Something I will never forget is having once witnessed the making of fire using the traditional hika ahi or ‘fire plough’ method. This was about 9 or 10 years ago during a toki making wānanga held out at Hongoeka Marae, Plimmerton. Those of us present looked on with a sense of awe not having seen this done before. We all knew we were witnessing something very special, very ancient and kind of magical. While many traditional Māori art forms are still practiced today, hika ahi remains largely an unknown technique here except to a very few. It has yet to make a widespread revival amongst iwi Māori.
This blog is written with the aim of firstly helping those with an interest to discover more about how fire was made traditionally by Māori; and secondly, helping those with the necessary inclination, dedication and perseverance to take it further and rediscover by doing. My last blog post profiled some taonga collected from Takahe Valley near Lake Te Anau. See Taonga from Takahe Valley. This post starts by taking another look at one of the taonga, a small fire making stick:
125mm (l) x 21mm (w) x 13mm (d)
The scorch marks on the end of this stick identify it as being a hika or fire making stick. The hika was used as part of a three-stage fire making process. First it was rubbed back and forth within the groove of a kauahi or base stick in order to generate heat through friction. Eventually an ember in the form of a small pile of smouldering tinder dust would form at one end of the groove; and this could then be transferred to some dry starter material, such as paku ‘beech tree moss’. Once the starter material was set alight ‘kua tū te ahi’ – by being blown into or twirled around in the air – it was used to set fire to some prepared kindling. And then at last you had a substantial fire burning. Te Papa has a complete fire making apparatus which gives a better idea of what a fire making kit looks like:
Kauahi: 550mm (l) x 80mm (w) x 45mm (d) Hika: 235mm (l) x 20mm x 17mm
With the art of hika ahi having all but disappeared in Aotearoa it is worth taking a look at how this ancient skill is still being practiced today by one of our Polynesian tuakana ‘elder sibling’ cultures: Samoa. Hika ahi is still regarded as an essential survival skill on some of the smaller remote islands of Samoa. Due to tropical cyclones they can’t always rely upon external supplies getting through on the next plane or ship, so ancient ways are still passed on as essential back up. A couple of online films are used to demonstrate the Samoan fire making process. Being something these practitioners grew up with, it is not treated with quite the same sort of awe and reverence we gave it out at Hongoeka; rather it is a familiar skill valued for its practical benefits and also as traditional knowledge which has been passed on from generation to generation.
This film was shot at the Polynesian Cultural Centre, in Oahu, Hawaii. It shows the lighting of the starter material, coconut husk, and he is pretty funny too; entertainment for the tourists:
In this next film Eni demonstrates the whole process using pieces of wood cut from the hibiscus tree. There is a fair bit of competing noise from a nearby motorway so you may have to listen carefully:
Historic photos and paintings show that for Māori the kauahi was often held in position by a wahine standing with a foot placed upon one end of the kauahi, while the more strenuous task of rubbing was done by a tane. This seems to differ from the Samoan technique where a very long kauahi is typically used, so that the fire-maker can hold it in place himself by sitting on one end.
Please click on this link to a Te Ara webpage to view a painting by Gottfried Lindauer showing use of a Māori fire-making kit.
The positioning of the hands and the straightness of the arms in images such as the Lindauer painting compare closely to the technique demonstrated by Eni. Historical accounts record that when travelling, Māori took great care to keep their fire making kits dry underneath their cloaks or rain capes. Again this agrees with Eni’s common sense advice that your wood needs to be dry; the drier the better.
Authorities agree that the best wood for fire making in Aotearoa is kaikomako. A key to identification is the distinctive ‘duck’s foot’ shape of its juvenile leaves. Other useful woods include māhoe, makomako, tōtara, patatē and pukatea. The standard advice is that a softer wood – for example māhoe – is used for the kauahi, while the hika is made from a harder wood – such as tōtara. Kaikomako however may be used for the entire fire making kit.
According to traditional lore recorded in the South Island in 1920 the atua Mahuika deposited a small quantity of fire into every tree; but having done this still ended up with quite a large amount left over. This left over fire was then all deposited into the Kaikomako tree (alternatively Kahikomaho). Hence it is said that it is hard to get fire from most trees; but easiest of all is the kaikomako.
Beattie, H., 1994. Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori, pp114,196,292-293,388.
Best, E., 1924. The Polynesian Method Of Generating Fire. In Journal of The Polynesian Society, Vol.33.
Mar, F.D., 1924. A Year Among The Maoris: Study Of Their Arts And Customs, pp45-54.
Phillips, W.J., 1956. Making Fire And Cooking Food. In Te Ao Hou, No.15.
Tipa, R., 2008. Māhoe Holder Of The Secret Of Fire. In Te Karaka, pp32-33.
Ray Mears’ World Of Survival S01E04 – Savaii, Western Samoa; End part 20:30 – 23:00 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmNHs2suPrk