Story: Traditional Māori warfare – Riri

Page 4. Strategies and battle terms

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The war party was called a taua. It usually involved toa (warriors), rangatira (leaders) and a tohunga (ritual expert). A large war party would often travel to battle in a waka taua (literally a war party canoe). There were various names for avenging war parties, including taua toto or taua hiku toto (war party seeking blood vengeance), taua tapu (war party under restriction) and taua whawhati rau rākau (taua that tramples the forests). The sizes of taua varied from small groups up to a few hundred people. A taua was sometimes described as a hokowhitu, meaning 140. Rau ma whitu, meaning 170, could refer to a group of people of between 100 and 200. Kotahi rau mā whitu or Kotahi rau hokowhitu literally meant 340. However, these numbers were approximate and did not necessarily indicate specific numbers.


Trickery and deception were common strategies to win a battle. Because combat was hand-to-hand, surprise could have a vital effect on the outcome of a battle. The two places that these strategies were commonly put into place were when visitors arrived at a marae, or attempted to get into a during a siege. At a welcome onto a marae either visitors or hosts might suddenly fall upon the other in a pre-meditated attack. A number of strategies were devised to get into pā, which, if properly constructed and defended, could be virtually unassailable.

Whale strategy

Beached whales were a valued resource, as they were used for meat, and their teeth and bones used for weapons and ornamentation. Strategies were used that tricked people safe in a pā into going to the seashore to investigate whale strandings. One tribe made a fake whale from the skins of numerous kurī (Polynesian dogs). A hundred warriors were concealed in the ‘whale’ and when the villagers left the pā to harvest the whale they were overcome by the warriors. The tribe that came up with this strategy became known as Ngāti Kurī.

In Hawke’s Bay, Taraia ordered his warriors to lie on a beach covered in black mats to resemble pilot whales. In the pre-dawn the inhabitants looked down and saw what they thought was a row of pilot whales, but when they went down to harvest them they were attacked by the warriors.

Smoke strategy

The Te Aupōuri tribe were formerly known as Ngāti Te Awa. While under siege in Makora pā, the people lit a huge fire which covered Whangapē Harbour with dark smoke. They were able to escape under cover of the smoke, and they became known as Te Aupōuri (au means smoke and pōuri means dark) after this strategy.

Formations and terms

There are a number of terms used relating to warfare:

  • He ō kākā – warriors travelling with a weapon in one hand and food in the other.
  • Hono te hono o te kiore – walk as the kiore does. War parties walked single file like kiore (Pacific rats).
  • Riri-tuku-tahi – headlong charge.
  • Tuku-tahi-pātata – close hand-to-hand combat.
  • Te āpiti-tū – a face-to-face fight when forces are locked together.
  • Toka-tū-moana – short-range fight where every man fought equally.
  • Kura-takai-puni – encircle the encampment.
  • Kawau-ruku-roa – the long diving cormorant.
  • Kawau-mārō – the cormorant of firm flight.
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori warfare – Riri - Strategies and battle terms', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012