Sports and games, widely played by both adults and children, were important in traditional Māori society. As well as providing entertainment, they could be educational or form part of a ritual.
Miru travelled from his home in the underworld to Te Ao Mārama (the world of light). There he enchanted Hinerangi and became her lover. After they had two children together Miru returned to his home in the underworld, taking some of Hinerangi’s family with him. At his wharekura (school) Huiterangiora, he taught them knowledge of games and other arts. When Hinerangi’s family returned to Te Ao Mārama, they built a wharekura that they also named Huiterangiora. There they passed on the knowledge of the arts they had learnt in the underworld.
Games are considered part of te whare tapere (the house of entertainment, also known as whare ngahau, whare tākaro and whare rēhia). This is a branch of knowledge that also encompasses the performing arts.
Sports and games fall within the realm of the atua Rongomaraeroa, representing peace and harvest bounty. They were played at gatherings where there was an abundance of kai (food).
Game origins are ascribed to various traditional figures. In one story the knowledge of games including whai (string games), karetao (puppets) and tītī tōrea (a stick game) came from Miru, an atua of the underworld.
For certain iwi Raukatauri, the goddess of flute playing, and her sister Raukatamea are the atua of music and games. Both sisters feature in the ancient story of the chief Kae, performing games and other arts to make him laugh.
Other iwi see games as derived from the atua Takatakapūtea and Marere-o-tonga, children of the sky father Ranginui and the earth mother Papatūānuku.
Some hold that the skills and patterns of whai came from the ancestral hero Māui.
Rehua, a god of the highest heaven, is described in a waiata as the ancestor of the kite.
Kae visited Tinirau, and borrowed his pet whale Tutunui to ride home. Then, instead of returning the whale, Kae killed and ate it. Tinirau sent a group of women, including Raukatauri and Raukatamea, to find Kae. They were to identify him by his broken teeth, and so they needed to make him laugh.
They used their entire repertoire of dance, music and games. As well as performing various styles of haka and playing musical instruments including tōkere (castanets), pūtōrino (flutes) and porotiti (humming discs), they used puppets, string games, hand games and spinning tops.
The marae was a primary venue for sports and games.
Sometimes neighbouring kāinga would meet to compete. All kinds of contests were held, including mamau (wrestling), para whakawai (weapons skills), canoe racing, haka, tī rākau (stick games), dart throwing, kite flying and ruru (knucklebones).
Sports and games were closely associated with the traditional new year festival for the rise of the constellation Matariki (the Pleiades) or the star Puanga (Rigel) around winter solstice.
They were also enjoyed at social gatherings including tohi (baptisms), kai tamāhine (wooing), tomo (betrothals), pākūhā (marriages), hohou rongo (peacemaking), tangihanga (burials), hahunga (exhumations), and planting and harvest festivals.
Water sports and athletics were popular in the summer, while indoor pursuits such as whai, tī rākau, tī ringaringa (a popular hand game) and karetao were played on winter evenings and during unpleasant weather.
Both genders participated in martial arts such as para whakawai and mamau, and for many activities age was no barrier: ‘Even old men sometimes participated in games, or would spend much time in the manufacture of toys for children and paraphernalia employed in games played by adults.’1
All games involved an aspect of ritual, often employed in serious contexts. Manu tukutuku (kites) were used to claim land, to determine the success of an attack and to rally reinforcements to a pā under siege.
Games were always accompanied by words – spoken, chanted or sung. These chants were sometimes repeated by a rangatira as a prelude to launching an attack. In 1845, at Waiaruhe, the rangatira Hōne Heke repeated a tutukai (guessing game) chant before attacking a taua (war party) led by Tāmati Wāka Nene.
Athletic prowess was sought after and admired in traditional Māori society. Many competitive sports closely mimicked battle skills or built strength, endurance and agility.
Para whakawai (also known as whakahoro rākau, whakatū rākau or riri tākaro) involved training with weapons such as the taiaha and patu. Youths learned movement, weapons drills and sparring, including the art of karo – parrying and avoiding blows.
Karakia and other verbal expressions, believed to aid in battle, were also learnt. These included charms to strengthen the warrior while weakening their opponent.
Youths trained under the supervision of ika a Whiro, experienced warriors. Kōrari, the lightweight stalks of harakeke (flax) flowers, were used in practice situations.
Children played their own versions of these games, sometimes constructing mock pā.
In all traditional Māori martial arts, there was a ritual aspect that was just as important as the physical aspects. A kaimamau (wrestler) would spit in his or her hand and repeat the following karakia to gather strength before a bout:
Taku uaua ko te rangi e tū nei
Taku uaua ko Papa e takoto nei
Whiri kaha, toro kaha te uaua.
(My sinew is like the sky above
My sinew is like the earth below
Let my sinews gather strength and exert strength.)
Mamau (wrestling – also called whatoto, nonoke, tākaro mamau, rongo mamau or tākaro ringaringa) was said to derive from the atua Urutengangana, and was a popular pursuit for both genders. Like many physical pursuits it had mental and spiritual dimensions, and associated karakia.
Mekemeke (boxing) was more popular after Europeans arrived in New Zealand. The term ‘meke’ referred to striking with the front of the fist and ‘moto’ to striking with the outside of the fist.
Omaoma (running – also known as pure) ranged from sprinting to long-distance endurance runs. Running races were known as tākaro omaoma. Often runners had to carry heavy stones. Taupiripiri were long-distance runs in pairs, holding one another around the neck.
Pekepeke was jumping. Among northern iwi a jumping contest was known as a tākaro tūpeke. Rērere was the long jump and tūtoko was vaulting with a pole.
Te Houtaewa, a descendant of the Te Aupōuri chief Te Ikanui, was chased by the Te Rarawa people after raiding their village at Ahipara, Northland, and stealing two baskets of kūmara. Despite his load, Te Houtaewa outran his pursuers and returned safely to Te Kao. He had traversed the entire length of Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach) in the process. There is now an annual beach race commemorating his feat.
Porotēteke (also pōteketeke, pōtēteke and turu pēpeke) were acrobatic tests of strength and balance.
Makamaka – throwing spears, darts and stones – was part of warfare and also a common activity in peacetime.
‘Tao’ was the name for a wooden spear. ‘Toro’ or ‘kōkiri’ were terms used for throwing a dart or spear underarm, and overarm throwing was ‘tīmata’ or ‘paka’.
On the East Coast, where spear throwing was known as makamaka rākau, mānuka spears about 1.8 metres long and 2.5 centimetres thick were used.
Para mako was played by warriors in training. It involved throwing and dodging or parrying mako-wood spears. Para toetoe (or wewero toetoe) was a milder version, played by children, using spears made from kākaho (toetoe stems).
Stone-throwing contests were held, using heavy stones weighing 20–30 kilograms. Slings called kōtaha, maka and tīpao were used to launch smaller stones.
A kōtaha was a whip used to propel spears. The children’s version, called ‘kakere’, involved poking a pointed stick into a kūmara and flinging it at other children.
Māori were strong swimmers. A number of different strokes were practised, including kautāhoe (sidestroke), kau āpuru (breaststroke), kau kiore (backstroke) and kau tāwhai (crawl). Kautāhoe was favoured, especially for long distances.
According to tradition the Rangitāne ancestor Hinepoupou (or Hinepopo) was the first to swim the treacherous waters of Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait). She was driven by the thirst for revenge against her cowardly husband, Maninipounamu. He abandoned her on Kāpiti Island, near Wellington, during an expedition, before paddling back to their kāinga on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds). Hinepoupou used a flotation device made from bound flax stalks. She was also helped by the children of Tangaroa, including a taniwha. Hinepoupou went on to wreak a terrible revenge on her husband and his people.
Swimming races were known as kau whakataetae. Whakakau was a karakia to help with swimming.
Competitions were held to see who could hold their breath the longest underwater. The game taurumarumaki (also known as puharu or rumaki) involved ducking someone underwater and trying to keep their head under as long as possible.
Children were introduced to the water as babies. Floats called pōito hue, made from dried gourds, were sometimes attached to children when teaching them to swim. The famous ancestor Hinemoa used pōito hue in her swim from Ōwhata on the shore of Lake Rotorua to Mokoia Island.
Kōkiri (or ruku) was extremely popular in the warmer months. It involved jumping, feet first, from a rock or a wooden diving platform. Sometimes this would be at a great height. Divers would recite a short karakia before leaping:
Puhipuhi rawa ki te kererū
Mehemea e kato ana
Whakaheke ngaru, which included boardriding, bodysurfing and surfriding in waka (canoes), was a popular summer pastime. Kōpapa (boards) were about 90 centimetres long and were used much like boogie boards today. Waka typically held two to three people, who paddled to catch waves. Another technique was to use pōhā (kelp bags filled with air) in a form of body surfing.
W. H. Skinner described the people of Te Kauri, a Ngāti Maniapoto kāinga, surfriding at the mouth of the Mōkau River, in January 1884. The 60-year-old rangatira Te Rangituataka was in the stern of a two-man waka. He always perfectly timed the catching of the waves and the turn at the end of the run. Others, however, ‘were driven prow under and swamped, or caught on the turn by the breaking wave and capsized, in either case the occupants of canoe receiving a thorough ducking, to the great amusement of the crowd of onlookers.’ 2
Whakatere waka (also known as kaipara waka hoehoe) was another popular sport and a feature of inter-village competitions. Canoe races continued to be a common feature of sports meetings well into the 20th century. Children also raced toy canoes made from the leaves of harakeke (flax) and raupō (bulrush).
Moari (also known as mōrere) were large swings. They consisted of a pole (usually kahikatea wood) sunk into the ground, with flax ropes suspended from the top that riders held on to as they swung round. Moari were often set up over water or over the edge of a drop. People riding the moari over water would swing out, chanting:
Ka rere au, ka rere au
Ka rere au i te morua titi, morua tata
E kohera, e kohera pō
Ki roto wai titi.
As they said the last word they let go and dropped into the water.
Two moari were constructed near Ruatāhuna in Te Urewera to mourn people who had been killed by a neighbouring hapū. A song was composed to be chanted while the people swung on the moari. There were also other mourning ‘games’. Sometimes at Matariki the kite of a person who had died the previous year would be flown. Pōtaka tākiri (humming tops) could be part of ceremonial mourning, along with an accompanying song called a whakaoriori pōtaka. Often the top would be spun following the completion of each verse of the chant.
Tārere (also called moari, kautārere or hīmorimori) were bush swings made from aka (vines) or plaited ropes tied to a branch. A piece of wood was lashed to the bottom of the vine or rope to sit or stand on. Sometimes another rope was attached that could be pulled to keep the swing going.
A pīoi (or tiemi) was a see-saw made from a pole balanced across a log or a flexible tree branch.
For piu (skipping) usually a long rope was used, swung by two people as they chanted a rhyme. There could be a squad of 10 or more jumpers.
Taupunipuni (also known as taupupuni, whakapupuni and piri) is equivalent to hide-and-seek.
Wī is a game similar to tag, with many variations. Whoever is ‘it’ chases the ‘kiore’ (rat), attempting to papaki (tag) them. The kiore weaves through the other participants, who stand in circles or in lines. The person who is ‘it’ must follow the same route as the ‘kiore’. In a variation, players try to reach the wī (a circle marked on the ground), which is guarded by the player who is ‘it’.
Niti – darts – was one of the games that the demigod Māui was expert at. When he went to find his family, his brothers were playing. Each said his own name as he glanced his niti off the mound of earth. Māui made his brothers lie down and used their backs as the mound from which to launch his own niti, and his always went furthest. This is said to be the reason for the hollows in people’s backbones.
Niti, also called teka, are darts. Children played a game called piu teka or toro teka using kōrari (fern stalks) and kākaho (toetoe stems) with flax wound around the point to form a weighted end (pōike).
The marae toro teka (dart-throwing ground) was a flat clearing with a mound formed from earth. Players would run towards the mound and throw the dart underarm, aiming to skim the top of the mound and fly their dart the furthest.
Ripi (also called paratiti, tipi and kaitipitipi) was the universal pastime of skipping stones across water.
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.
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.
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.
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
Word games (also called panga and maka) took many forms. Tātai whetū (also called tatau manawa, pū manawa or tatau kaho) were tongue twisters that had to be memorised and recited word-perfect in one breath.
Tutukai and kurawiniwini were guessing games. A group of people chanted while passing an object between them, attempting to conceal it from the person who was ‘in’. When the chanting stopped, that person had to guess who held the object.
These games were very popular. Tī ringaringa was played in pairs, one player making hand movements while reciting a chant that begins, ‘Ka tahi tī, ka rua tī …’ The other player had to follow the movements and the chant, without making a mistake.
Other hand games (or variations on tī ringaringa) include hapi tawa, hipitoitoi, hei tama tu tama, kū, matimati, punipuni and pokirua.
There is debate over whether mū tōrere is a traditional Māori game. Some say it is an adaptation of games like draughts and checkers, with the name ‘mū’ adapted from the English word ‘move’. Others say the game is traditional, possibly derived from an older game called kurapakara. Whatever the case, in 1912 the ethnologist Elsdon Best recorded this whakataukī from Mohi Turei of Ngāti Porou: ‘E mū tōrere mai ana koutou ki a au, e hoa mā?’ It means, ‘Are you just playing with me, or are you looking for trouble?’1
This game (also known as pānokonoko) was played by two players, each with a cord made from a strip of tī kōuka (cabbage tree) leaf. One end was formed into a noose held open between thumb and forefinger. The object of the game was to catch your opponent’s finger in the noose while avoiding getting caught yourself. Each player had a female companion termed the ruahine (which usually refers to an old woman). After capturing the opponent’s finger, the victor touched his opponent’s hand and then that of his ruahine, which was said to transfer his opponent’s hā (life-force).
Upokotiti (or tarakoekoea) involved a group stacking their hands one on top of another while chanting.
Ruru (kōruru, kai makamaka, tutukai and ruke) was usually played with five small, flat stones, although the number could vary. Players progressed through stages and chanted accompanying verses.
Mū tōrere was a board game for two players, using a star-shaped board likened to an octopus. It had a centre space (pūtahi) and eight kāwai (tentacles). Each player had four perepere (men). The object of the game was to move your perepere so as to block the other player.
Manu tukutuku (kite-flying) was a popular pastime, and also part of various rituals. Kites came in many shapes and sizes, and had names derived from birds. Small kites made from kākaho (toetoe stems) were known as manu taratahi. They were flown by children. Manu kāhu, measuring over five metres across, required a team of men to launch and fly them.
The Auckland suburb of Manurewa or Te Manurewa o Tamapahore (the rising kite of Tamapahore) gets its name from the story of two rival brothers, Tamapahure and Tamapahore. Tamapahore’s kite flew the highest and was the most graceful. Jealous, Tamapahure chanted an incantation to make his kite fly into the aho (line) of his brother’s kite, snapping it. Tamapahore’s kite flew far away to the east, followed by Tamapahore and his people. They eventually tracked the kite to Te Paeroa-a-Toi (the Coromandel Peninsula), where they ended up settling.
The frames of larger kites were made from mānuka (tea tree) and kareao (supplejack). The coverings were made from aute (paper mulberry), from which comes another name for kites, manu aute. The fine twisted cords of aho tukutuku (flying lines) was made from muka (flax-leaf fibre).
Karetao (puppets – also known as keretao, korotao, kararī and tokoraurape) were wooden figures usually about 40 centimetres high, carved in human form, and often with a facial moko. Their arms were jointed and could be moved with strings. Karetao could be made to imitate a haka through a quivering movement known as whākapakapa. They had their own type of song, called oriori karetao.
Pōtaka – spinning tops – were usually made from a hard wood such as mataī.
During the New Zealand wars of the 1860s, Tītokowaru’s men built a 5-metre-tall karetao at Tauranga-ika pā (about midway between Hāwera and Whanganui). Cut from a pukatea tree, it was placed above the front stockade of the pā. From the safety of a trench below, the pā’s defenders pulled on flax ropes to make the arms of the karetao perform haka moves.
Pōtaka tā (whipped tops) were whipped with a kare or tā, made from strips of harakeke (flax) attached to a wooden handle. They were raced, sometimes over karangi (small mounds or hurdles).
Pōtaka tākiri (humming tops) had a piece projecting at the top around which string was wound. They were spun with a papa tākiri, a stick about 15 centimetres long. Contests were held to see whose top was the loudest and spun the longest.
Another kind of humming top, pōtaka hue, was made by pushing a stick through a gourd, forming holes to produce sound.
Māori did not develop paketekete (the bow and arrow) for hunting or warfare. Southern Māori made toy bows and arrows from mānuka or pirita (supplejack). These bows were strictly for children, not being strong enough to be used by adults.
Pepepe were toy windmills made from flax. They could be tied to a tree or carried by children as they ran along. Revolving toys called pīrori (also a name for hoops) were made from circular rolls of flax with strings through them. A game was played where two children would bring their spinning pīrori into combat until one was broken.
Hoops, called pīrori, porotiti or potaka, were usually made by bending vines into a circle and binding the ends. A common game with a pīrori was to have two teams armed with sticks, beating it back and forth between them.
Walking on pouturu (stilts – also called poutoti, pou tokorangi or waewae rākau) was a popular pastime. They were made from a length of light wood with a teka (footrest) lashed on. Stilt races were held, and so were wrestling matches on stilts. Stilts were sometimes used to walk through water.
In retireti (tobogganing) children used papa reti (toboggans – also called kōneke or pānukunuku) to slide down steep slopes, sometimes into water. The papa reti could be made from the leaf head of the tī kōuka (cabbage tree) or from a small, flat piece of wood with bumps for foot rests and a cord attached to the end to hang on to.
From the 1820s missionaries tried to suppress traditional Māori sports and games, regarding them as manifestations of a pagan culture.
The ethnologist Elsdon Best records a kaumātua saying: ‘We were much puzzled about the new laws made for our people. We were not to spin humming tops on Sunday, or peel kumara or potatoes; they were to be peeled on Saturday evening, or we must boil them in their skins. We were not to gather firewood on a Sunday, or fish, or bathe.’1
These pastimes declined through the second half of the 19th century, with Māori adopting European sports and games instead. Cards, draughts, horse racing, boxing, rugby and triple jump were some of the most popular with Māori. Waka (canoe) racing and kapa haka (team competition in poi and haka) were among the few traditional competitions that continued.
Within the Tūhoe iwi, a few games persisted into the 20th century. These included ruru (knucklebones), whai (string games), tī ringaringa (a type of hand game) and children’s games such as upokotiti (hand stacking) and kurawiniwini (a guessing game).
Since the second half of the 20th century there has been a revival of many traditional Māori sports and games. Modern sports have also been developed drawing from traditional competitions.
By the 21st century poi had an international following in new guises. Performers from around the world used fire poi (with wicks soaked in fuel and set alight) and glow poi (made from ultraviolet-sensitive materials, LED lights or glow sticks) to create dramatic performances in the dark.
The team sports kī-o-rahi and tapuae became increasingly popular in the 21st century. Both are free-flowing games with the aim being to hit a poutupu (central pillar) with the kī (ball). Kī-o-rahi is played on a field and has some similarities to rugby. Tapuae is played on a court and has some similarities to netball. Supporters have said that these games are of ancient origin, but no mention of them has as yet been discovered in traditional or early European accounts.
In the 1970s interest in Māori kites was rekindled, with many people building kites to traditional designs, and artists making installations based on such kites. The revival of the Matariki festival played a part in this increasing popularity. Kite-flying was closely associated with traditional Matariki festivals.
In 2012 waka ama (racing outrigger canoes) was a popular sport in New Zealand and worldwide, built on the rich Māori waka heritage. It traced its origins in New Zealand to the mid-1980s, with a national outrigger canoe association having been formed in 1987.
The sport’s popularity in New Zealand increased after the International Polynesian Canoe Federation (later International Va‘a Federation) World Sprints Championship was held in Auckland in 1990. In 2012 waka ama clubs existed around the country and New Zealand paddlers competed internationally.
An annual regatta featuring whakatere waka (waka racing) has been held at Ngāruawāhia since the 1890s.
Andersen, Johannes Carl. Maori string figures. Wellington: Board of Maori Ethnological Research, 1927.
Beattie, James Herries. Traditional lifeways of the Southern Māori: the Otago University Museum ethnological project, 1920. Edited by Atholl Anderson. Dunedin: Otago University Press in association with Otago Museum, 2009.
Brown, Harko. Ngā taonga tākaro: Māori sports and games. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005.
Maysmor, Bob. Te manu tukutuku: a study of the Māori kite. Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1990.
This account by Elsdon Best is online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.
Maitahi outrigger canoe club describes the history of waka ama (outrigger canoes) for racing.
This article by Brian Sutton-Smith explores the effect of European contact on Māori children’s games.
Kī-o-rahi is a Māori team sport gaining in popularity.
A timeline tracing the history of the sport in Aotearoa.