A valued resource
Kurī flesh was considered a delicacy. A number of places were named for feasts where dog meat was on the menu. Hikawera, in Hawke’s Bay, a chief at Waiohiki, ordered 70 dogs to be slaughtered to feed travellers. The scraps were thrown in the river – hence its name, Tūtaekurī, meaning dog offal. The place where the animals were cooked on this occasion was called Te Umukurī (kurī oven).
Dog for dinner
On his 1769 voyage, Captain James Cook spoke of a kurī tasting almost as good as lamb. Sydney Parkinson, an artist on the voyage, compared it to coarse beef. An early explorer, Thomas Brunner, got so low on food he was forced to eat his dog Rover. This didn’t seem to distress him too much, as he noted that the flavour was very tasty, somewhere between mutton and pork. Māori gave him the nickname Kai Kurī (dog eater).
In the South Island, kurī were said to have been castrated to fatten them more quickly for eating.
Cloaks and jewellery
Dog skins were used to make kahu kurī (cloaks), and a garment to ward off weapons. This was known as ‘he tāpahu o Irawaru’ (the protective cloak of Irawaru, god of dogs). The dog’s long, bushy tail was shaved for its hair, from which circlets for mourners were made, or to adorn weapons. Its bones were made into awls, pendants and necklaces, while the jaw and teeth were used for fish hooks. The teeth were also used as ear pendants.
One northern tribe got their name from using dog skins as a ruse in battle. Unable to defeat a fortified pā, they made the likeness of a stranded whale out of dogskin cloaks. The besieged people, coming out to harvest this bounty, were quickly overcome by the tribe, which was known as Ngāti Kurī from then on.
Traditional accounts describe kurī being used for hunting. Tūrongo, a Tainui chief, left his dog with his wife Mahinaarangi, from the East Coast, to guide her and catch game when she journeyed to his home. Tara, son of the explorer Whātonga, had a kurī that was also a renowned hunter.
In the 1800s, kurī were used for catching kiwi, kakapō, weka, pūkeko and māunu (moulting ducks). The fowler would often lure a kiwi by imitating its cry. As it came close, the fowler would release the dog, which he led on a rope, or give it enough slack to catch the bird. The Ngāi Tahu scholar Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao described how kurī were used to catch pūkeko, which are not good flyers. To flush out the birds, the people would beat the swamp during a strong north-west wind, and the birds would tire of flying against the wind. At this point, the dogs would catch them.
Some traditional accounts refer to wild kurī. At Waitomo there is a cave named Ruakurī (dogs’ den). Attacked there by wild kurī, a fowler and his companions organised large snares near the cave to capture them.
Wild or pestering dogs were also trapped in a tāwhiti (spring trap). The place name Tāwhitikurī (found throughout the country) indicates sites where this happened. A South Island custom was to tether a female dog that was in heat, and capture the wild dogs that were drawn to her.
In post-European times, feral packs of kurī–European dog cross-breeds were shot on sight and gradually exterminated.
Kurī were sacrificed on ceremonial occasions. Tohunga (priests) would sacrifice a dog to appease Tūmatauenga, the god of war, or other gods. Dogs were also used as a tapu food for tohunga (priests). In the 1830s at Mangakāhia, when a high-born woman was to get a moko (chin tattoo), one of the last kurī in the district was killed as tapu food for the tattooer.