Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Importance of the Huia Feathers

Kapiolani Nee
Winward Community College
Copyright 2013

The Significance of Feathers Worn by Maori Peoples

Like precious gems plucked from the royal crown, the huia feathers were given as tokens of friendship and respect.  In a culture without money, tribes occupying the huia country of the North Island sent the feathers as gifts, or traded them with other tribes for pounamu (greenstone), shark’s teeth and other valuables.3  In traditional Maori thought, many birds were seen as chiefly and tapu.
The legend of the female huia is that some time after the great canoe migration to Aotearoa, there was a high ranking chief who was in the habit of going up into the mountains to set snares for birds.  One day when he went to gather in his catch he was surprised to see a strange bird held in one of his snares.  Of course, the stranger was the huia bird.7
The chief was full of admiration for the beautiful bird he had captured and he plucked two feathers from its tail and wore them in his hair.  Perhaps this was the first occasion the huia feathers were worn as a head decoration.
Before liberating the huia, the chief bestowed upon it a magic spell and mana with the command that the bird was to appear before him when it was wanted.  Now it happened that on one occasion when the chief requested the bird to appear, it was nesting time for the huia and its tail feathers were ruffled and in a bad state.  The chief was very angry and asked the bird why its tail feathers were in such a bad condition.  The bird told him that it was through sitting on its nest.7

The chief then said: “I will provide you with a means that will enable you to keep your tail feathers in good order when I next call on you.”  He took hold of the huia, which was a female, and bent its beak into a circular shape.  He then commanded the huia that every time it sat on its nest, it was to pick up its tail feathers with its circular beak and lift them clear of the nest.  This is the legend of the huia bird.7

The huia birds were considered to be taonga (treasures) by the Maori people.4  Maori of high rank or status traditionally wore the huia feathers as a hair decoration.4  Chiefs wore the kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), made from the feathers of the most beautiful birds.5   The marereko (ancient war-plume) was made up of twelve huia feathers.  These feathers were considered tapu because it made contact with the head of such tapu individuals.3   This was used by the high chief as identification, and were worn only at special ceremonies or when going to battle.1  The highly valued pohoi was an ornament made from the skin of the huia: the bird was skinned with the beak, skull and wattles attached and the legs and wings removed, carefully dried, and the resulting ornament worn from the neck or ears.4 
Huia feathers signified more than rank.  Feathers were also worn at tangi (funeral ceremonies), and were used to decorate the heads of the deceased.   The mourning caps (potae taua) covered with huia feathers were worn by widows.7   The skins were dried and worn from the ears, and in some cases a special flax headpiece was ornamented with huia heads, the beaks hanging down all around and coming into contact make a rattling sound as the wearer moves about.3  No one but women of high rank would wear the potae huia.3  Other birds, such as the kotuku (white heron) and amokura (red-tailed tropic bird) were also prized for their plumes, but huia was pre-eminent.5

An amazing discovery of huia feathers was made in 1892 near the Clutha River in Central Otago.  The discovery revealed 70 tail feathers and 20 bunches of scarlet kakakura (red kaka) feathers, stored in a wakahuia (treasure or feather box), an intricately carved wooden box traditionally designed and made by the chiefs son as a sign of accomplishment.1,8   A wakahuia were known to contain items that were symbols of rank or authority worn by the chief.  Treasures such as huia feather plumes, pendants made from pounamu (greenstone), heru (combs), tiki (figure-shaped ornaments) and other pendants where stored in the wakahuia.8  The boxes and their contents were often given names, and were passed down through families.8  Being so highly valued and tapu (sacred) the wakahuia and the fact that their contents came in contact with the most tapu part of a person, the head, meant that they were hung from the rafters of the owner’s whare (house) to remove any chance of disrespect.8
The huia bird was found throughout the North Island before European contact.  The Maori arrived around 800 years ago, and by the arrival of European settlers in the 1840s, habitat destruction and hunting had reduced the bird’s range to the southern North Island.6  However, hunting the huia were limited by traditional protocols.  The hunting season was from May to July when the bird’s plumage was in prime condition, while a rahui (hunting ban) was enforced in spring and summer.6  It wasn’t until European settlement that the huia’s numbers began to decline severely.  The huia and their feathers were symbols of prestige not only for Maori, but also Pakeha (European New Zealanders).  Their tail feathers were highly prized, their beaks became a fashionable form of adornment, and stuffed huia were eagerly sought as domestic ornaments.  The compelling need by Europeans to possess the huia feather and widespread deforestation led to their decline and eventual extinction. 

            I was debating on what to do my research paper on, going back and forth between topics.  I was driving myself crazy!  Then I remembered that you had mentioned in class that it would be a good topic to write about the significance of the feathers worn by Maori peoples.  So, I finally decided that that was going to be my topic.  It turned out to be quite an interesting, sometimes stressful but very informative adventure.  I lost my working draft due to a power outage over the spring break, which made my spring break!  Luckily I wrote down some of the websites I used, so it was not too difficult to find the information that I needed.  All the information that I found reinforced what I know to be the connections between all Polynesians.  How Polynesians respected each other and the environment and the Kuleana that we all have to Malama one another and our aina. 
The tapu Huia feathers worn by high ranking Maori.
The waka huia.
Oil painting by Gottfried Lindauer of a Maori chief with 7 huia feathers in his hair.
Koroua Hori Ngatai, with a kahu huru huru (feather cloak), and a taiaha. Unidentified photographer circa 1910.
Painting by Gottfried Lindauer of Maori chief Tukukino, late nineteenth century. Tukukino is wearing the pohoi, dried skin and beak of the huia bird.

This 1848 lithograph by John Gould shows a pair of a huia – a male (top) and female. The huia’s tail feathers were highly prized and worn by people of rank.

Works Cited

(1) "Ethno-ornithology:." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

(2)  "Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand [Paperback]." Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand: B.D. Heather. Web. 16 Mar. 2013

(3) "Huia, the Sacred Bird." New Zealand Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.

(4)  "Huia." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

(5)  "Maori of New Zealand." Maori Social Structure. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

(6)  "Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand." 1. Symbols of Status – Ngā Manu – Birds –. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

(7)  "THE MAORI MAGAZINE [electronic Resource]." THE MAORI MAGAZINE [electronic Resource]. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

(8)  "The Maori Race." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.

(9)  "Wakahuia (treasure Container), C1700s." - Rita Angus: Life and Vision. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

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