Story: Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia

Page 1. Leisure in traditional Māori society

All images & media in this story

Balancing work and leisure

Māori, like other peoples, sought a balance between work and leisure – a balance determined largely by how much effort was needed to produce sufficient food. In the early years of Māori settlement in New Zealand there would have been relatively more leisure than there was later: the human population was at its lowest, and protein was easily accessible in the form of kekeno (fur seals) and moa.

Within 200 years moa had been wiped out and seal populations had become locally extinct in many places. Māori had to identify and travel to seasonal food supplies, and develop sustainable harvesting, food storage and preservation techniques in order to ensure a steady supply of food throughout the year.

Rise of warfare

Increased competition for resources meant that ownership of valued mahinga kai (the places where traditional foods were sourced), such as fishing grounds and forests, was keenly contested, and warfare became a common feature of later traditional society. By the time that British navigator James Cook arrived, in the later 18th century, some communities were living year-round in fortified . Summer – a significant downtime in terms of food production – was more often spent waging war than enjoying leisure activities.


The whakataukī (saying) ‘Rehua kai tangata’ (Rehua consumer of men) refers to the fact that summer was the fighting season. Rehua is the star Antares, which is associated with summer.

Young and old

Tamariki (children) and kaumātua (the elderly) enjoyed more leisure time than others as they were spared many daily tasks. Instead, children spent a lot of time with their older relatives, which formed a vital part of their education: they learned family and tribal history, mythology and folklore from an early age, and this continued through adolescence. The formal education of the whare wānanga (house of learning), held over winter, was reserved for specially selected children who qualified through birth and aptitude.


As they approached adolescence, children began to help with manual tasks. In their teens and young adulthood they were increasingly absorbed in romantic leisure-time activities and often put a lot of effort into wooing, for example composing romantic ditties which they sang and played on the kōauau. Young adults often had multiple romances involving co-habitation before they settled on a long-term partner.

Home time for children

The whakataukī ‘Ka titi kiore, ka hoki mai’ (when you hear the squeak of the kiore, return home) alludes to the fact that children scattered far and wide during the day but that when dusk fell and the kiore (native rat, a nocturnal creature) became active it was time to return home.

Leisure and class

Although divisions existed between rangatira (chiefs), tūtūā (commoners) and taurekareka (slaves), Māori society had a relatively flat class structure. Rangatira were hands-on leaders, involved in food production and war. A leader who demonstrated superior abilities could replace one of higher birth, as was famously the case with Ngāti Toarangatira leader Te Rauparaha. Rangatira did, however, have the time to undergo the lengthy process of tā moko (traditional tattoo). Taurekareka were usually captives taken in war. They were not so numerous as to significantly lessen the burden of daily toil for the majority. Taurekareka often married into their host tribe and children born of such a union were free.

How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia - Leisure in traditional Māori society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 Sep 2013