Maori Children Playing Knucklebones

The games and pastimes of Māori were just as diverse as those of colonial Pākehā. Children and youth enjoyed all manner of games that required skill, wit and dexterity. Tītī tōrea (sticks thrown in time to song), teka (dart throwing), mū tōrere (similar to draughts), mahi whai (string games) as well as races on poutūturu (stilts) were some of the most popular Māori games.1 Most were accompanied with song and chant, which was an important element of the contests. The interactive and often competitive nature of games were popular with both children and adults. One game, pōtaka (spinning tops), was played exclusively by kaumātua, highlighting how such pastimes were truly shared activities and interactions in mastering strength, strategy and endurance.

Lindauer's Maori Children Playing Knucklebones captures another popular game, knucklebones, or ruru. In the mahau of the wharepuni, four tamariki are engaged in a game of ruru. It is usually played with five stones: the player throws them into the air and attempts to catch them on the back of the hand, as demonstrated by the young girl at the centre of the painting. Lindauer captures the playful innocence of youth and perhaps the competitive nature of pastime games. We notice that the girls are smiling while the boys are not. Read into that what you will.

The painting is highlighted in golden hues and rich tans that bounce off the skin and light up the mahau. A hue (gourd) is perched oddly on the corner of the window frame and a rain cape and kete hang on the side wall of the porch. All these elements help to frame the picture and the activity in the foreground. Upon comparison, we can identify that the wharepuni is based on the same reference image as found in The Tohunga-ta-moko at Work and Tohunga under Tapu.

Nigel Borell

(originally published in Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand: The Māori Portraits, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and AUP, 2016.)

  1. Ross Calman, ‘Traditional Māori games — ngā tākaro — Games of skill with words and hands’, Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
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