My Most Meaningful Possession

Aotearoa New Zealand has much that is special, and a beautiful jade called ‘pounamu’- that comes with wonderful folk-tales explaining its origins [who needs sensible geological explanations!], an aura and mysticism that affects all who see, touch or wear it, and a wonderful presence that in no small way comes from the wide range of tools, weapons and talismans that the Maori people traded, raided and even killed for, is one very special thing.

In the legends of the Ngai Tahu people of the South Island of New Zealand, the guardian of pounamu is a taniwha, a giant water creature named Poutini. His home is in the rough seas off the West Coast of the South Island or “Te Tai o Poutini”. Long ago Poutini used to venture far afield. One day, while resting in the warm waters off Tuhua (Mayor Island, in northeast NZ) he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, bathing in the sea. Poutini looked at Waitaiki with lust in his heart. He rushed forward, snatched her up and fled towards the mainland.
Waitaiki‘s husband, Tama-ahua was a powerful chief and skilled in the rituals of the spirit world. When he realised that his wife had been taken he threw a magical dart in the air.  The dart pointed in the direction his wife and Poutini had taken so Tama-ahua and his slave paddled after them in hot pursuit. Reaching the shore Poutini lit a fire to warm Waitaiki but hearing Tama-ahua approaching he took her up again and moved on. The chase continued across Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Each time Poutini stopped he lit a fire to warm his captive Waitaiki– at Tahanga on the Coromandel Peninsular, Whangamata, Taupo, Rangitoto Ki te Tonga (D’urville Island), Onetahua (Farewell Spit) and Pauatane on the West Coast. The rocks at all of these sites, all of them important sources of stone for Maori, are all still stained by the fires of Poutini
Fleeing further south Poutini and his captive reached Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) but  weeping with cold and fright, Waitaiki begged him to turn around, so he carried her back up the coast, taking sanctuary in the headwaters of the Arahura River. 
At Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) Tama-ahua found his wife’s tears preserved forever in the stone named Tangiwai (Bowenite). He realised that Poutini and Waitaiki had turned back so he tracked them up the coast to the Arahura valley. That night Tama-ahua rested and prepared for the final showdown.
Poutini was concerned. Fearing Tama-ahua‘s strength and determination he decided that if he could not have Waitaiki, no-one would. 
He transformed her into his likeness- ‘Pounamu and laid her in the cold waters of the river, then slipped downstream past the sleeping warrior. 
In the morning Tama-ahua set out to do battle with Poutini to reclaim Waitaiki. But when he reached the head of the river, his enemy had gone. He found his young wife cold and lifeless, transformed into stone in the riverbed. His tangi, or song of grief still sounds throughout the mountains. 

To the Ngai Tahu people Waitaiki is the mother of Pounamu and the jade fragments that break from the mother lode and roll down the river to the sea are her children

The weapons and tools were hugely valued because the stone (the Maori had no metal) was not only beautiful but incredibly hard and strong and once an edge had been ground it would last for a long time before needing to be ‘touched up’ and thus the chisels and gouges used in carving or whakairo were as highly valued as weapons. Because these stone tools were so good they also carried great ‘mana‘  (power & authority) and chieftains (or rangatira) often flourished them when wishing to add emphasis to their whaikorero, or speeches (or brandished them in battle!)

There are many intricate and meaningful personal ornaments that are treasured by their guardians- (although anyone may have pounamu one isn’t ever really an ‘owner’ as much as one is in possession of it until the spirit determines it will be passed on to the next ‘guardian’. Pounamu should never be bought for oneself, rather it should be a gift from another- in a sensible pragmatic way it may be bought but it should be bought for someone else. This process of transferring guardianship is also a wee bit fraught in that the pounamu will make up its own mind as to whether the recipient is worthy and there are many people around today whose jade taonga (treasure- all pounamu is taonga) has either broken or been ‘lost’. Maori will tell you that if this has happened it simply meant you were not meant to have the taonga in the first place. It is also said that pounamu will ultimately find its way home and that if you are meant to have it you will go with it.


For many years one of my hobbies has been bone carving, a skill I picked up developed through presenting ‘elective’ programmes to children at schools I taught at throughout my career. I loved playing around with designs and then trying to form these in bone. I had some success and will always enjoy trying to get finer and more intricate in my creations, but I have at the same time had an urge to get into something a bit more esoteric than crappy old beef shin-bone!! But more of that later.


Many years ago I was a teaching principal of a small school in the Bay of Plenty, a school that had very few pakeha (European) children, in fact on occasions the only blond heads seen in the playground were the three that belonged to my children!!! During this time I underwent a sort of cultural ‘fine tuning’ that was brought about by, on the one hand, the perception that a 90% Maori roll required a ‘different’ type of education and, on the other the wonderful and inclusive nature of the tangata whenua (the local Maori) who welcomed our family and undertook to include and involve my family in the life and times of the community. Coincidentally much of the ‘life and times’ revolved around the happenings at one or other of the two kainga (villages) that were nearby. At each was a substantial marae (comprised of, among other things a wharenui or meeting house, wharekai or communal eating house and marae atea or courtyard meeting place where traditional events and meetings occur.) There were two because the area was on the border between two iwi or Maori tribes.

Because of the use of te reo (the language, i.e. Maori) is traditionally mandatory on the marae atea I felt somewhat out of things because I wasn’t fluent. This was particularly so when I was invited (instructed) by one of the kaumatua (elders) to join him on the tangata whenua paepae (front row of the speakers’ seat) for the purpose of speaking on his behalf to pakeha with the manuhiri (visitors) to the ANZAC Day celebration “in case some of them wouldn’t understand his speech”! This was an incredible honour for me but it reinforced my misgivings about how little grasp I truly had of te reo. (I guess I stuttered through OK because I wasn’t told off by the kaumatua and he stayed a friend and mentor- wonderful wisdom.)

As a step towards addressing both issues I enrolled in a 3 day residential holiday professional development course at Nga Hau E Wha National Marae (the four winds)in Christchurch on “Using Te Reo In The Classroom” expecting any course that was going to address that issue would also be at least some sort of starting point in improving my own grasp of te reo.

After a full powhiri (welcome on the marae) we were escorted into the magnificent wharenui, ‘AORAKI’ (which is the name of our highest mountain, Mt Cook.) We were introduced to the whare and among other things were told that the carvings represented every iwi in the nation. As is traditional the visitors sleep communally in the meeting house and we were told to find a mattress (already placed on the floor around the perimeter of the whare) to call home for the next couple of nights. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that the carved poupou (carved panel that tells a story) I had chosen was carved in the style of the Taranaki iwi. Why delighted? Because I was born in Kaponga at the base of Mt Taranaki! Coincidence? Or something more.

After an interesting couple of days covering a number of strategies for improving aspects of classroom programmes, particularly for Maori students but benefiting non-Maori as well given the Ministry’s stated aim of raising the awareness of te reo for all Kiwi kids, dinner and the evening session of the second night, a number of us went to the local for a night-cap. We invited the ringa wera (hot hands- the cooks and kitchen staff) to join us and it was one of these who admired the bone-carving I was wearing. (Remember my hobby?) It was really nothing particularly splendid- just a simple triple twist similar to a skein of knitting wool, but she seemed to like it a lot- so I took it off and put in on her neck in appreciation of her appreciation, I suppose. She seemed delighted and one of the other locals quietly whispered to me a bit later that the lady was so taken by my simple act of kindness that “She’ll probably give you a piece of pounamu!” I instinctively thought “That’s nice,” but thought little more about until next morning at breakfast. The gentle little Maori lady from Arahura (remember the Arahura River in the story of Waitaiki and Pounamu?), proudly wearing her new bone carving around her neck, came up and held out her hand for mine, opened it then gently placed a velveteen bag in it. I could hardly believe my eyes, which I promise you immediately started watering in humility when I saw the ‘piece of pounamu’ I found in the bag.This thing is magnificent! Dark, dark Arahura pounamu with a puku so fat and clearly carved in the traditional way using stone-on-stone and hand-grinding. This seemd an old piece and I just could not rationalise this act with mine- a potentially priceless Maori artifact against a worthless piece of cow-bone! I gave her a long hongi, kiss, hugged her- and cried.

So that is my most meaningful possession.

Oh! Sorry! I haven’t finished telling you why it is so meaningful (as if all of that wasn’t enough!!) I retired at the end of 2004 and my wife and I were pondering where we might throw out the anchor. There were, after all lots of places we have lived with our children, there were many more that I had fond memories of with my ‘growing up’ family- either holidaying or living, and of course there are the places where our children (and now, grandchildren) live. So, you might ask, what is the point of this apparent post script? Well, it’s this-

We now live on the West Coast of Te Tai o Poutini just a few short kilometres from the Arahura River from whence came my ‘piece of pounamu’

My tiki (Maori stylised human neck ornament) has found its way home- I’ve just come along for the ride! 


3 thoughts on “My Most Meaningful Possession

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