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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Para Whakawai or School of Arms

Para Whakawai or School of Arms

Under this head comes the careful and continued training of young men in the use of arms, a training that included the use of various weapons, both thrusting and striking, as also the committing to memory of a number of charms or ritual utterances that were held to be extremely effective. Some of these were to render weapons effective in combat, some to make a person fleet of foot in pursuit, or escape, some to retard the speed of a pursuing enemy, and so on. The Maori never lacked a charm to meet any situation. The most careful training was displayed in teaching the most useful art of karo, which term includes not only the parrying of weapons, but also the avoidance of them, the rapid movements of limbs, head and body that evaded thrust or blow, and which the Maori seems to have practised far more than true parrying.

This usage of practising the use of weapons is also known as whakahoro rakau and whakatu rakau. A practice duel or combat between two persons at such functions is a whakarite rakau, whereas a duel or single combat between enemies in wartime is described as a tau mataki tahi. Tatai rakau is equivalent to our expression 'to measure weapons.' These training lessons were carried out under the supervision of proved, experienced warriors, called Ika a Whiro, who taught the various methods of using native weapons, the manipulation of spear and striking implements, the guards, feints, thrusts and blows peculiar to each. Spear points appear to have been padded in these encounters, or at least in the preliminary stages of training.

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One of the first lessons to be learned by a youth in this course of training was that which enabled him to detect slight muscular movements that betokened the delivery of thrust or blow by his adversary. He would be taught to keep his eyes fixed on the shoulder, or on the big toe of the advanced foot of his opponent, according to what weapons were being used. When, in so watching the big toe of the forward planted foot (wae whangai) he saw it suddenly clinch downward as though to grip the earth, he knew that action was about to be taken, and a blow or thrust delivered, thus he was prepared to parry or avoid the delivery, and possibly to deliver a blow ere his adversary could recover arms. It is said that, when two good spearsmen became warmly engaged, there was a constant clatter as the spear shafts met in rapid passes, feints and parries.

The following was contributed by Tuta Nihoniho, of the East Coast:—Boys engaged in mimic combats, a practice known as para whakawai, a company being divided into two parties for attack and defence. In this they were encouraged by their parents, as it taught them how to fight. Each child was armed with a korari, the flower stalk of the Phormium plant, which was used as a striking and thrusting weapon. In some cases wounds were inflicted even with these light and easily broken weapons, more often, perhaps, when used as a thrusting spear; in some cases, says Tuta—ka heke he toto— blood would flow. It sometimes occured that, when one or more were hurt, a quarrel would ensue, the children become roused and angry, and, casting away their light implements, they would obtain heavier sticks, or stones, and fight in earnest. This would bring the parents to interfere, who, in some cases, seeing their children hurt, would join in the fray, which brought parents of other children into it, until the adults would have a fight of their own, in which possibly some lives would be lost. Many serious affrays have so originated.

These combats among children were often held in the old days, and applause greeted one who put another out of action.

Spear throwing was not practised so much by the Maori of Zealand as it was by some other branches of the race in Polynesia. The Maori certainly used throwing spears, but not as a common usage in fighting, he preferred a hand to hand struggle, hence spear throwing was not looked upon as so important an exercise as those pertaining to the thrusting spear, the taiaha, the patu, etc. Training in this art commenced with the casting of the light, fragile culms of the toetoe (Pampas grass. Arundo conspicua). In using these frail darts lads learned the art of karo, so much practised by the Maori, the art of parrying and avoiding. At this they became remarkably page 26dexterous, and this skilfulness stood them in good stead in after life. Under certain circumstances a man might be compelled to give satisfaction to an injured person, or persons, by taking up a position on the plaza and allowing them to cast a certain number of spears at him. He was not armed, and was not allowed to retaliate, but he was allowed the use of a small short stick, termed a karo, wherewith to ward off the spears. Some men despised the use of such an aid, however, and were most proficient in parrying spears with their hands. When several spears were thrown at a man in rapid succession, he employed three methods whereby to save himself,—avoidance, parrying, and catching. Thus he might avoid one launched spear by a rapid turn of his body, or leap, parry another, and catch a third in his hand.

In his Te Ika a Maui, the Rev. R. Taylor has the following:—"The paramako [para mako] consisted in throwing sharp pointed sticks at each other, and skilfully warding them off by turning the body away when they saw the dart coming. The para toetoe was more a harmless game. It consisted in throwing the reed like stalks of the toetoe [culms of Arundo conspicua], blunted, at each other. This was a boy's game." Youths practised the art of karo, parrying and dodging, in these dart throwing contests. Rods of mako wood were often used for the purpose, the ends of which were bruised so that no wound might be inflicted.

The late Mr. John White gave wewero toetoe as a name for the exercise of throwing toetoe culms, and describes it as follows:— "A game of casting and parrying reed darts. These reeds were often those of the toetoe-kiwi (Gahnia lacera). They were parried with another such stalk, or with a tao (wooden spear). A pair of players stood about fifty feet apart, and each had a certain number of darts. One of them threw all his darts at his opponent and then stood to receive the ones thrown at him. Great dexterity was displayed in such games, and it is said that some of the skilled men in former times used only the bare hand wherewith to parry spears.

In some of these contests a person would take a reed in each hand, cast one, and then throw the other ere the first one had reached his opponent. In such cases the latter would often parry one dart with his karo or parrying stick, and the other with his left hand."

In describing his visit to Taupo in 1844, Angas writes:—"The boys here also amuse themselves with throwing short spears, made of the stems of fern bound round at the extremity: these they throw with admirable precision at any given object, emulating each other in the nicety of their aim."

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On the East Coast spear or dart throwing was often called Maka-maka rakau, and sometimes taumahekeheke, the former being a somewhat general term and the latter implying competition.

This exercise was viewed as excellent training for youths as well as a game. The darts used were straight stems of manuka, about six feet long, and perhaps 1 or l⅛in. in diameter. They were thrown overhand either at a mark or to see which could throw the furthest. Sometimes such darts, or fern stalks, were thrown underhand, a practice described by the word toro, while to throw overhand is timata.