Athletic prowess was sought after and admired in traditional Māori society. Many competitive sports closely mimicked battle skills or built strength, endurance and agility.
Para whakawai (also known as whakahoro rākau, whakatū rākau or riri tākaro) involved training with weapons such as the taiaha and patu. Youths learned movement, weapons drills and sparring, including the art of karo – parrying and avoiding blows.
Karakia and other verbal expressions, believed to aid in battle, were also learnt. These included charms to strengthen the warrior while weakening their opponent.
Youths trained under the supervision of ika a Whiro, experienced warriors. Kōrari, the lightweight stalks of harakeke (flax) flowers, were used in practice situations.
Children played their own versions of these games, sometimes constructing mock pā.
Say your prayers
In all traditional Māori martial arts, there was a ritual aspect that was just as important as the physical aspects. A kaimamau (wrestler) would spit in his or her hand and repeat the following karakia to gather strength before a bout:
Taku uaua ko te rangi e tū nei
Taku uaua ko Papa e takoto nei
Whiri kaha, toro kaha te uaua.
(My sinew is like the sky above
My sinew is like the earth below
Let my sinews gather strength and exert strength.)
Mamau and mekemeke
Mamau (wrestling – also called whatoto, nonoke, tākaro mamau, rongo mamau or tākaro ringaringa) was said to derive from the atua Urutengangana, and was a popular pursuit for both genders. Like many physical pursuits it had mental and spiritual dimensions, and associated karakia.
Mekemeke (boxing) was more popular after Europeans arrived in New Zealand. The term ‘meke’ referred to striking with the front of the fist and ‘moto’ to striking with the outside of the fist.
Omaoma and pekepeke
Omaoma (running – also known as pure) ranged from sprinting to long-distance endurance runs. Running races were known as tākaro omaoma. Often runners had to carry heavy stones. Taupiripiri were long-distance runs in pairs, holding one another around the neck.
Pekepeke was jumping. Among northern iwi a jumping contest was known as a tākaro tūpeke. Rērere was the long jump and tūtoko was vaulting with a pole.
Stolen kūmara taste sweeter
Te Houtaewa, a descendant of the Te Aupōuri chief Te Ikanui, was chased by the Te Rarawa people after raiding their village at Ahipara, Northland, and stealing two baskets of kūmara. Despite his load, Te Houtaewa outran his pursuers and returned safely to Te Kao. He had traversed the entire length of Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē (Ninety Mile Beach) in the process. There is now an annual beach race commemorating his feat.
Porotēteke (also pōteketeke, pōtēteke and turu pēpeke) were acrobatic tests of strength and balance.
Makamaka – throwing spears, darts and stones – was part of warfare and also a common activity in peacetime.
‘Tao’ was the name for a wooden spear. ‘Toro’ or ‘kōkiri’ were terms used for throwing a dart or spear underarm, and overarm throwing was ‘tīmata’ or ‘paka’.
On the East Coast, where spear throwing was known as makamaka rākau, mānuka spears about 1.8 metres long and 2.5 centimetres thick were used.
Para mako was played by warriors in training. It involved throwing and dodging or parrying mako-wood spears. Para toetoe (or wewero toetoe) was a milder version, played by children, using spears made from kākaho (toetoe stems).
Stone-throwing contests were held, using heavy stones weighing 20–30 kilograms. Slings called kōtaha, maka and tīpao were used to launch smaller stones.
A kōtaha was a whip used to propel spears. The children’s version, called ‘kakere’, involved poking a pointed stick into a kūmara and flinging it at other children.