Kurī were Polynesian dogs which gradually died out in New Zealand. They were descended from the dogs brought to New Zealand from Polynesia, on the ancestral canoes of the Māori people in the 13th century. Kurī became bigger and more active than dogs on other Polynesian islands. Their average weight was between 13 and 15 kilograms.
Kurī were small, long-haired dogs about the size of a border collie. They had a small head, pricked ears, a terrier-like snout and a powerful jaw. The shoulders and neck were heavy, the legs were short, and the tail was bushy.
Some were black, some white, and others a combination with patches or spots. Some had yellow coats.
The kurī was also known as gurī by Māori in the South Island. Another name, pero, made some believe that kurī had been introduced by Spanish settlers, as perro is Spanish for dog. ‘Kararehe’ was later used by Māori to refer to any four-legged animal.
The term ‘Māori dog’ probably arose from ‘kurī māori’. But this actually means ‘[any] ordinary dog’.
Kurī, like other Polynesian dogs, did not bark, but howled. The sound was described as a ‘long, melancholy howl’, like that of a fox. The Māori word for its howl was ‘auau’, while the bark of the European dog was ‘pahupahu’.
Wherever Polynesian explorers travelled they would take dogs, pigs, chickens and rats. All except the kiore (Pacific rat) were domesticated, and they were all eaten. However, only kurī and kiore arrived in New Zealand. With no pigs – a source of protein in Polynesia – kurī became an important substitute.
In early Māori settlements, kurī probably had greater access to food, including moa and seals, than at later times. They were probably also more plentiful in the early days, which would explain why such a high percentage of dogs slaughtered for food were young. Their meat would have been tastier, and there would have been less need to retain breeding stock. During the later settlement period, kurī were fed mainly on fish, and slaughtered dogs were more likely to be adults.
It is unclear when kurī died out. Although scientists travelling with James Cook saw the dogs throughout New Zealand (on voyages between 1769 and 1779), they probably became rare through cross-breeding with introduced dogs, and then disappeared altogether.
Irawaru is the guardian deity of kurī. He was the brother-in-law of Māui, the demigod. Māui was angered at his laziness, so while Irawaru was snoring, Māui pulled his ears, nose and spine into the form of a dog. When Māui’s two wives, Hinetūrepo and Hinetekahere, asked after their brother, he told them to call ‘Moi!’ – the call for a kurī. When they did, Irawaru came running.
Many accounts speak of the kurī in Hawaiki, the homeland of Māori ancestors, and its arrival in New Zealand. Their presence suggests that early Polynesian settlers did not lack food on their voyages, otherwise they would have eaten the dogs before reaching New Zealand.
One tradition tells of a Hawaiki chief, Houmaitawhiti, who had a dog named Pōtaka Tawhiti. A rival chief, Uenuku, ate the dog. Tamatekapua, Houmaitawhiti’s son, discovered this when the dog’s spirit howled from inside Uenuku’s stomach. The incident sparked the skirmishes that led to Tamatekapua making the long voyage to New Zealand in the Te Arawa canoe.
The explorer Kupe, often credited with discovering New Zealand, brought kurī with him on his canoe Matawhaorua. It is said that he left one dog waiting so long in Hokianga Harbour that it turned to stone.
Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, gifted a kahu kurī (dogskin cloak) to his wife in exchange for the canoe, a gift from his father-in-law. When Turi stopped at Rangitāhua (the Kermadecs) on the way to New Zealand, two kurī were sacrificed to the god Maru.
The Tokomaru canoe, captained by Manaia, had a dog that jumped overboard as they neared New Zealand. The canoe was guided to land during the night by the dog’s noise.
Te Kurī-a-Pāoa (now Young Nick’s Head) was named by Pāoa, captain of the Horouta canoe, after his lost kurī.
The importance of kurī is illustrated by traditions in which a supernatural being takes the form of a dog.
Moekahu is a female god in the shape of a kurī. Like the wairua (spirits) of deceased people, dogs that had died were believed to go to Te Rēinga at the top of the North Island, but travelled a different path from that of humans.
Sayings referring to kurī were mostly terms of scorn. An idle person, sitting near the fire like a kurī, was ‘he whiore tahutahu’ (an often-singed tail). A coward was ‘he whiore hume’ (tail between the legs). ‘He kurī e pōtete ana’ (like a dog on a leading stick) described someone under another’s influence. ‘He ihu kurī, he tangata haere’ (a dog’s nose, a travelling man) could be a put-down, comparing visiting travellers to dogs who sniff out food. But sometimes a traveller would introduce himself with this phrase, and be sure of hospitality.
A kurī named Mohorangi was said to inhabit Whangaōkena Island (off East Cape). A young woman named Pōnuiawahine saw Mohorangi and was changed into a rock. This stands today in the sea off the island.
Two stone kurī were believed to haunt Lake Taupō. It was said that if strangers in canoes heard their noise and mistakenly made the usual call to a kurī, ‘Moi! Moi!’, a storm would arise and they would drown.
Kōpūwai, in the South Island, was a giant that had the head of a dog, with a pack of 10 two-headed dogs. In Waikaremoana, a terrifying kurī named Te Kurī-nui-a-Meko attacked some locals who had been hunting for fowl. They captured it in a large cage, and speared it to death.
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).
On his 1769 voyage, James Cook wrote that kurī tasted 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.
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.
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