This story captures photographs and articles on Māori string games (also known as whai, huhi, or maui). Whai is also short for Te Whai Wawewawe a Maui. Suggestions for activities, including videos on making string figures, are also listed.
The following photos bring back memories of when our mother showed us string figure games that she had learnt as a student at Lake Rotoiti Primary School near Rotorua. She began with a length of string, the end of which she tied in a knot to form a circle. When laid across each palm between the thumb and little finger and pulled taut, a rectangular loop formed that created the basic pattern whai (see Diagram: First position). Then she followed the steps in Diagram: Opening A. You can add extra steps to create specific shapes that represent a story, an object or star path. The game can be played solo or with two or more people.
Flax (harakeke) was traditionally used for string games. You can also use string, wool, nylon and braid. How long a piece of string? - that will depend on the design. Some games use a two metre length of string (e.g. Cup and saucer), whilst some games need shorter or longer string.
To get you started on creating various designs, TKI Health and and Physical Education Online lists four activities: > Cup and saucer Te kapu me te hoiha > Parachute patterns - Ngā heketau te tauira > Two of diamonds - Ngā taimana e rua > Mahi whai relay Tānga mahi whai For lessons from various cultures, see String Figures and How to Make Them: A study of Cat's Cradle in many lands by Caroline Furness Jayne (1906), which has detailed diagrams.
According to Edward Tregear in The Maori race (1904) , the "Cat's Cradle” (whai, huhi, or maui) "was known to the Maoris as to almost all the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago and South Seas. It was played with the two hands and a piece of string, assuming very complicated forms; sometimes a whole drama was played by means of the changing shapes. Two of the favourites were the ascent of Tawhaki the Lightning god, to heaven, and the fishing up of the land by the hero Maui. There were proper songs chanted as accompaniments to the movements of the players' hands." (See NZETC)
Photographs, films and written accounts of string games were taken during Dominion Museum Ethnographic expeditions to various parts of New Zealand during 1919-1923. In addition, you can view historical photographs of Ngai Tuhoe playing string games at Whakatāne taken by Werner Kissling in 1939 - see British Museum's Online Collection.
A special screening of photographer James McDonald's films was shown at the Whakaahua Māori Exhibition held in 1986 (see Papers Past: Tu Tangata, no. 28, ! Feb 1986). You can also see a summary of the scenes McDonald filmed listed on Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision: Gisborne (1919); Rotorua (1920); and Whanganui River (1921). An article about the Gisborne expedition held in 1923 has been written by Natalie Roberston in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (March 2019), which schools can access online via the EPIC database Gale: Global issues in context.
During the Dominion Ethnographic expeditions, ethnologist Johannes Anderson studied the various string figures created and became an expert himself. As he met with different iwi, Andersen came across similar and new forms of string figures, some of which had differing names. He published papers on string games and delivered lectures to various groups. Andersen was also the first Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library from 1919-1937.
A range of Youtube videos are available on string games from around the world, including:
(This DigitalNZ story was compiled in 2019)