The Māori kite is known as manu tukutuku or manu aute. Manu means both kite and bird, and the word tukutuku refers to the winding out of the line as the kite ascends. Kites were also known as pākau, a name for the wing of a bird.
Kites were flown for recreation, but they also had other purposes. They were used for divination – to gauge whether an attack on an enemy stronghold would be successful, or to locate wrongdoers. They were also a means of communication. It is said that when the founding ancestor of Ngāti Porou, Porourangi, died in Whāngārā, on the East Coast, a kite was flown and his brother Tahu, the founding ancestor of Ngāi Tahu, was able to see it from the South Island. Sometimes people would release a kite and follow it, claiming and occupying the place where it landed.
Kites were flown to celebrate the start of the Māori New Year, when Matariki (the Pleiades) appeared in the mid-winter night sky.
Kites in myth and legend
In some traditions the god Tāwhaki ascended to the heavens and retrieved the baskets of knowledge on a kite made from the bark of the aute (paper mulberry) tree. He soared, chanting karakia (prayers and incantations). But his enemy Tamaiwaho urged his helper Hakuwai to chant another karakia, causing Tāwhaki’s kite to break. Tāwhaki countered with a karakia to lift it, but Hakuwai again made Tāwhaki fall. Eventually, Tāwhaki made his way up by climbing a mountain and defeating Tamaiwaho.
The 19th-century Ngāti Kahungunu chief, Nukupewapewa, was unable to capture Maungarake pā. After many attempts, he eventually constructed a large raupō kite in the shape of a bird with wide-spread wings. During the night he fastened a man to it, and floated him off a cliff and into the pā below. From inside, the man opened the gates, allowing Nukupewapewa’s warriors to enter and sack the village.
A descendant of Tāwhaki, Whakatau-pōtiki, was also associated with kites. Whakatau had been raised by the wind folk out in the ocean. When the people on land saw him flying a kite while walking on the water, they tried to catch him, but he slipped away. He told the onlookers that only a woman named Apakura would be able to catch him. When Apakura arrived, Whakatau was flying his kite on the land. Apakura asked who he was, and he revealed that he was her son.
The frames of larger kites were usually made from selected lengths of mānuka (tea tree) and split lengths of kareao (supplejack). Smaller children’s kites were made from the stems of toetoe, kākāka (bracken), and various types of rush.
The coverings of large kites were fashioned from bark cloth made from aute until the plant became virtually extinct. Subsequently, raupō (bulrush) leaves, or the leaves of ūpoko tangata (cutty grass) were used. Flying lines known as aho tukutuku were made from fine twisted cord made from muka, the fibre of the flax leaf.
Kites were decorated with feathers, shells, carved faces, and coloured patterns drawn with black or red pigments from charcoal or clay mixed with shark oil. Some kites featured long feather tails known as pūhihi, attached to the lower end or wing tips. Others were decorated with horns, and some had shells held inside a hollow mask that rattled during flight. Some kites had a ring, called a karere (messenger), made of toetoe leaves or wood, which was blown by the wind up the line towards the kite.