I HAD HEARD about the Martial Arts of the Maori, in particular the weapons. So, on my last workshop tour of New Zealand, I was granted an interview with a most revered Priest of the Maoris and keeper of the Maori fighting arts, Irrirangi Tiakiawa (Irri to his friends).
This interview is quite rare, as Irri has not given interviews freely and has been known to get up and walk away if he doesn’t like the interviewer’s aura! Luckily we got along very well, both having a weird and healthy sense of humour. You will notice here that the conversation starts out quite guarded on Irri’s part but later, as he got to know me better, he loosened up and more of the information that I wanted to know about began to come out.
The weapons forms that I was shown were probably the best that I have seen from any Martial Art system, and lived up to their name of the ‘most deadly weapons system’. Simple and straight to the point, the control executed by the handlers was superb and flowing…
Why do you think it is that the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino weapon arts have dominated the western world, when all the time we in Australasia, at least, have some of the best weapons fighting systems right on our own door stop, so to speak? Not many people really know about the Maori fighting system…
The Maoris know about it. But I think the main reason for this is that the only time it has ever been presented has been for ceremonial occasions. So people tended to think we were just doing a dance! But I have now been trying to bring it all out since 1978.
So you were the first one to actually present the Maori fighting arts as fighting arts?
Yes. But before you can use it for fighting you are required to go through extreme discipline – the spiritual side – and that should take about two or three years, before you even get to touch the weapon.
I saw extreme control today.
Well, after their years of training they should have. But they are only scratching the surface. It’s a pity that my son was not along today, because he’s been in it since he was a little boy. (The Priest of the Maoris is not allowed to marry or to have children of his own so he ‘takes’ children and teaches them. In Irri’s case it was his sister’s children). He’s 20 now and he is far better to watch than the lads you saw today. I opened in 1978 in Rotorua and that’s the area we’re both from. I took 10 students on then, in the hope that they would branch out and teach others and I think that it was a waste of time, because I’m still teaching them! (Laughing loudly…)
Do you teach Pakehas (Caucasian New Zealanders)?
I’ve only had one. And that was because he is a cousin.
But would you teach others who weren’t relatives?
No, I don’t teach outside the true core of the art. They have to do what we call prayers, to gain the internal part of the art. What we give them mostly now is just movements.
I was once told that the safest thing to do when confronted with a Maori fighter is to stand still. Because if you run, he’ll throw something at you and connect for sure. Is this correct?
Yes, it’s true. Most times when a warrior confronts you, he will honour you by throwing something down onto the ground and you honour him back by handing it back to him. But if you run… well, then it’s on! The challenge, in itself, is quite a long and laborious situation.
I believe that, although you use the spear, as the lass was saying in explaining the demonstration, it very rarely leaves their hands?
Oh, well I don’t think she gave proper meaning of the word spear. Spear means any implement they throw. It’s actually a halberd, or quarter-staff. In the days of old if you lost your weapon, you became quick food for the birds. So we hold on to our weapons.
Many of the dances that the women do nowadays were actually done by the men to gain flexibility and muscle tone etc.?
Yes, they do them to gain suppleness in the arms and back and to gain eye and body coordination. They were taught to young children, until they attained adolescence, and then they were taught the actual art. But like most races, out of 100 students you will be left with only two who will actually graduate. But I deplore the ancient method of teaching because, quite often, if you made one mistake you were dismissed and not taught again. In the old days we had to have the very best warriors to protect the villages and so this is why we had such harsh training methods, but this is not for today’s teaching. We do not need that kind of harshness.
There is also an empty-hand art, isn’t there?
Our hand art is very secret and is usually only taught to those who have attained the highest level of training, and we make use of the fingers only.
“I think this (death point striking) art should die. It is too evil for today’s society. I once witnessed my grandfather having an argument with another man and the other man was in the wrong, so my grandfather just got up and struck him with one finger to one point and the man died… “
Can you elaborate on that?
Yes. We train our fingers using the mind only, so that we can strike at points on the body to cause great injury or death. We do not have to strike rocks for years to attain this level…
Is there a correlation to what the Chinese call Dim-Mak?
It was death point striking, yes.
So you have many points on the body that you could strike? Would this be parallel to the acupuncture points?
Yes, but there are more than just the acupuncture points. There are points that will immobilise for a short period, and there are others that will cause death some time later. But I refuse to teach this now.
It is too dangerous.
So will this art die when you do?
I think it should. It is too evil for today’s society. I once witnessed my grandfather having an argument with another man and the other man was in the wrong, so my grandfather just got up and struck him with one finger to one point and the man died. Although under Maori law my grandfather was in the right, I did not like what I saw…
Do you have something like the Chinese form or Japanese kata?
We do have what they call kata, but I haven’t taught it. Because it was too time-consuming, particularly to portray the limited animals and birds we have. The best kata form to do is the Tuatara, which is a lizard. But this lizard moves about one centimetre about every six weeks! (Uproarious laughter). I stopped using the kata because it was too long. For the amount of work required to learn the ceremonial challenge, there’s only a few who will do it. I have taught six of them, but these six do not like exhibiting.
You’re the only one left, then, actually teaching the traditional art?
Yes, the only one left… unfortunately. (On a rare serious note). My eldest son is not too bad, but he’s gone selective.
He only teaches people whom he thinks are worthy of being taught. And he takes them on for two years and tests them first to see if they are genuine. At the moment he has got three students who are into their fourth year, but I do all of the final tests. And they won’t come and test with me because I go at random. They say, “Oh no, we won’t go and test with him because he’ll have us all upside down!” Our tests are quite different. I say they have to do such-and-such a movement, then this and then that, and they are all for different things. The tests last one week and if you make one mistake in that week then they are out and must do the whole test again.
Do you have simulated fighting – like sparring, as many of the eastern and western arts have?
We have fighting! Yes. But I prefer them to do it by reflex. I refuse to choreograph or simulate.
Some people must get hurt because some of those weapons are very heavy, aren’t they?
Oh yes. Some of them do! (Again, a huge laugh). Then they realise, well it’s their fault. We had to do something for TV not so long ago and I had to get my eldest son to come down and fight with my cousin and the TV producer asked us if we wanted to practise. I said no and he was horrified, as they weren’t protected. After two days of filming there were bruises everywhere and my cousin said: “I am devising some form of protection, like Kendo. We’re not back in the 1800s, we’re in the 20th Century.” But when something is simulated or set up, like rules in sparring etc, you are always thinking where I should block and where I should strike. But if you do it our way then you just rely upon your own awareness that has been gained over many years of training.
You train every morning, so it must take up much time to practise all those weapons?
There are only two!
Yes, two types. The halberd, or quarter-staff, and the club.
Tell me about some of the training that you had to go through when you were young?
I started at the age of four and I was treated as though I was an adult. What the older fellows did, I had to do. We did not eat. We had early breakfast before the sun rose and we were only allowed to take water during the day, then a night meal in the dark. You didn’t know what you were eating. You practised what your priest said and he would only show you once and then disappear, and it was up to you to practise it to perfection. Then he came back and would take a strike at you – some strike that was equivalent to what he had taught before.
And this strike was done with an implement?
Hmmm, he had a lovely long supplejack and he would hit you. The supplejack would bend and if you blocked it incorrectly then the end would come around and hit you; so we also learnt how to use the supplejack. He would teach how the mind was capable of analysing, internally, movement. How a person would move to strike you. We learnt about muscle movement, how to tell where the strike was coming from. We had to go out and watch people moving and try and anticipate what it was they were going to do before they did it.
It sounds quite sophisticated in the muscle area etc?
Yes. Well, that I do not teach anymore either. He would place his weapon on the ground and we would have to tell him exactly what muscles he had used. Once you were able to work out the complexity of muscle movement, then you were able to use it in the fighting.
Have you written any of this down?
Well, I only know it in Maori. Although I went to a European school, I learnt the muscles in Maori and not in the Western scientific terms. So I can immediately say this and that and that when someone moves, but no-one will know what I am talking about. If you were told to be at such-and-such a place at a certain time and you weren’t there, then you would have to stand out in the sun all day. You weren’t allowed to go to the toilet; you had to do it where you stood as punishment.
Who was your teacher?
He was my grandfather.
Did your father do all of this as well?
Well he had the option… so he joined the Navy!
Have you taught any women and what are the views on this?
Well, our laws are such that they are meant to be bent! So, although there is a law to say that the women cannot be taught by the Priest, they are sometimes taught by their husbands, and some of the best warriors are the women. I have taught my sister, not as a devotee to me but as my sister, out of the confines of the Priesthood. In most cases, the true Priest has not got any children so they borrow children from relatives. It always amazes me; the Priest always chose a young girl! (A huge laugh…) But no, it was not as you think. It was the young girl’s duty to feed the Priest, as they were not allowed to touch food.
They actually had to have someone to put the food into their mouths?
Either young girl, a niece, or slaves. My sons are really my nephews, taken from my sisters. But I’ve had them since they were babies.
So if everything happened that you wanted to happen, then your sons should begin to teach, shouldn’t they?
Yes. They have been given permission, as they have reached the high house.
Yes, the high house was separate from the others. But I have told them that they must not teach everything, only certain parts. For instance, it was bad manners to exhibit weaponry out in the open. In ancient days it was a way of belittling others around you. That’s the way it was but now, because of tourism (with another chuckle…) it has now come onto the stage!
Do you think that it will all die out, now that you’re not really teaching the whole thing in the traditional way now?
Well, it will only be skimpy. I know I should write a book on it. And perhaps, when I retire, I will.
Will you include all of the sacred stuff in the book?
I am, actually. I thought, what a waste of time, if I’m not going to. But I won’t include the finger one. When I saw my grandfather kill the other one with just a finger, I was shocked. But at the time I thought that he was right in doing so, as the tribe had been hurt. But now, I don’t think that he should have shown his anger in that way, even because of the tribe. The law was honour the tribe before the person.
Were there any special breathing exercises in the school?
Yes. And after many years of training, the breathing exercises that went with the weaponry. It helped my singing greatly.
“The tests last one week and if you make one mistake in that week then you are out and must do the whole test again…”
Yes, when I was 20 I began opera training, because I loved opera and singing, but after swallowing the chicken bone it stopped the singing for the rest of my life.
Hold on now… chicken bone!?
Yes. I was in a restaurant once and a friend came up and slapped me on the back, just when I was chewing on a chicken bone, and I swallowed it. They had to cut right through here (he shows me an awful scar running from the front of his neck, right through to the scapular region, and I think: ‘Is he having a lend of me?’ But no, it is all true).
Tell me about the breathing exercises.
Well we had to begin here (lower abdomen) and then we worked our way up into the chest and that was the last one, and then we had to co-ordinate them. (Irri at this stage goes into rather intricate breathing techniques which coincide with the Chinese Qigong method of pre-natal, or ‘tortoise breath’).
All of your training suggests that there is a great Chinese influence here.
Yes, and our ancestors say that the Maoris actually came from China. Not many agree with me, but this is what I believe. There is much evidence to suggest this. So I believe that much of our Martial Arts has come from China. I would like to go to China one day, to have the opportunity to correlate all of it and see where we came from. A chant was given to each of the movements; this is why I will never forget any of the movements.
Irrirangi, it has been a pleasure talking with you, and thank you.
(Irri then placed his Russian cap – given to him on his last trip to perform in Russia – onto his head, chuckling, as we said goodbye).
“Our ancestors say the Maoris actually came from China“, Maori Fighting Arts expert, Irrirangi Tiakiawa (above) told Erle Montaigue. “There is much evidence to suggest this and I believe much of our Martial Art has come from China”. Apart from the obscure ‘Dim Mak’-like art of the Maori warriors, Erle observed a distinct similarity between the advanced breathing method demonstrated by Irrirangi Tiakiawa and the Qigong (or Chi Kung) methods of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts.
“When something is simulated or set up, like rules in sparring etc, you are always thinking where I should block and where I should strike”, says Irrirangi (seen above demonstrating techniques of the halberd). “But if you do it our way then you just rely upon your own awareness, that has been gained over many years of training.”A Priest of the Maori people, Irrirangi began his training at the age of four years.
“When I saw my grandfather kill the other one with just a finger strike I was shocked”, Irrirangi told Erie. “At the time I thought he was right in doing so, as the tribe had been hurt, and that was the law. But now, I don’t think he should have shown his anger in that way, even because of the tribe.”