In July this year, news sites around the world reported the story of schoolboys, 1,700 strong in number, performing a haka outside Palmerston Boy’s High School to greet the coffin of their teacher who had passed away. The Telegraph in London and TIME magazine placed the video on their websites. In a world weighted with ethnic conflict and still licking wounds from colonialism, clearly this is newsworthy.

And yet, just a generation or two ago, that news could not have appeared. While the unfolding story of the Māori Renaissance is still relatively short, to the outside eye it has already produced astounding fruit. The rekindling of Māori culture has not happened by chance but rather through work and vision, adaptation and preservation.

Sustaining and rebuilding Māori culture has involved wrestling with complex questions: What does it mean to sustain a culture and identity when so much has already been lost? What does it take to rebuild in the dark?

One context in which answers to these questions have unfolded is in the revival of mau rākau—the use of Māori weaponry—through urban marae. The revival of mau rākau is a rarely told story that has played a key part in reacquainting many Māori with their heritage and identity.

Mau rākau is a type of martial art. It involves wielding the taiaha (spear) and patu (club). But its significance lies beyond art or sport. For Māori, taiaha and patu are gifts of the gods, woven into Māori identity from the earliest days. According to the Hon. Sir Pita Sharples, Tohunga Ahurewa and Te Tumuwhakarae founder of Te Whare Tū Taua o Aotearoa: The House of Warfare and Māori Weaponry, the taiaha “encompasses our deepest customs and is our identity.”

Māori girl traditional dress mau rākau

Mau rākau indicates more than battle. Language, maturity, traditional lore, and tribal custom are all attached to it. The implications of its erosion during much of the twentieth century therefore also extend beyond the loss of an activity or sport. With the suppression of mau rākau, keys to Māori identity were hidden.

The Tohunga Suppression Act which came into force in 1907 was intended to direct Māori away from traditional healers and towards Western medicine. However, it was also instrumental in putting pressure on the already fragile roots of Māori identity, making it illegal for tohunga—spiritual healers and cultural leaders—to pass on their knowledge. Mau rākau was largely buried along with carvings and Te Reo during this period.

The Tohunga Suppression Act did not achieve all it intended. Māori fears of Western medicine were not alleviated and few people were prosecuted under it. Tohunga continued to hand down their knowledge in secret. But while the Act in some senses failed, it nonetheless had significant implications. It damaged the bonds that many had with their whakapapa and made Tohunga marginal figures. Some Māori internalised a belief that their culture was inferior and dangerous. When the Act was lifted in 1962 it left a long shadow.

“Our proverbs say the land and sea and us grew up together. To have that taken away from you, you are left without your spiritual encasement,” says Hon. Sir Pita Sharples.

Without the tools for retaining history and culture, identity stretches thin and frays. For the best part of the twentieth century, most Māori children were raised by whānau who spoke to them in English and hid their culture.

“I was told that Te Reo and Kapahaka would get me nowhere” says Tat Stanley, one of the first female students to master mau rākau and obtain the title Tohunga Kairangi of Te Whare Tū Taua O Aotearoa.

Tat is from Taranaki but when she was eight she moved with cousins to Auckland. Like many Māori of her era, she was raised away from her traditional tribe, in an urban context, not a rural one.

The Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland, one of the key sites for the regeneration of mau rākau, has been the site for Tat’s own self-regeneration too.

For many Māori of her era, cultural identity is an improvised affair, and reconnecting with it is a source of life and pride.

“I came here [to Hoani Waititi Marae] when I was fifteen and it has been very important to me. It was here that I started to learn mau rākau. Without mau rākau I wouldn’t be who I am today,” says Tat.

Urban marae have become key initiatives to allow people like Tat to adapt to a changing environment while retaining their cultural identity. With many Māori now living in urban centres these marae were built to bring people together from different iwi. Māori recognised the need to move forward and sustain their culture in a new context.

“When urban marae were established it was a huge mindset shift for people. Marae used to belong to just one iwi. To build a marae like Hoani Waititi was a big change,” says Paora Sharples, son of Sir Pita, and one of the first generation of students to have mastered mau rākau.

red carving Māori mau rākau

“If you go into our marae it is full of carvings from every tribe, all the wakas, so anyone who comes here, they can be related,” says Paora. The walls of the marae even feature carved reliefs of the Endeavour and Abel Tasman’s ship; the wakas that brought Pākehā to Aotearoa, New Zealand. “That is all part of our history too,” Paora explains.

So what were the watershed moments that allowed an eroding culture to find its feet again? What brought mau rākau and other aspects of Māori culture out from the dark? According to Paora, it began with the protest movements of the 1960s and 70s which broke open a doorway that allowed the broader renaissance of Māori culture that would follow.

In 1975, five thousand people walked the length of the North Island to protest for Māori land rights. Students campaigned for Te Reo to be taught and protected.

The era of protest broke open new attitudes to New Zealand’s identity as a bi-cultural nation. The cry of Māoridom that their language and tikanga should not be allowed to die was the cry of a people deeply invested in the maintenance and rediscovery of their own identity, and determined that it should not be lost.

The untidy and sometimes controversial movements of that era brought to the forefront of the nation’s mind the redressing of grievance, and the vitality of Māori identity. Although this bi-cultural conversation has been deeply fraught and sometimes painful, there are few in New Zealand who would wish to return to the 1960s. In this sense, the new depth of conversation between the Treaty partners has been a gift to us all.

Rebuilding has meant more than just returning to the past or trying to unwind history. It has meant moving forward and finding out how to be Māori in a new context.

Weapons were brought out from hiding. “At first we didn’t know much [about mau rākau],” says Sir Pita. “When we started we had no rules because not many of us had the knowledge. But there are rules and conventions in the use of weapons.”

“Those who did know, started teaching it one-on-one. We began to reestablish the conventions and therefore the goodness of the weapons. They began to be used for every sort of use—healing and traditions. A whole lot of things began to revive through this,” says Sir Pita.

The art-form itself guided them as they rediscovered it. The students found that mau rākau became a way of expanding their own conception of themselves, proving to be an entry point into the recovery of identity.

Māori man club mau rākau
Māori man and woman mau rākau teachers

“When we first started it was all about the moves. We did that for years. We got to a point where we thought, ‘we need to be fit.’ So we researched all these regimes of training and fitness that related to mau rākau. Once we were fit, we realised that perhaps we should all be speaking Māori, to honour the art-form as best we can. So we put ourselves on courses or found ways to learn Te Reo. Through all this, the tikanga, the customary aspects came back as well,” says Paora. “It was like clawing back what had happened to us, and trying to make us whole again.”

The recovery of a sustainable cultural identity is not simply about the revivification of traditional forms. Like all cultural customs and traditional knowledge, mau rākau has been adapted as it has been reawakened. Initially, many people were reluctant to see women learning mau rākau, due to their traditional role as child bearers.

“Back when this first started there were no women allowed,” says Tat. “But as the years went on, a wahine approached Papa [Sir Pita] and asked if she could learn. The doors opened up. There were a lot of debates that went around the table.”

As they retold and remembered more of their history, they discovered stories of female fighters in ancient battles, allowing Tat and others like her to take their rightful place alongside those reviving the art-form.

“It was a turning point as women, to be a part of this. Being a huge honour, we didn’t take it lightly, and it gave a sense of balance to mau rākau as well.” Sir Pita believes this is a normal part of the development of culture. “Like all art forms, if you do it all the time it develops.”

The students who began learning mau rākau in the late 1980s early 90s did not know where it would lead. But as their knowledge of the art deepened, so too did their commitment. For Tat, this ultimately meant returning to her home in Taranaki, to connect with her identity.

“After several years, it was the taiaha that told me, ‘right it’s time for you to go home and to learn about who you are, where you are from.’”

Today there are 36 people, including Tat and Paora who have mastered all eight stages of mau rākau through Te Whare Tū Taua o Aotearoa. The art has been formalised with a grading system and schools now spread throughout New Zealand and beyond. There are Te Whare Tū Taua branches in Australia, London, and Hawaii. Many young people who learn mau rākau today begin like Tat and Paora, with a simple desire to learn the moves, but through it they uncover much more.

Māori boy camera club mau rākau
spear Māori mau rākau

“We have used an art that was once for warfare, as a vehicle for education. We teach other things like our language, customs, history,” says Paora. “It is about thinking Māori, not only doing it.”

The story of mau rākau speaks volumes about how identity is sustained. This identity is about more than the recovery of a mechanical form, it is about the curing of the soul—the reconnection of the whole person. This kind of “soul craft” includes the recovery of ancient knowledge, the discovery of the importance of community, tikanga, discipline, the deepening and securing of language, the reconnection with history, and the transmission of it to the next generation who will also earn their right to own and keep it. The story of 1,700 students performing the haka together in honour of their teacher is stirring because it shows us what education, properly conceived, is for. Education must remind ourselves and our children of the standing places we value, the identity we hold, the knowledge we share. If we allow it to do this, our children will not be cultural orphans but proud inheritors of an enduring trust. It is that trust that we all share.

tribal tattoos legs spear Māori mau rākau
Annette Option 1

Annette Pereria

Annette was born and raised in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney and moved to New Zealand in her early twenties. She interned and then worked for Maxim Institute as Communications Manager for five years—a time that significantly shaped her vocationally and personally. For the past few years Annette has focused on work that involves the strengthening and rebuilding of civil society. She has worked for the Centre for Social Justice in London and is now back in Australia working for a faith-based NGO.