Story: Traditional Māori games – ngā tākaro

Page 5. Stick games, string games, poi and haka

All images & media in this story

Tī rākau and other stick games

Many variations of tī rākau (stick games – also known as tītī tōrea, tītī touretua, tītī tourea and poi rākau) were played by both men and women. Players often formed two rows facing each other, then threw and caught rākau (sticks) in time to a chant.

Some games involved seated players throwing rākau to each other. In others the participants stood. There were also games where large groups of players threw sticks, and each participant who dropped a stick was ‘out’. The game continued until only one player was left.

Tī rākau helped warriors to practise hand-eye coordination at speed.

Poi rākau was a Ngāti Porou game for training warriors. One person stood in the middle (pūtahi), surrounded by the throwers (tukunga) standing in a circle (wī). The rākau were made from mako wood and sharpened. They were thrown point-on to the person in the pūtahi. On catching a rākau the warrior threw it at a person in the circle without a stick, who had to catch and throw it on. This game developed spear skills.

Stick games survived through the 19th and 20th centuries, perhaps due to being part of Māori performing groups’ repertoires. They also provide a rare example of a traditional Māori game being adopted by Pākehā, in particular by Scout and Guide troops and some schools.

Tītī tōrea, played with wooden rods 40–60 centimetres long called tītī, is one stick game that was commonly played into the 21st century. It involves two or more seated players, throwing sticks to each other in time to accompanying chants.

Te whai wawewawe a Māui

The name ‘Te whai wawewawe a Māui’ refers to the story of the creation of whai by the demigod Māui, and his quickness at the game. Because of the many historical and mythical allusions within whai it was said, ‘He whare wānanga te whai’ – ‘Whai is a house of learning’. Aptitude shown by a child for memorising the many intricate patterns of whai could mark a child as being suitable to enter the whare wānanga.

Whai – string games

In whai (also called māui, huhu and hūhi) each player creates patterns using a loop of flax string held between their hands, accompanied by particular chants. Players compete to create the most complex patterns in the most elegant way.

Traditionally whai was played by males and females of all ages, but women were often the most skilled practitioners. Children who showed particular skill at the game were trained in the more complex patterns and the stories behind them. Some patterns required the maker to use their teeth and feet, while some of the larger patterns required two people to make.

Similar string games have been found in many Polynesian cultures. Among Māori, each iwi developed their own repertoire of patterns, illustrating traditional narratives such as the ascent of Tāwhaki and Karihi to the heavens, and Māui catching his great fish Te Ika a Māui (the North Island). Practitioners would sometimes go through a whole story cycle, changing the patterns to illustrate different parts of the story.

Poi and haka

Parties of performers visited other kāinga to compete at poi (manipulating a light ball on a string) and haka. Sometimes poi would be performed to enlist supporters for war.

Evidence suggests that in former times poi were juggled, thrown and caught between players. Early European observers referred to the pastime of ‘tossing the poi’, which the Reverend William Yate described as ‘a ball about the size of a good cricket ball’.1

  1. Quoted in Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1925, p. 14. Back
How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Traditional Māori games – ngā tākaro - Stick games, string games, poi and haka', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 Sep 2013