Maori in Aotearoa/New Zealand have a tradition of nudity.
Originally the war haka, or peruperu was performed naked, as was warfare itself. There were phallic implications in this.
British missionaries equated public nudity with licentious behaviour and gross indecency and were shocked at the naked haka and sought to stop it.
In day to day life girls were naked to puberty, there was no restriction on boys. Communal gardens were worked naked, as was the task of hauling logs from the forest to build waka.
Maori had no working clothes, and a narrow definition of nudity. In males this was the exposure of the glans of the penis. Women wore flax skirts.
Waka taua appear to have been crewed naked. A report from 1827 refers to a small European craft apparently pulling aside a large ocean going waka taua moving at great speed : their attention being drawn to shouts and chants and being shocked to discover the occupants were all naked and were fully readied for battle. ( Waka means Maori canoe or vessel. Taua means war. Taua could also mean war party. Waka taua could be also translated as a vessel carrying a war party).
In the original powhiri (welcome), the chiefs would be naked. In “New Zealanders illustrated”, 1844, George French Angas recorded the throwing of the spear ceremony at Matata pa, part of the powhiri. The ceremonial spear throwing outside the pa, involved the visiting party and the hosts and was conducted naked. Angas’s painting shows three naked males who would have been chiefs. The leader of the pa is shown in the process of throwing. His status is determined by his extensive buttock tattoo. To his left in the party of guests stand the two chiefs of the visiting people, also with extensive buttock tattoos.
In the colonial period the battles of the New Zealand Wars were closely covered by the settler press. It was recorded that the Maori troops who fought against the Colonial and British forces were naked, this expressed in a way to denigrate Maori. What was of particular and more pressing concern was, however, the fighting ability of Maori. ( “Daily Southern Cross”, 30 July 1861, ”Canterbury Press”, 16 April, 1864.) Fighting naked was in fact the practice of Maori, not that the settlers would have known that.
An account of Maori nudity in combat, immediately before the colonial period, is contained in “Old New Zealand” by Frederick Edward Manning, published in 1863. The following excerpt was printed in the “Daily Southern Cross” of 14 February 1863 and describes Maori troops about to enter into a fight. “The men are all equipped for immediate action, that is to say , quite naked, except their arms and cartridge boxes, which are the warriors’ clothes…. As I have said, the men are all stripped for action. But I notice that the appearance of nakedness is completely taken away by the tattooing, the colour of the skin, and the arms and equipments. The men in fact look much better than when dressed their Maori clothing.”
The Hauhau or Pai Marire , were a Maori religious movement active in Maori opposition to the colonial state between 1865 and 1868 and combined elements of traditional beliefs including nudity with an interpretation of the Old Testament. A document explaining Hauhau beliefs in Maori seized by the Colonial forces in 1867 refers to Maori “standing in a state of nudity” and are the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (“Daily Southern Cross”, 26 April 1867). Te Kooti is often associated with the Hauhau but this not the case, though it is known the some of Te Kooti’s guerrilla force were Pai Marire. Both troops were naked in the Maori tradition. (“ Otago Witness”, 30 June 1866 for the Hauhau. “Daily Southern Cross”, 16 January 1869 for Te Kooti’s forces.) There was a major fight involving Te Kooti’s forces in 1868 which led to Te Kooti being forced into the Ureweras. Skirmishes with Te Kooti continued to 1872. In 1883 he was pardoned. In 1885 there was a huge gathering of Maori outside Napier at a place known as Petane with the purpose of welcoming Te Kooti. According to the press reporter he was received at the river by the Petane natives, stark naked, who then gave haka in the original way. (“North Otago Times”, 24 December 1885) Te Kooti founded the Ringatu Church.
Reports of Maori nudity are of male nudity. But in 1866 the press reported a strange case from Port Waikato involving one Maraea Rangingu who has been running about in a state of nudity who was sentenced to be detained at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum. (“Southern Cross”, 16 July 1866).
In 1867 there was huge gathering of Maori at Wairoa. A grand gala day was organised. After the exhibition of military tactics had ended the Wairoa Maori divested themselves of all clothing and commenced a haka. The return haka was given by the guests from Nuhaka, Te Mahia, Turanga (Gisborne) and the East Cape. From the description of the journalist the hakas were naked in the fullness of the tradition. On the next day the whole body marched to Hatepe, and with some other tribes formed a column 4-5 a breast and 600 yards in length. A rough guess would indicate the total strength of 2500-3000 troops. On nearing the pah they stripped themselves of clothing and advanced in a state of nudity where they were met in a like manner by the Hauhau leader Te Waru and his people. Then ensured a series of war dances and haka. (“Southern Cross”, 30 April 1867).
The “Taranaki Herald” reported an incident involving Tuta Nihiniho in Gisborne of a naked haka involving Nihoniho and his “whole hapu” with fire-arms being discharged. (11 July 1879)
In 1895 two correspondents for the “Hawera & Normandy Star” visited Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka and witnessed several naked haka between the followers of the Te Whiti and someone described as his rival known as Tohu Kakahi. On their way in, they reported that the “road before us appeared thronged with natives attired much as Adam might have been after the Fall”. (2 March 1895) The same newspaper reported of the activities of Paora Eta in 1880 who had set up a religious cult in the Wairarapa in which his followers, “men and women bathed perfectly naked in a stream each morning” as a religious rite “believing they would be cured of all diseases by doing so.” (19 May 1880)
According to the “Waikato Times” of 25 March 1882, quoting the “Auckland Star”, “the haka in a state of absolute nudity” was being performed at Ohinemutu and for money to boot.
A story carried by several newspapers in 1892 concerned the description of a trip by canoe down the Wanganui River, a sort of travelogue. The party seems to have been made up of European and Maori with a guide. In the “Otago Witness” of 2 June 1892 the reporter refers to himself taking a mid-day bath at Athens. His guide was not so concerned about where he swam “and plunged in from the canoe, as did the girl. The natives seems to bath a good deal, and are not very particular about securing privacy , though the girls usually retain a garment at least when bathing near the village. As we passed several villages we saw lots of lads playing in the water … and sometimes girls, who modestly crouched down while we glided past.” The “Taranaki Herald” of 6 June 1892 carried a further account. The reporter describes the scene as they are about to embark on the second day : ”small canoes are darting about, dexterously managed by naked boys, bronze figures in action, some wading the river chin deep, and near the bank small girls bathing, being actually clothed in bathing dresses. I wonder what the old Tory Maori think of this innovation.”
The tide in Maoridom does appear to be turning. A trend has been for males who are already bare chested in kapa haka groups (competitive haka) to wear less : the buttocks are often exposed. In contrast women are still fully clothed. Moko are coming gradually back into fashion and certain Maori tattoo designs are popular amongst non-Maori. Genital tattoos are also making a comeback.
In time we can expect to see the peruperu as it was originally.