person to person in the night. The last thing I saw was a face in that pillow, tattooed, dark-skinned, and close enough to hongi, speaking the words and singing the lullabies of the woman at the door.

©Stephanie Henck

(Page 4 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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