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.
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.
From the 17 or so known types of Māori kite, only three types have survived. In all, seven original kites still exist and are held in museums in London, Hawaii, Auckland and Wellington.
The manu kākā was designed to resemble the kākā (brown parrot). The manu totoriwai represented the robin – its unusual construction required considerable skill and was only undertaken by men, usually of high rank. Elders were said to be the only ones who knew the spell that made it fly well.
One of the largest kites, an example of the manu kāhu (harrier-hawk kite), was documented by the artist Charles Barraud about 1850. It was 1.5 metres high with a wingspan of 3.6 metres. A mask bearing a moko (tattoo) was attached.
The manu aute was a generic bird-like kite, with a frame of mānuka covered with bark cloth made of aute (paper mulberry). This type was described by the 19th-centruy Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho as having a head but no legs. However, a variation with a convex form, a head, long wings and legs, was known as a peru.
The birdman kite resembled a human, with the addition of extended wings. The mask of one held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum had teeth, a moko, and hair made of hawk feathers. This type looks similar to the manu kāhu and the peru. According to Tuta Nihoniho it was the usual tribal kite of Ngāti Porou.
The manu pātiki, built to resemble a flounder, had two forms; one diamond-shaped, the other oval.
The large manu whara was tapu, and made by priests for divination. Flying it required the strength of several men. Made from tree roots, raupō and toetoe, the sticks of the frame projected upwards and could injure or kill people if it landed abruptly.
The rākau-he-whaka-maro was made by people of the Ngāi Tahu tribe. The frame was made of two sticks bound in a T-shape. It was flown on a long line mainly by young men, with women and elders sometimes participating. This type was used in kite-flying competitions.
The triangular manu taratahi was named after the projecting plume at one end.
The horewai was a wingless, rectangular kite.
The manu paititi was a common children’s kite, which was easy to make. However, no description of it survives.
The ūpoko tangata was a basic rectangular kite with two short wing-like extensions, from which a series of rush stems extended. The frame was made of rush stems and covered with leaves of the ūpoko tangata (cutty grass) plant.
In the 1970s interest in Māori kites was rekindled. A number were made from traditional materials. Kites made by Dante Bonica and Bob Maysmor are displayed in museums in Hamilton, Rotorua and Tokyo.
A number of contemporary New Zealand artists have been inspired by traditional kite forms. Examples include Simon Lardelli's sculpture ‘Ruakapanga’ (1999) and Carrie Snowden's ‘Kahurangi o Te Maia’ (1998). Paintings include John Bevan Ford's ‘Taniko – B14’ (1998–99) and John Baxter's series showing kites near Whitirēia, Kāpiti Island and Pukerua Bay. In a 1990 artwork, Robert Pouwhare of Ngāi Tūhoe depicted the kite Te Kaea, which had divined the plight of Māori lands. A waiata (song) was composed by Mark Dashper to accompany the flying of Māori kites.
In the 20th century, kite making and flying in New Zealand enjoyed a renaissance. Māori revitalised traditional kite-making methods, using natural materials. Other New Zealanders began to create kites far more sophisticated than the home-made toys flown by their European ancestors, and in some areas began to lead the world in kite innovation.
Many older New Zealanders have childhood memories of making the familiar diamond kite with two crossed sticks, a string-line joining the ends of each spar, and a covering of brown paper or newspaper. The kite was often given a long tail decorated with paper bow ties. This style was brought to New Zealand by the first European settlers in the mid-1800s. For new arrivals in an undeveloped land, making kites with the simplest of available materials provided recreation for children who often had few other toys.
Most home-made kites required light to moderate winds, and were flown in open fields, parks, or perhaps at the beach. Winds around the New Zealand coastline are variable throughout the year, but the Bay of Plenty’s gentle ocean breezes provide excellent conditions for kite flying. It was here that Māori took advantage of winds striking the coastal cliffs to lift their kites.
By the 1960s cheap factory-made plastic kites from Asia were being sold in New Zealand. For several decades these were popular with children as they were relatively durable, cheap, and usually easy to fly. The manufacture of nylon cloth and fibreglass in the mid-1970s meant that kites were even more durable and offered better performance.
In the 1980s and 1990s, high-tech materials such as carbon-fibre rods and rip-stop nylon attracted some people back to the art of designing and making kites. In response to the upsurge of interest, a national kite-fliers association was established and a number of retail outlets opened throughout the country.
The renaissance of kite making in New Zealand reflects a global resurgence. However, New Zealand has led the world in the design and manufacture of high-performance kiting equipment.
Kiteboarding, kitesurfing and kiteskiing were among the kiting sports that became popular in the early 2000s. People make use of kites to pull them over land, snow or water, sometimes at break-neck speeds. In New Zealand the Hyundai NZ Kitesurfing Nationals draws crowds each year.
In 1973, engineer Peter Lynn established a kite-making business in Ashburton and within a decade was exporting kites around the world. He developed kite traction – using kites as sails to propel boats, skis, surfboards and buggies. He also developed the first usable kite buggy, and initiated kite buggying as a sport. Lynn designs new kites every year, contributing to a growing sport in New Zealand and around the world. He was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997 for creating the world’s largest kite, the MegaBite.
Best, Elsdon. Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1925).
Maysmor, Bob. The Māori kite: te manu tukutuku. Rev. ed. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2001.