Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia

by Ross Calman

Traditional Māori society sought a balance between work and leisure. Leisure time was spent telling stories, performing waiata, haka and poi, playing musical instruments, dancing and playing sports and games. Leisure activities had serious purposes like transmitting knowledge as well as entertainment value.

Leisure in traditional Māori society

Balancing work and leisure

Māori, like other peoples, sought a balance between work and leisure – a balance determined largely by how much effort was needed to produce sufficient food. In the early years of Māori settlement in New Zealand there would have been relatively more leisure than there was later: the human population was at its lowest, and protein was easily accessible in the form of kekeno (fur seals) and moa.

Within 200 years moa had been wiped out and seal populations had become locally extinct in many places. Māori had to identify and travel to seasonal food supplies, and develop sustainable harvesting, food storage and preservation techniques in order to ensure a steady supply of food throughout the year.

Rise of warfare

Increased competition for resources meant that ownership of valued mahinga kai (the places where traditional foods were sourced), such as fishing grounds and forests, was keenly contested, and warfare became a common feature of later traditional society. By the time that British navigator James Cook arrived, in the later 18th century, some communities were living year-round in fortified pā. Summer – a significant downtime in terms of food production – was more often spent waging war than enjoying leisure activities.


The whakataukī (saying) ‘Rehua kai tangata’ (Rehua consumer of men) refers to the fact that summer was the fighting season. Rehua is the star Antares, which is associated with summer.

Young and old

Tamariki (children) and kaumātua (the elderly) enjoyed more leisure time than others as they were spared many daily tasks. Instead, children spent a lot of time with their older relatives, which formed a vital part of their education: they learned family and tribal history, mythology and folklore from an early age, and this continued through adolescence. The formal education of the whare wānanga (house of learning), held over winter, was reserved for specially selected children who qualified through birth and aptitude.


As they approached adolescence, children began to help with manual tasks. In their teens and young adulthood they were increasingly absorbed in romantic leisure-time activities and often put a lot of effort into wooing, for example composing romantic ditties which they sang and played on the kōauau. Young adults often had multiple romances involving co-habitation before they settled on a long-term partner.

Home time for children

The whakataukī ‘Ka titi kiore, ka hoki mai’ (when you hear the squeak of the kiore, return home) alludes to the fact that children scattered far and wide during the day but that when dusk fell and the kiore (native rat, a nocturnal creature) became active it was time to return home.

Leisure and class

Although divisions existed between rangatira (chiefs), tūtūā (commoners) and taurekareka (slaves), Māori society had a relatively flat class structure. Rangatira were hands-on leaders, involved in food production and war. A leader who demonstrated superior abilities could replace one of higher birth, as was famously the case with Ngāti Toarangatira leader Te Rauparaha. Rangatira did, however, have the time to undergo the lengthy process of tā moko (traditional tattoo). Taurekareka were usually captives taken in war. They were not so numerous as to significantly lessen the burden of daily toil for the majority. Taurekareka often married into their host tribe and children born of such a union were free.

The social aspects of leisure

The daily routine

Māori rose early, often before dawn, to make the most of daylight. They ate two meals a day, always in the open air, and finished working as night fell. In addition to work associated with food production, other daily chores included the preparation and cooking of food, and gathering and breaking up firewood. Making and maintaining whare (houses), waka (canoes), kupenga (nets), bird snares, tools, weapons, clothing and domestic items using natural materials were other time-consuming activities.

Evening gathering

The fall of night signalled the end of the day’s work and ushered in communal leisure time:

At night the people loved to assemble in one of the larger huts and there pass the evening in conversation, story-telling, and amusements. Fires in small pits sunk in the earthen floor of a hut were used in winter for both warmth and light.1


Winter in particular, with its long dark evenings and poor weather, was a time for storytelling and indoor games. Whare were lit by fires in the floor and torches made from thin lengths of smokeless maire wood tied in bundles.


As early European observer J. S. Polack remarked, ‘any meeting of the people, whatsoever the object, was marked by a feast.’2

Hākari (feasts) involving guests from other kāinga were an important part of traditional society. Reasons for hākari included tohi (baptisms), tomo (betrothals), pākūhā (marriages), tangihanga (funerals), hahunga (exhumations) and hohou rongo (peace-making). Hākari were also associated with building a house, making a canoe, hunting, fishing or waging war. Some feasts, known as paremata or kaihaukai, were given in return for an earlier feast.

Hākari stages

Most gatherings took place in autumn and early winter, when food was plentiful. As one of the main objects of hākari was to enhance the mana (reputation) of the hosts, hapū tried to outdo one another. Early European visitors described hākari stages ‘[f]ifty or sixty feet high, which were made to support eight or ten stories, heaped up with baskets of food to the very top.’3

Although ritual and politics were important parts of most gatherings, many people took advantage of the break in the work routine to socialise and participate in leisure activities. Polack noted that ‘ceremonious visits are regarded as gala days by the New Zealanders’.4 Writing about gatherings, ethnologist Elsdon Best commented:

Its primary object might be ritual or ceremonial, as an exhumation of bones of the dead, or a marriage feast, or a baptismal rite, but secondarily it would also be a social function and a business or political meeting. Tribal and clan matters would be discussed and arranged, while the people generally, especially the young folk, would indulge in many forms of amusement, pastimes and contests.5

Pastimes at hākari

Arthur Saunders Thomson, in his 1859 history of New Zealand, wrote that pastimes included ‘dancing, singing, talking, wrestling, racing, throwing spears, crying, climbing, swimming, flying kites, playing at ti, tossing the poi ball.’6

    • Elsdon Best, The Maori as he was. Wellington: Dominion Museum, 1934, p. 93. Back
    • J. S. Polack, Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, vol. 2. London: J. Madden & Co., 1840, pp. 386–7. Back
    • Richard Taylor, Te Ika a Māui. London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1855, p. 169. Back
    • Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, vol. 2, pp. 386–7. Back
    • Elsdon Best, The Maori, vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1924, p. 384. Back
    • Quoted in Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, pp. 16–17. Back


Harvest festival

The kūmara harvest was marked by the rising of the star Whānui (Vega). It was said: ‘Ka rere a Whānui, ka tīmata te hauhake’ (when Vega rises, the harvest starts).

Te maramataka

In traditional times, life was regulated by the maramataka, the Māori year made up of lunar months that were divided into nights of the moon. The arrival of stars in the night sky, and changes observed in plants, trees and the behaviour of birds, were also reliable markers of the passing of the seasons. These tohu (signs) within the natural world gave guidance as to the proper times for planting, harvesting, fishing, hunting and other food-gathering activities.

When the crops had been harvested and stored it was said, ‘Kua uru ngā kai ki te rua; kua mutu ngā mahi a te tangata’ (crops are stored in pits; labours are over).1

An early European visitor to New Zealand, J. S. Polack, noted that ‘the harvest feast was celebrated in March when the crops had been garnered and stored.’2

Ngahuru – the 10th month

The month of the maramataka Māori (Māori calendar) associated with the harvest of the kūmara is Ngahuru, or in full Ngahuru-kai-paenga (the food threshold of the 10th month). According to Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao of Ngāi Tahu, Ngahuru was the longest and happiest month of the year:

Ngahuru was the harvest time when the kumera was gathered, and the Maori was happy then because there was abundance of good things to eat. The usual number of meals a day was two, but sometimes in periods of dearth the Maori only got one meal a day. He looked forward to Ngahuru, when he could get ten meals a day if he wished them, or could eat them.3

Ngā mahi a Ruhanui

In 1872 Rāpata Wahawaha, the famous Ngāti Porou soldier and leader, said, ‘In former times, when Whānui rose, the crops were gathered and stored, after which “nga mahi a Ruhanui” (the activities of Ruhanui) were practised.’4 Wahawaha went on to list ‘ngā mahi a Ruhanui’, which included the ceremony and feast to celebrate the storing of the kūmara crop, the exchanging of gifts of food between hosts and visitors, haka, poi, taonga puoro (music) and tākaro (games).

At harvest a multitude

There are a number of whakataukī (sayings) about people who are willing to participate in the harvest and associated feasting, but who are scarce when there is work to be done at other times of year. One example is ‘Kōanga tangata tahi; ngahuru puta noa’ (at planting a single person, at harvest a multitude).

New year festival

The rising of the Matariki (Pleiades) constellation in June was the signal for the beginning of the new year. In some places, where Matariki was less visible, it was the rising of Puanga (Rigel) that marked the new year. This was a time for celebration and remembering those who had died in the past year.

The appearance of Matariki ‘was marked by feasting and by what the Maori term “Nga mahi a te rehia” – the arts of pleasure, such as dancing, singing, the playing of many forms of games, and contests of many kinds.’5

A number of whakataukī reflect the fact that food stores were plentiful at this time of year, including ‘Matariki ahunga nui’ (Matariki provider of plentiful food) and ‘Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu’ (when Matariki is seen, then game is preserved).

    • Elsdon Best, The Maori division of time. Wellington: Government Printer, 1959, p. 18. Back
    • J. S. Polack, Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, vol. 2. London: J. Madden & Co., 1840, p. 386. Back
    • Teone Taare Tikao, Tikao talks: traditions and tales told by Teone Taare Tikao to Herries Beattie. Dunedin: Reed, 1939, p. 45. Back
    • Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, p. 12. Back
    • Elsdon Best, The Maori, vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1924, p. 385. Back

Te whare tapere

The branch of knowledge that includes kōrero pūrākau (storytelling), waiata (songs), haka, poi, taonga puoro (music) and tākaro (games) is known as te whare tapere (the house of entertainment).

Kōrero pūrākau (storytelling)

Telling stories and listening to them was perhaps the most popular leisure activity in traditional Māori society. The Reverend William Yate, an early missionary in the north, wrote of Māori that ‘their most delightful recreation is talking, and telling wonders; which exercise occupies most of their idle hours, and many of those which are shrouded in darkness and ought to be devoted to sleep.’1

Pakiwaitara and pūrākau are general terms for stories and traditions. Kōrero takurua (winter-time stories) and kōrero ahiahi (stories told by the fire) are factually less reliable stories – more in the nature of jokes, yarns and anecdotes. As the names suggest, they were embroidered, with the primary aim of entertainment.

Storytelling was not simply entertainment; it was an important way of transmitting scientific knowledge, history, whakapapa and social mores. Samuel Marsden and other early missionaries were staggered at the ability of Māori to memorise and retain information, which was due to this oral tradition.


Waiata (songs) permeated every aspect of traditional life. There were waiata for every occasion, including pao (entertaining ditties), waiata tangi (laments) and pātere (songs of derision). Waiata were rich with historical, traditional and metaphorical references.

Every opportunity was taken to sing and to practise songs communally. Anthropologist Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) described how, in the evenings or early mornings, the old people would sing through their repertoire of songs while reclining in the tribal meeting house, and the older children would learn the waiata so they could join in with the community singing.

Hui whakataetae

At hui whakataetae, the people of neighbouring kāinga gathered to compete at sports and games. ‘Such contests might consist of physical combats, such as wrestling or para whakawai (trial of skill with weapons), or canoe racing (paddling), or ... games of skill, such as posture dances, ti rakau, [or] dart throwing ... Kite flying contests were also held ... The Tuhoe folk used to visit neighbouring villages to play a match of knucklebones or jackstones, the ruru or koruru of the Maori.’2

Haka and poi

Haka and poi were associated with most gatherings and were popular entertainment. ‘Contests were sometimes held between different hamlets, when a party of poi performers from a village would visit another in order to play against a local team. Such visits also took place in connection with the haka.’3 In the traditional context, haka referred to a wide range of dance styles, including many performed by women.

Taonga puoro

Taonga puoro (musical instruments) drew on the sounds of nature. As well as being part of many rituals they were played to entertain, and often accompanied waiata, haka and poi.

Instruments were made from gourds, bone, shell, stone and wood. They were blown by the mouth and nose, spun, shaken and struck.

Kōauau (nose flutes typically made from bone) were the best-known type of Māori instrument and were traditionally very popular: ‘it was an amusement in every pā to hear skilful players’.4

Tamatekapua and Whakatūria

Te whare tapere is an ancient institution that appears in old stories set in Hawaiki. One story tells of brothers Tamatekapua and Whakatūria using pouturu (stilts) to steal Uenuku’s breadfruit. Whakatūria was caught and tied to a post inside Uenuku’s whare. He watched Uenuku’s people engaged in the activities of te whare tapere, including haka, waiata, skipping, tutukai (a guessing game), and tī and punipuni (hand games).

Ngā hākinakina me ngā tākaro – sports and games

Adults and children of both genders took part in the sports and games that accompanied most social gatherings. As well as providing entertainment for players and spectators, these games taught tribal traditions and developed skills that were useful in warfare.

The marae, the open space within a kāinga (village), was the venue for kaipara (athletics and martial arts). In the summer, water sports such as swimming, diving and surfing were popular. On winter evenings and during bad weather, people played games like tī ringaringa (hand games), whai (string patterns) and karetao (puppets).

Children played with toys made from nature including tētere (flax trumpets), toparere (flax leaf gliders) and toy waka made from harakeke and raupō.

    • Quoted in Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1976, p. 14. Back
    • Games and pastimes of the Maori, p. 14. Back
    • Games and pastimes of the Maori, p. 105. Back
    • Quoted in Brian Flintoff, Taonga puoro: singing treasures. Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton Publishing, 2004, p. 65. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ross Calman, 'Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 May 2021)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 Sep 2013