New Zealand - Moriori/ Maori - The People of Rekohu (Chatham Islands)

Beginning of this century the newspapers of New Zealand announced that the Moriori were officially extinct with the passing of the last full-blooded Moriori, yet on the 1st of January 2000 they lead the world into the new millenium!


At the creation, the Earth goddess, Papa, and her husband Rangi, the sky god, were so much in love that they hugged each other and would not let go. This meant that the earth and the sky were always joined solidly together, and no light could come into the world.

Papa gave birth to several children, but they were stuck between their parents and could not escape. Finally the children decided that they had to get out. One of them, Tane, suggested that they force their parents apart.

All of the children agreed that this was a good idea. One by one they tried, without success to push their parents apart. Finally Tane had a try. He folded himself up very small and slipped between his parents. With his feet against Rangi and his shoulders against Papa, he pushed. He pushed for hours, he pushed for days, he pushed for weeks, he pushed for years and years.

And very, very slowly Tane managed to uncurl his body, straighten himself, and finally push his parents apart. Light came into the world, and for the first time since the world was created, plants started to grow.

But Rangi and Papa were so sad to be apart that they cried and cried. Rangi's tears ran into rivers. They became a sea. They even threatened to flood the whole world. Something had to be done. One of the children turned Papa over so that Rangi could not see her face. Now he doesn't cry so much.

But you can still see his tears every morning; they are the dewdrops on the grass.

And the mists that rise from the ground are Papa's sighs.


The Moriori/ Maori are probably one of the least understood part of the history of New Zealand and its people. Myths were created last century and are still believed today by many. Michael King in his book Moriori - A People Rediscovered criticizes early writers such as Elsdon Best and Percy S. Smith in their attempt to portray the Moriori as a separate race of 'dark-skinned, repulsive looking and shifting . . .defeated by Maori and taken refuge in the Chathams'.

Moriori arrived in the Chatham islands most likely around the 13th-14th century, around the same time as Maori did on the mainland. Moriori being of the same ancestry as Maori, voyaged the same seas in search of new land, making landfall briefly in Te Waipounamu (South Island). From there they sailed for unknown reasons, perhaps following the flight of the Albatross knowing it led to more land, east to land first on Pitt Island. Tradition states that the inhabitants of Rangiauria (Pitt island) eventually moved to Rekohu at a later date leaving Rangiauria uninhabited. Other voyages are reported as well to have arrived in the Chathams so all in all it would be fair to say that the Moriori arrival and colonising of the Chathams was perhaps more intentional than by accident.

Moriori went through many cultural changes over the centuries to follow, probably due to the climatic conditions of those Islands. Inter-tribal warring took an enormous toll on Moriori and fearing total annihilation, Nukunuku ordered there was to be no more warring, that all disputes leading to fighting were to be restricted to using sticks no thicker than a thumb and no longer than an arm. First to draw blood was the winner.

The impact of this on Moriori was to change their culture radically from that of their mainland cousins, the Maori. Hunting became the order of the day in proving strength and manhood.

Living conditions on Rekohu can be described as nothing short of harsh. Weather conditions that would take a huge toll on the worthiest of peoples, served the same to Moriori and life expectancy was very low. Birds and seals were their main source of food as well as shellfish.

Moriori were considered to be an intensely tapu people. Their connection to the land and to their ancestors is remarkable, perhaps in comparison to the most sacred of people groups in the world. Very much in touch with the environment around them, and without the warring desire, causing a need for improved technology, development was slow and technologically simple. Though this simpleness is not to be confused with their intelligence. Moriori were a brilliant people, excelling in the use if resources to their benefit, although not exploiting these resources to the point of extinction. As in the taking of fur seals, Moriori took what they needed and only the older male seals were taken leaving the younger seals and females. They manipulated their environment to serve them whilst not damaging it.

Eventually with the arrival of the Europeans to Aotearoa, Rekohu was to be visited as well, though not intentionally. The Brigg Chatham, blown off course, sighted the Islands in 1791 and headed into the harbour for shelter. These first encounters of Moriori with these strangers were, like in the Maori meetings, riddled with misunderstandings form both sides, leading to several Moriori being shot and killed.

With the arrival of the Europeans came massive change for Moriori as was the same as Maori on the mainland, a people that had seen little change since their arrival in these Islands. Lt. William Broughton had claimed these Islands for his king, George the III naming them after his ship, Chatham. It was to be another 10 years before the next ships were to arrive in the Chathams, except this time not accidentally but to plunder the then ample supply of fur seals. With this came guns, alcohol and diseases which began to take a huge toll on the population. By the 1830's fur seals on Rekohu were all gone and with that a major part of Moriori resource and heritage. Fur seals were their main source of winter clothing.

Diseases like influenza wiped out almost a quarter of the population of this people who had for at least 500 years, not been in contact with any other people other than themselves. Also due to the attitude of many of the sailors living in the Chathams, treating Moriori as nothing less than dogs, the taking and raping of women was a frequent event, introducing venereal disease as well.

Even through all of this though it must be noted that Moriori were extremely careful to abide by the ruling of their ancestor Nukunuku and not resort to fighting and to take care of the land in the way they new best. But with the disappearance of many of their traditional foods and the introduction of diseases that their gods seemed to be unable to cure them from, Moriori confidence in themselves as a people began to wane. Their environment was quickly deteriorating and their yearly rituals and cultural schedules were now in upheaval, their source of clothing had almost completely disappeared and the gods, seemed not to be answering them. Many of their sacred sites had been desecrated by visitors and many tapu laws had been broken.

But Moriori were about to be dealt a second blow, one that would seal the fate of them as a people, if it hadn't already been sealed. The Brigg Rodney brought with it 500 Maori, men, women and children displaced from their tribal land in Taranaki. The intention of these men was known by those in charge of the ship from the beginning of the journey from Aotearoa to the Chathams. In actual fact the Maori on board had debated about which Island to invade, Chathams, Norfolk or Samoa! The Chathams was chosen.

The Brigg Rodney arrived on the Chathams and the Maori began to, as Michael King states in his book 'Moriori-The People Rediscovered', "walk the land". This meant walking from place to place and taking whatever they saw as their own. Anyone who disagreed was killed as was the Maori custom of walking the land. Moriori quickly called a meeting of all the tribes and able bodied men to decide what to do about these new invaders. Maori had visited the islands many times in the past without any problems but this was not the case with these Maori.

Moriori debated whether the ruling of Nukunuku applied in this case, as this tapu ruling was given to them to prevent inter-tribal fighting not a planned invasion.

It was noted later that if Moriori had chosen to fight at that stage there was no doubt they could have easily repelled the invaders. But the decision was made as was the custom for passive resistance. They would carry on their lives and try to share what ever resources they had with Maori. The Te Ati-awa Maori saw this as being weak. The giving up of their land as Maori saw it, was an act of cowardice. Problem being that Moriori culture and Maori culture differed greatly in this mindset so as was the custom of most Maori of that era, the land was taken and the customs for taking the land were followed with some Moriori being ritually slain and the rest enslaved.

Moriori were to live in these cruel conditions with these Maori and under the watchful eye of the Europeans for the next 30 years until the Govt. made rulings to have the slaves freed. But this was one too many nails in the already well nailed coffin of the plight to save the Moriori. Moriori had remained strong in spirit through most of these times but with the eventual taking of all of their ancestral lands by Pakeha and Maori and the stripping of their intense sacredness as a people, Moriori as with many other people groups around the world 'turned to the wall and died".

Soon Pakeha and Maori were to realise that Moriori were at the point of no turning back. Numbers of Moriori dropped dramatically to the point that by the turn of the century there were only a handful left. Tommy Solomon was the last of the full-blooded Moriori of the Chathams. His descendants still live in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and have through the years managed to gather themselves together again. So in my mind the story of the Moriori is not over and a new chapter of this book is opening.

INTERVIEW WITH MACKI WIREMA KORAKO RUKA Spiritual Elder of the Waitaha Maori of New Zealand