Story: Mau rākau – Māori use of weaponry

Page 3. Māori weaponry in the 2000s

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Demise of traditional weaponry

The arrival of European settlers in New Zealand from the early 1800s, and the introduction of new military technology, saw the use of traditional weaponry decline. Weapons like the taiaha (long fighting staff) were quickly made obsolete by the musket (long-barrelled muzzle-loaded gun, brought to New Zealand by Europeans), and the nature of Māori warfare changed permanently. As the years passed the para whakawai (schools of traditional weaponry) ceased to operate and traditional weaponry knowledge was lost among many tribes. Some tribal regions maintained their distinctive traditions, with knowledge passed between a few chosen individuals, usually in a private and underground manner. However, this was a far cry from the large para whakawai that had been the mainstay of Māori combat for generations.

Revival of Māori weapons

From the 1980s there has been a renaissance in this ancient Māori form, and the display of traditional Māori weaponry has expanded to become a trademark of Māori culture. This revival has been part of the larger Māori cultural renaissance that began in the late 1960s. The survival of Māori weaponry owes much to remaining experts like Irirangi Tiakiawa, Pita Sharples, John Rangihau, Matiu Mareikura and Mita Mohi.

Modern para whakawai

In a modern context, Māori weaponry has become limited to just a few types, in particular the taiaha. Likewise, only a small number of para whakawai are in operation, most taught within a tribal framework. Much of the knowledge within these modern para whakawai is presented against a backdrop of a deeper tribal history, which offers a richer sense of identity, kinship and belonging.

The para whakawai on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua trains members of Te Arawa and other interested individuals in weaponry ideologies, theories and beliefs. This programme was established under the guidance of Mita Mohi in the mid-1980s. The para whakawai Te Whare Tū Taua o Aotearoa began at Hoani Waititi marae in Auckland and grew to include a number of outreach programmes in different regions. It was established by Pita Sharples in the 1980s ‘to offer the ancient art of mau rakau back to Maoridom as an innovative programme’.1

Powerful taiaha

Pita Sharples, one of the key figures in the modern revival of Māori weapons, received instruction from an earlier expert, Colonel Arapeta Awatere. Awatere had been trained in traditional weaponry from a young age. He inherited a ceremonial taiaha named Tūwhakairiora which had been passed down through 10 generations of his forebears. Awatere described this taiaha as ‘one of the biggest and heaviest in New Zealand … It takes a lot of manoeuvring. It is dangerous. It requires hours, days, months and years of constant use to master it.’2 He used Tūwhakairiora when performing the wero ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II at Waitangi in 1963.

Wero

Individual displays of weaponry expertise were often performed during the wero ceremony (ritual challenge to a party of visitors). In full view of the visiting party, a selected warrior would parry invisible blows and strike down unseen foes. He would then lay down a taki (symbol of peace), which was picked up by the visitors, and the welcoming ceremony would continue. Such weaponry displays still occur today during large and important Māori gatherings. Usually the wero is performed by a lone warrior, but during special events there might be as many as three. This unique demonstration of Māori weaponry remains part of modern Māori society.

Performing arts

From the 1980s New Zealand has seen an explosion in Māori performing arts such as kapa haka, often demonstrated competitively at festivals. It has become routine for performers to use taiaha and patu (short clubs) to enrich their performance. As the groups rehearse for their appearance on stage, weapons handling becomes part of their training.

Whaikōrero

Māori weaponry has been making a comeback in whaikōrero (speechmaking) on the marae. Traditionally, when welcoming visitors or addressing the masses, expert orators would emphasise their words with gestures of a long or short weapon. Te Panekiretanga o te reo Māori, the Māori language and customs excellence programme, has revived this tradition. In 2012 one of Te Panekiretanga’s language and cultural experts, Pou Temara, was thought to be the only living expert to still use a variety of weapons when delivering whaikōrero. His influence may produce a new generation of whaikōrero exponents able to display their abilities in the use of ancient Māori arms.

Footnotes:
  1. Te Whare Tū Taua o Aotearoa, http://twttoa.wix.com/te-ao-maarama-mauraakau (last accessed 10 October 2012). Back
  2. Arapeta Awatere, Awatere: a soldier’s story. Wellington: Huia, 2003, p. 76. Back
How to cite this page:

Rangi Matamua, 'Mau rākau – Māori use of weaponry - Māori weaponry in the 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/mau-rakau-maori-use-of-weaponry/page-3 (accessed 17 November 2018)

Story by Rangi Matamua, published 5 Sep 2013