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Tiki tour: A journey into the history of our beloved symbol

Contemporary hei tiki by Charles Wilson (1 and 2), Lewis Gardiner (3), Rangi Kipa (4) and Hikurangi Mangu (5). The others are from Te Papa’s collection.

One of our most familiar images, seen on items ranging from T-shirts to artworks, the hei tiki has origins that are as mysterious as its various forms.

Fifteen years ago, Dougal Austin (Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) decided to make a hei tiki. The old way. He and a friend bought some pounamu, had it cut, commissioned some stone tools made from an old grindstone and got to work. “But we soon found out how difficult it was. Pounamu is the toughest stone you can lay your hands on and the tiki is such a complicated form.”

Tough, complicated and mysterious.

Hei tiki – hei meaning something worn around the neck and tiki meaning human image – is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s  most familiar images, seen on everything from auction catalogues and museum exhibits to stamps, coasters, wine bottles, T-shirts, tourism company branding and high-end contemporary art. It is a potent symbol of Māori whakapapa and, increasingly, of New Zealand and Pacific identity, but it is also one of the most enigmatic.

“Hei tiki represent the pinnacle of Māori pounamu-working ability using early stone-working techniques,” says Austin, senior curator mātauranga Māori at Te Papa. “They are probably the most famous Māori adornment and the most exalted – a seamless combination of artistry and the beauty of the stone, then enhanced with age and use when passed down through generations. The use distinction is important. It is through these ancestral associations – the agency of indigenous use – that hei tiki derive a lot of their cultural meaning and mana.”

Dougal Austin. Photo/Norm Heke/Te Papa/Supplied

They fall into the category of “classic Māori” adornments, one of several complex pounamu artefacts that appeared after the archaic phase of Māori culture, about 1450-1500, alongside pendants rendered as pekapeka (native bat), marakihau (sea monster) and manaia (beaked figure in profile).

Mere pounamu signified the greatest mana, but “it was the hei tiki that outshone all other taonga in terms of their emotional attachment”.

In his new book, Te Hei Tiki: An Enduring Treasure in a Cultural Continuum, Austin charts the history of this indigenous design, from an early archaic-style figure carved into serpentine to those crafted today using new materials, modern tools and contemporary designs.

The illustrations reveal an extraordinary lineage of fine craftsmanship, ancestral reverence and the permutations of the stone itself. No two are the same, but they fall into two main design styles: the first, by far the most common, shows a figure with both hands resting on the thighs, deeply grooved eyes, evident ribs and the head resting on the shoulder; the second depicts a human figure holding one hand to the chest or, occasionally, the mouth, sometimes with projections representing ears or chin, and no ribs. A rare third category, the hei tiki-matau, shows the head as two separate halves or two adjoining heads facing each other – an ambiguous image also seen in woodcarving.

Guide Sophia Hinerangi wearing a large hei tiki, c1905. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Subtle differences

Austin’s interest began in the early 1990s when, as a recent anthropology graduate, he was rehousing the hei tiki in the Otago Museum collection. Years later, while co-curating Te Papa’s travelling Kura Pounamu exhibition, he spent more time studying the subtle differences in materials and motifs.

Using a study group of 150 hei tiki, he found 86% were made from pounamu sourced in the river valleys of central Te Tai Poutini, the West Coast, in particular the Arahura River area. Others came from a Wakatipu source, Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) and south Westland. Among these, there was a clear preference for the pale īnanga variety, with some having been heated and reground to induce the lighter shade. Next in popularity was the more mottled kawakawa, followed by the bright-green kahurangi. Most of this stone would have been carried over the mountain passes to the working villages on the east coast, including those at Kaiapoi, Taumutu, Whareakeake and Waikouaiti, where skilled craftspeople would spend 250-300 hours sawing, filing, etching and drilling using a stone-tipped wooden hand drill, or tūwiri.

The resulting pendants are heirloom treasures, symbols of chiefly status, protection against danger or talismans of fertility (some say the human form represents that of an unborn child).

“But the ancestral connection was the most important thing. They had a lineage, and they were passed down through whānau, gaining mana with each generation.”

This importance is evident in the signs of wear, especially around the hole where the lashing for the kaui, or neck cord, went through (or inside the arm, used as an alternative hanging point) and on the finer facial features, indicating frequent handling and rubbing. As English-born merchant Joel Samuel Polack, who lived in Northland in the 1830s, recalled, “I have frequently desired to buy some … but they were esteemed beyond any price.”

The origins of this taonga have long been the subject of wild conjecture. Ethnologist Harry Skinner believed the tongue was an ancient reptilian feature related to distant lands once inhabited by Māori. British soldier and collector Horatio Robley believed their similarity to Buddhist effigies supported the theory that Māori were the “lost tribe” of Palestine, reaching the Pacific via India and Burma. New Zealand archaeologist Les Groube thought the hei tiki was the result of European influence, suggesting the most common hands-on-thighs configuration appeared post-contact when pounamu adzes, suddenly obsolete with the advent of metal tools, became more available for reworking into pendants.

He wāhi pounamu (pounamu source) at Te Koroka, in the South Island’s Wakatipu district. Supplied by Dougal Austin

Austin is reluctant to draw a clear distinction between pre- and post-European contact in the history of hei tiki. The proliferation of the pounamu pendants over the 19th century can be explained in part by the introduction of metal tools, but not all hei tiki were made from recycled adze blades, and the earlier arrival of Ngai Tahu in the South Island also triggered a growing supply of pounamu and increasing demand from Māori and, to a lesser extent, Pākehā.

Hei tiki collected between 1769 and 1777 show the motif was well established before Europeans arrived, appearing between 1550 and 1600 in an adaptation of the curvaceous forms already seen in woodcarving, now applied to the tough new material of pounamu. Unlike the uniformly fine-grained argillite and basalt, pounamu, with its internal felted structure of tremolite crystals, typically requires abrasive stone saws.

“The origins of hei tiki can be thought of as resulting from a convergence in time between the refinement of human-figure imagery in whakairo rākau, or woodcarving, and the development of the stone-working techniques required to render these figures in pounamu,” says Austin.

Human-figure motifs seen across Polynesia, from Hawaii in the north to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, can be considered distant cousins, but “the hei tiki creation was born largely of Māori artistic and technical endeavour here in Aotearoa”.

Once the techniques were mastered, the fashion for pounamu spread throughout the country in what Austin describes as the “hei tiki diaspora”. Different styles are hard to ascribe to particular iwi and hāpu, but there is evidence hei tiki were made in keeping with regional artistic styles. Upright figures, without the angled head, for example, are distinctive to the northern region of Te Tai Tokerau. The peaked head is a feature of pendants from Taranaki; a rounded lower portion is associated with the Cook Strait region; a raised suspension hole tab at the top of the head, resembling a topknot or comb, is common in South Island hei tiki; and a teardrop-shaped form with more refined facial features is more common in the far south.

Fashion accessories

As a result of the 1864 West Coast gold rush, Māori access to pounamu sources and the indigenous working of the stone declined, marking the beginning of the end of te ao kohātu, the “Māori stone age”. At the same time, increasing mechanisation – from foot power to steam to electricity – allowed lapidary workshops to compete with the influx of overseas suppliers as demand for hei tiki as colonial fashion accessories, good luck charms or tourist souvenirs grew.

A ban on the export of significant quantities of unworked greenstone in 1947 brought an end to the sale of German- and British-made items, but by then the Māori tradition of handcrafted pounamu taonga had long declined. Their tawdry replacements included plastic hei tiki as souvenirs – in the 1960s, Air New Zealand gave out thousands of the plastic replicas to international passengers – and, more recently, Asian-made ones.

The opening of Haast Pass in 1965 improved access to the West Coast and its pounamu resource, and from the 1970s, helicopters were being used to extract huge boulders from the more remote valleys and plateaux. The resultant carved pendants were typically commercialised versions of appropriated forms made for quick sale.

Authenticity and imitation, Austin agrees, are slippery terms. But although many Māori artists are constrained by cultural considerations to uphold the mana of the hei tiki form, much of the appropriated work, he says, shows little empathy for the subject matter, the high artistic standards applied to the original designs or the cultural imperative of passing the art form on to future generations in good shape.

Under the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act 1997, ownership of all pounamu found in its natural state in Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area is vested in the iwi. “There are still cowboys out there,” says Austin, “but the trend is heading in the right direction.”

A tiki sculpture by Lewis Gardiner. Supplied by Dougal Austin

New paths

In the resurgence of Māori art, hei tiki has lagged behind woodcarving, “but in the past few decades, more Māori are wearing hei tiki and more Māori artists are working on them”.

Increasingly, Māori are reasserting their cultural agency and customary control, subverting the appropriation narrative in a Maoriana version of Kiwiana or crafting contemporary versions of the iconic design. In his book, Austin interviews contemporary Māori hei tiki makers Charles Wilson, Lewis Tamihana Gardiner, Fayne Robinson, Joel Marsters, Whare Bidois, Rangi Kipa, Stacy Gordine, Wi-Kuki Hewett and Areta Wilkinson, many having come to hei tiki through woodcarving or tā moko practices. At the same time a number of non-Māori craftspeople are progressing the art form into new non-customary designs.

There are still mysteries. In eight out of every 10 hei tiki, for example, the head is tilted to the right – perhaps to fit the original piece of pounamu, perhaps to allow the owner to wear it upright or lying on its side, perhaps as a reflection of the left- or right- handedness of the maker. We don’t know.

“And where did the first tiki spring from in Aotearoa?” asks Austin. “We may never know.”

In the meantime, his own hei tiki still lies unfinished in his Wellington home. “I’ll hand it on to someone, a proper Māori artist, maybe someone I am related to, and say, ‘Here, you can finish it off.’”


This article was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.