Training in childhood
Much of traditional Māori society was based on warfare and weaponry. It was the ambition of every Māori warrior to die in battle, and warriors’ upbringing conditioned them to be experts in weaponry and skilled in the strategies of war.
Children were subjected by their elders to various military training techniques, such as being suddenly woken at night so they would be constantly alert, and being struck unexpectedly with sticks to teach them to avoid blows.
Even children’s games were often orientated towards warfare. Running, jumping, diving, stone throwing, climbing, boxing, wrestling and more elaborate stick-throwing and parrying games improved children’s motor skills for the inevitability of battle. Young men were taught chants and incantations such as the hoa rākau and mata rākau, to make warriors fleet-footed or cause a weapon to be extremely deadly. With this upbringing young men entered the para whakawai (school of traditional weaponry), where they were instructed in the arts of mau rākau (the use of weaponry).
In the para whakawai young men were instructed in battle formations, weaponry and attack and defence moves. Emphasis was placed on dexterity of footwork, known as rakanga waewae, to instil balance, speed and economy of movement. The proverb ‘He waewae taumaha, he kiri mākū’ (heavy feet, wet skin) reminded warriors that slow or lazy foot movements in battle meant their skin might become wet with their own blood.
The recruits took part in mock battles using reeds in place of real weapons. They were taught about whakatū rākau (weaponry guards), whakarite rākau (strikes and parries) and whakahoro rākau (the use of weaponry in combat). They were also instructed in the rituals and codes of conduct of Māori warfare, including those associated with weaponry.
Weapons of peace
Māori weapons could also be symbols of peace and were used in tatau pounamu (peacemaking ceremonies) between warring tribes. In the 1820s the Tainui warrior Tūkorehu led an expedition from Te Whāiti to Ruatāhuna in the Urewera, where he was opposed by Te Pūrewa. They fought a duel but neither was able to defeat the other. As a result their tribes made peace and offered to support each other in times of need. To seal the peace agreement, the two men exchanged weapons. In 1885 Ngāti Maniapoto chief Wahanui presented Premier John Ballance with a taiaha (fighting staff) to indicate that no more bloodshed was to take place between Ngāti Maniapoto and Europeans.
Weapons as taonga
Weapons were more than implements of battle to Māori. They were taonga, precious heirlooms much beloved by their owners and often handed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, the process of making a weapon was slow and painstaking. A long weapon made from hardwood could take months to shape, fashion and decorate, while a stone patu (club) may have taken well over a year to fully complete. This dedication and pride in the weapon’s creation not only increased its personal value but also formed a special bond between the implement and its owner.
According to ethnologist Elsdon Best, ‘No weapon that had seen much service was without its name, and on many hinged the stories of famous battles, of noted peace-makings, of slaughters grim and great.’1
- Ngāti Toa warrior chief Te Rauparaha possessed a well-known mere (club) called Amokura which was given to him by his uncle, Hape-ki-tūārangi.
- Tūwharetoa chief Te Rangitāhau owned a patu called Te Ringa Toto (the bloody hand).
- The people of Taranaki possessed a famous toki (adze) known as Te Āwhiorangi. It is said that this adze was once owned by the god of the forest, Tāne Mahuta himself, and was used to separate the remaining bonds that held the sky and the earth together.
At times karakia were repeated over weapons to instil various atua within them in order to make them tapu. The Taranaki warrior chief Tītokowaru would invoke Uemutu and instil this atua within his taiaha before battle to give it supernatural abilities.