*Niu [Proto Polynesian, from Proto Malayo Polynesian *niuR]


Although originally the name for the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (Arecaceae), in Aotearoa this word came to be applied to slender wands or sticks used in ceremonies to foretell the outcome of projected events or enterprises.


From PROTO MALAYO-POLYNESIAN *niuR, Cocos nucifera , "Coconut palm & fruit " (Arecaceae).
through PROTO OCEANIC *niuR, Cocos nucifera
and PROTO POLYNESIAN: *Niu, Cocos nucifera.

Crown of Niu (Cocos nucifera) showing fruit (coconuts)
Hilo, Hawaii

Niu (Cocos nucifera) against the evening skyline
Apia, Samoa

Tongan, Samoan, Niue, Marquesan, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Tuamotu: Niu (Cocos nucifera, "Coconut palm & fruit", Arecaceae)
Manahiki (Cook Islands): (Cocos nucifera, including fruit)
Rarotongan: (Cocos nucifera, including fruit)

Proto Central Eastern Polynesian : *Nīkau, frond and nut of Cocos nucifera, and in some languages also the coconut palm itself.
Several other Māori words also reflect older terms which at some point in their history were associated with the coconut. The etymologies of these are outlined in the page for Proto Polynesian *niu: kakano, "seed"; fenu, "strand of a garment"; rama, "torch"; kaka, "garment"; whā, "leaf with long stalk and sheathing base".

This is a word that arrived in Aotearoa but whose meaning was apparently retained only in the abstract, applied to the slim sticks or wands used by priests in divining the outcome of pending battles and similar phenomena, and a child's toy. Elsdon Best quotes an account of the way the divining niu were used from unpublished notes by John White:

The expert stuck two sticks in the ground in an upright position, and tied another stick to them in a horizontal position. He then took a wand of koromiko (Veronica) to which a lock of hair from the head of a tapu priest or chief was attached, and waved it repeatedly across the sticks, at the same time reciting a charm. Auguries were drawn from the movements of the hair, and as to whether or not it struck the horizontal stick. This was employed in ascertaining the fate of a proposed attacking party in war. One would suppose that the result lay entirely in the operator's hands, but we are informed that his slightest movements were controlled by the gods; and who shall say it was not so? (Maori Religion and Mythology, pp. 285-6.)
The toy consisted of a culm of the fragrant kāretu grass (Hierochloe redolens) with the stalk of a whārangi (Brachyglottis repanda) leaf inserted into the top, and "made to glide in the air for a considerable distance" (Williams, p. 436).

In the mid 19th Century a pole called a niu was at the centre of ceremonies conducted by the prophet Te Ua Haumēne and his followers. Te Ara The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand derives niu in this context from the English word "news", but it is likely that the divinatory function of the ropes and flags attached to the pole also resonated with the similar function of the small sticks and wands, and also by then many Māori would have been aware of the earlier meaning of the term still current in other parts of Polynesia.

Ironically, the term kokonati, adopted from English, or its variant kokonata, have until recently been the usual Māori words for coconut. They are still listed in most dictionaries, but He Pātaka Kupu, the monolingual dictionary published for school use by the Māori Language Commission in 2008 also lists niu as "hou, reo kē" (new, [from a] foreign language) for the nut and flesh of the coconut, adding a note to the effect that this is the principal word used by the many peoples of the Pacific for this concept. The excellent on-line Māori Dictionary, Te Aka, lists all three words, commenting that niu is a "term recently adopted from other Polynesian languages". Interestingly, He Pātaka Kupu lists kuru as a regular Māori word for "breadfruit", but Te Aka lists only pōporo and pōporohua (the latter literally "poroporofruit"). See the pages for *kulu, kuru and poroporo for a discussion of this topic.

References and further reading: There is a discussion of the ceremonial uses of the niu (divining sticks) in Elsdon Best's, Maori Religion and Mythology, Part 1 (Wellington: Government Printer, 1976) pages 285-293. There is a brief discussion with illustrations of the ceremonial uses of the 19th Century niu poles in the online Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, along with information about the prophet Te Ua Haumēne.

Photographs: The illustration of the niu pole is a drawing by Frederick Halford Coventry, done in the 1930s based on 19th Century sources, in the Turnbull Library collection (reference: Coventry, Frederick Halford, 1905-1997 :Hauhau ritual dance [1936?]. Ref: A-164-023. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22719054.) Other photographs by R.B.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida), Westland
This native NZ palm takes its name from the Proto CE Polynesian name
for the leaf-bases of the Niu (coconut palm).
Niu Pole
Hauhau Niu pole (Ink drawing by F.H. Coventry)
Note nīkau palm in background to the left of the pole.

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License