Much of traditional Māori society was based on warfare and weaponry. It was the ambition of every Māori warrior to die in battle, and warriors’ upbringing conditioned them to be experts in weaponry and skilled in the strategies of war.
Children were subjected by their elders to various military training techniques, such as being suddenly woken at night so they would be constantly alert, and being struck unexpectedly with sticks to teach them to avoid blows.
Even children’s games were often orientated towards warfare. Running, jumping, diving, stone throwing, climbing, boxing, wrestling and more elaborate stick-throwing and parrying games improved children’s motor skills for the inevitability of battle. Young men were taught chants and incantations such as the hoa rākau and mata rākau, to make warriors fleet-footed or cause a weapon to be extremely deadly. With this upbringing young men entered the para whakawai (school of traditional weaponry), where they were instructed in the arts of mau rākau (the use of weaponry).
In the para whakawai young men were instructed in battle formations, weaponry and attack and defence moves. Emphasis was placed on dexterity of footwork, known as rakanga waewae, to instil balance, speed and economy of movement. The proverb ‘He waewae taumaha, he kiri mākū’ (heavy feet, wet skin) reminded warriors that slow or lazy foot movements in battle meant their skin might become wet with their own blood.
The recruits took part in mock battles using reeds in place of real weapons. They were taught about whakatū rākau (weaponry guards), whakarite rākau (strikes and parries) and whakahoro rākau (the use of weaponry in combat). They were also instructed in the rituals and codes of conduct of Māori warfare, including those associated with weaponry.
Māori weapons could also be symbols of peace and were used in tatau pounamu (peacemaking ceremonies) between warring tribes. In the 1820s the Tainui warrior Tūkorehu led an expedition from Te Whāiti to Ruatāhuna in the Urewera, where he was opposed by Te Pūrewa. They fought a duel but neither was able to defeat the other. As a result their tribes made peace and offered to support each other in times of need. To seal the peace agreement, the two men exchanged weapons. In 1885 Ngāti Maniapoto chief Wahanui presented Premier John Ballance with a taiaha (fighting staff) to indicate that no more bloodshed was to take place between Ngāti Maniapoto and Europeans.
Weapons were more than implements of battle to Māori. They were taonga, precious heirlooms much beloved by their owners and often handed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, the process of making a weapon was slow and painstaking. A long weapon made from hardwood could take months to shape, fashion and decorate, while a stone patu (club) may have taken well over a year to fully complete. This dedication and pride in the weapon’s creation not only increased its personal value but also formed a special bond between the implement and its owner.
According to ethnologist Elsdon Best, ‘No weapon that had seen much service was without its name, and on many hinged the stories of famous battles, of noted peace-makings, of slaughters grim and great.’1
At times karakia were repeated over weapons to instil various atua within them in order to make them tapu. The Taranaki warrior chief Tītokowaru would invoke Uemutu and instil this atua within his taiaha before battle to give it supernatural abilities.
Māori weapons were made of wood, stone and bone. They can be divided into two general categories – long two-handed weapons and short single-handed weapons.
The best-known two-handed weapons are the taiaha, tewhatewha and pouwhenua. These staffs were usually 1–2 metres in length and were commonly made of hard wood such as maire, rātā or kānuka.
A taiaha was elaborately carved, often ornamented with red kākā feathers and waero (dog hair). It was as much a status symbol and treasure as a weapon, and not used by ordinary members of a war party.
The tewhatewha resembled an axe in shape. From a small hole in the blade hung a bunch of feathers used to distract the enemy. It was also a highly prized weapon that could be used to signal warriors to move into formation, to advance, regroup and retreat.
Each of the long two-handed weapons had a long, flat blade for striking, and a sharp pointed end which was thrust forward in a spearing motion. They were usually held vertically or diagonally, with the stabbing point downwards. Warriors sometimes feinted a jab with the point of the weapon, then reversed it and struck their enemy’s head or shoulders with the blade.
One authority states, ‘By watching the advanced foot of his opponent, the fighter would be warned of the delivery of an approaching blow by the downward clinching of the big toe, a fraction of a second before it arrived, giving him warning and that much time to prepare his parry. By the same token, the slightest twitch of the shoulder muscles also signalled the approach of a blow.’1
Bellamy’s restaurant in Parliament Buildings was the scene of a taiaha demonstration in the late 19th century. An officer of the Horse Artillery, an expert swordsman, was confident that he could defeat any opponent. He was challenged by a tattooed taiaha expert reputed to be 80 years old. ‘With a shout and a bound he made a sweeping blow at the legs of the soldier,’ which was neatly parried.2 The taiaha champion instantly reversed his weapon and struck a sharp upward blow with the spear-pointed end, lifting the officer clear off the floor. The duel lasted exactly 30 seconds.
In battle the principal weapons used were simple spear-like weapons such as the pouwhenua, koikoi, tokotoko, tao, timata, tete, tararua, reti and tārerarera. The term ‘tete’ denotes any spear with a detachable point made from wood, bone or even the tail of a stingray. It was both thrust and thrown.
Tao were most often used in duels and, although fierce encounters took place, only flesh wounds resulted and not fatalities. Frederick Maning, an early-19th-century ‘Pākehā–Māori’ (a European who lived as part of a Māori tribe), described such combat: ‘The attack and defence are in the highest degree scientific; the spear shafts keep up a continuous rattle; the thrust, and parry, and stroke with the spear shaft follow each other with almost incredible rapidity, and are too rapid to be followed by an unpractised eye. At last the brother-in-law is slightly touched; blood also drops from our chief's thigh. The fight instantly ceases.’3
The short single-handed weapons of the Māori were collectively termed patu. These were held in one hand while the free arm was wrapped in a thick woven mat used as a shield to ward off blows.
According to a 19th-century authority, ‘In using the mere-pounamu [greenstone club] the warrior tries to seize his adversary by the hair with the left hand, and, having his weapon firmly grasped with the right, and secured by a thong or strap wound tightly round the wrist, he thrusts or drives its sharp end against the temple of his victim. Another mode was to grasp the body of his antagonist and drive the weapon under the ribs with an upward thrust.’4
Additional weapons used in battle included the toki (adze), kōpere (darts), oka (wood or bone dagger), pātuki (club) and matauhitangata (human hook). Warriors selected from this array of weaponry based on their personal preference, body type, available resources, environment and training.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ballara, Angela. Taua: ‘musket wars’, ‘land wars’ or tikanga?: warfare in Māori society in the early nineteenth century. Auckland: Penguin, 2003.
Best, Elsdon. Notes on the art of war: as conducted by the Māori of New Zealand, with accounts of various customs, rites, superstitions, &c., pertaining to war, as practised and believed in by the ancient Māori. Auckland: Reed, 2001.
Broughton, Ruka. Ngaa mahi Whakaari a Tiitokowaru. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1993.
Buck, Peter. The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Māori Purposes Fund Board, Whitcombe and Tombs, 1949.
Evans, Jeff. Māori weapons in pre-European New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 2002.
Vayda, A. P. Maori warfare. Wellington: Reed for the Polynesian Society, 1970.