Endangered Heritage: The Rakau Momori Tree Carvings of the Moriori
Wood carving, or whakairo, has a long and rich history in Maori culture. Traditionally, Maori artisans, utilizing woods like totara, kauri and pohutukawa, crafted intricate designs laden with artistic and spiritual meaning. These carvings adorned significant structures, such as meeting houses and canoes, narrating stories of ancestors, gods and cultural heritage. Symbolism played a crucial role, with designs reflecting various facets of Maori mythology and history. Amidst this rich tradition, the Rakau Momori carving style stands out. Practiced exclusively by the Moriori people, this unique approach transforms living trees into exquisite manifestations of their cultural identity.
Left: An early Moriori tree carving known as a Rakau Momori on a karaka trunk on Rekohu, the main island of the Chatham Islands in New Zealand. (Steve / Adobe Stock) Right: Illustrations of Momori designs carved into trees and rocks. (Public domain)
What Sets the Rakau Momori Carvings Apart?
Rakau Momori is the native name for a style of unique Moriori carvings that are made into living kōpi trees (Corynocarpus laevigatus). Moriori are the indigenous Polynesians who live on Chatham Islands, some 800 kilometers east of New Zealand. They originate from Maori settlers who arrived at the islands sometime around 1500 AD.
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Today, only a few Moriori people remain, but the tradition of Rakau Momori still remains. These distinct tree carvings are found today only on Rekohu, the central of the Chatham Islands. They are quite rare, many of them disappearing forever due to climate change. Recently, however, the importance of this Moriori heritage has been recognized and efforts to preserve it are underway.
The Moriori settled these islands in several waves, starting around 1500 AD. Since, they developed a unique language that started as a Maori dialect, and with it, a new set of traditions. The most distinct was the carving of images into living trees.
Rakau Momori were once widespread around the Chatham Islands, located in groves along the eastern coast of the island, as well as on Pitt Island (Rangihaute) and in the area of Te Whaanga lagoon.
For a very long time they remained unregistered by the wider public, until they were first recorded in the 1950s by scholar Christina Jefferson. By that time, there were about 1,000 Rakau Momori, of which Jefferson sketched 450 to preserve for posterity.
Today only about 130 carvings remain in the forests and many of these are barely visible to the naked eye. One of the reasons for such poor preservation is the fact that the trees are still living. As they grow, the carved markings on their bark are steadily erased.
Moriori Rakau Momori carvings on a tree on the Chatham Islands around 1900. (Public domain)
The Disappearing Heritage of the Rakau Momori
The carvings of the Moriori are complex, and the nature of each cut is “such that it does not penetrate the cambian (layer between the wood and internal tissues).” The result is often described as “bruising” of the tree surface, rather than scarring. But it is also another reason why the Rakau Momori are quickly disappearing.
Thankfully, many of the symbols and images carved onto the trees were sketched for preservation. They often display karapuna (ancestors) and mythical events from Moriori legends. These people believed that by carving the image of an ancestor into the tree, their spirit would be infused into it, and the tree would act as a special portal to the “spiritual homeland.” As a result, groves with these Rakau Momori carvings became very special places for the Moriori, where they would come looking for meditation, introspection and inspiration.
Subsequent study of the Rakau Momori carvings was conducted in successive waves, most notably in the 1960s by David Simmons and Stuart Park in 1976. Thanks to their work, the carvings were categorized into several distinct types. These include human figures, zoomorphic images, trees and an assortment of special objects.
The humans are almost always depicted with heart-shaped heads, with feather adornments and outstretched hands. The zoomorphic images, on the other hand, are composed of birds, fish, seals, seaweed and crayfish. All together, the images are quite unique in style and present a very good insight into the culture of the Moriori.
Windswept tree on hilltop on the Chatham Islands, New Zealand, home to the indigenous Moriori people. (Steve / Adobe Stock)
Nature Reclaims Its Own: The End of the Rakau Momori?
Sadly, the Rakau Momori carvings are almost gone from the world. A study conducted in 2010 showed that many of these special groves are in steep decline, and that carvings were quickly deteriorating. The main causes were environmental factors and the growth of the trees themselves.
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As a last desperate measure, several of the Rakau Momori trees were cut, in order for the carvings to be preserved for good. After extensive conservation, these carvings will be displayed as a lasting heritage of the Moriori people, who number no more than 700 individuals today.
Alas, the remaining trees are under constant threat. They are impacted by grazing and browsing animals, by the changes of land use, wind exposure, deforestation and storms. Luckily, the memory remains and the few sketches that were saved have been snatched from the ravages of time and remain as a lasting heritage of the vanishing Moriori of Chatham Islands.
Top image: Rakau Momori Moriori tree carvings. Source: Royston Vasey / CC BY-SA 3.0
Baird, K. 2019. Hokopanopano Ka Toi Moriori (Reigniting Moriori Arts): Memory Work on Rēkohu (Chatham Islands). The Memory Waka.
De Lange, P. J. 2021. “So where did kopi come from?” in Chatham Islands. Available at: https://chathams.co.nz/so-where-did-kopi-come-from/
Unknown. Rākau Momori (Moriori memorial trees) – Fact sheet. Te Papa. Available at: https://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/RaCC84kau-Momori-fact-sheet-aug-2014-final.pdf