Walking the talk: Weaving tāniko stories on tokotoko

Walking the talk: Weaving tāniko stories on tokotoko

Te Papa has approximately 68 tokotoko in our collection representing all time periods, and this year, Mātauranga Māori Curator Isaac Te Awa acquired two more. However, these ones are slightly different from the more common style.

Tokotoko are a common sight in te ao Māori and are a traditional sign of an orator, skilled in the arts of whaikōrero, karakia, and storytelling. They are most frequently seen at formal occasions on the marae and are mostly carried by men.

The word tokotoko today is frequently translated into English as ‘walking stick’, however, this can be misleading. While it is true that some tokotoko serve as walking sticks, not all walking sticks are tokotoko in terms of traditional form and representation.

Tokotoko often carry carvings which usually depict a representation of a tūpuna or ancestor who is usually of direct significance to the person who carries it, representing their whakapapa, and therefore their authority or right to speak.

Some tokotoko, in the absence of a direct representation of genetic lineage, will often depict a pakiwaitara or story of personal significance to the owner or their iwi as another way of representing whakapapa. However, in most instances, whakapapa is the connecting common factor of all tokotoko.

Despite being relatively common, very little is written about tokotoko and their significance to Māori and the changes and transitions they have been through post-European contact. Pre-contact tokotoko differed from their modern counterparts seen today.

In the past, they were frequently purposefully cultivated before being harvested when mature and then ornamented with whakairo. The natural shapes of wild growth were preferred, or the purposeful shaping of tree growth as with this tokotoko:

Tokotoko, orator’s staff, wood, maker unknown. Te Papa (ME005213/5)

These tokotoko also represented a deep connection to Tāne Mahuta, the atua associated with the forests from whom Māori descend. Kōrero tuku iho, or oral narratives among Māori, tell stories of vine species such as rata being twisted or shaped by a grandfather, father, and son, producing a literal representation of whakapapa in the completed tokotoko.

Tokotoko, maker unknown, 19th century, New Zealand. Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1992. Te Papa (OL000024.S/3)

After European contact, the form of tokotoko changed due to several influences such as the introduction of steel tools, changing environments and landscape, the demand for trade items, and the influence of European walking sticks. In this period, tokotoko developed handles, the carving became less subtle and more dominating, and they become more walking stick shaped in terms of height and use.

Tokotoko, maker unknown, wood, pāua shell. Gift of Harold Lily DCM, 1961. Te Papa (ME010870)

Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and the first Tokotoko Tāniko

The idea of tokotoko tāniko was first conceived and created by the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet in the 1980s.

Erenora first conceptualised the idea when she witnessed many kokoro with elaborately carved tokotoko in contrast to the many kuia who possessed mass-produced aluminium adjustable walking sticks.

In response to this, Erenora wove around one of these walking sticks with waxed nylon cord and the first tokotoko tāniko for wāhine was created. Erenora named this tokotoko Tōku Kuiatanga.

A wooden staff with a deer handle covered in yellow and brown weaving
The first Tokotoko Tāniko, woven by Erenora Puketapu-Hetet. The handle is made from deer horn carved by Erenora’s husband Rangi Hetet. Photo courtesy of Veranoa Hetet and The Dowse Art Museum

Since then, several weavers have woven tokotoko tāniko with a variety of associated representations and stories, however, they remain rare.

Tokotoko tāniko, like their male counterparts, have become a representation of material Māori culture that specifically represents the whakapapa of wāhine Māori through the visual language and patterns of tāniko.

Adrienne Spratt’s Tokotoko Tāniko

Adrienne Spratt was originally a self-taught fibre artist but over the years has met, learnt, and worked with many weavers who have enhanced and contributed to her practice. She has been weaving for over 20 years and holds a Masters in Māori Visual Art with first-class honours from Massey University and a National Diploma in Adult Teaching and Training.

Kākāriki tokotoko tāniko (green), 2020

This tokotoko tāniko was the first to be woven by Adrienne in 2019. The staff was carved by Mitchell (Midi) Tareha (Ngāti Kuia) from kānuka wood.

The tāniko is woven from muka sourced from the kōhunga variety of harakeke grown on Kapiti Island from plantings gifted by Diggeress Te Kanawa.

A wooden staff with green patterned weaving covering it
Tokotoko tāniko, woven by Adrienne Spratt, muka (flax fibre), dye, carved by Mitchell (Midi) Tareha, Kānuka, 2020. Te Papa (ME024646)

According to Adrienne, the pattern for this tokotoko wasn’t designed but evolved as she wove with her initial thoughts of Tāne and his journey for ngā kete o te wānanga (baskets of knowledge).

Adrienne also thought of women and karanga and noted that historically men had carved tokotoko, and for wāhine, it seemed appropriate to weave tāniko.

The patterns represented are wīwī wāwā, mūmū, and two variations of patiki.

My first thoughts were to create the heavens Tane ascended in order to bring back the kete of knowledge, but it evolved. The patikitiki shape talks about abundance so it’s about the abundance of knowledge both in the spiritual and physical realms. The wīwī wāwā lines are the vibration or heartbeat between these two planes. – Adrienne Spratt, 2020

Parāone tokotoko tāniko (brown), 2020

A wooden staff with patterned weaving in different shades of brown covering it
Tokotoko tāniko, woven by Adrienne Spratt, muka (flax fibre), dye, carved by Jim Lowe, kahikatea, 2020. Te Papa (ME024647)

This tokotoko tāniko was woven by Adrienne in 2020 specifically for the Raukura Weavers Collective exhibition at Bowen House in Wellington.

The staff was carved from kahikatea wood by Jim Lowe, a woodturner from Kapiti Island.

The colours used in the weaving of this tokotoko tāniko are sourced from native naturally occurring materials and represent a pre-contact colour range. The paru (iron-rich mud) used to achieve the black and silver colour was sourced from the recently restored wetlands on Kapiti Island, where Adrienne lives.

The patterns represented on this tokotoko are wīwī wāwā, nihoniho, poutama, and rau kūmara. While thinking about weaving this tokotoko Adrienne was asked when she was going to start studying for a doctorate, which lead her to think about study and higher achievement.

I thought of 3 beautiful wāhine who have just about completed their PhD’s and how I’m looking forward to reading their thesis. How these women have to multitask while studying, working, whānau, iwi, hapū… So the niho pattern is about continuity, things that have gone before, the stories of old and the protection of knowledge.

You will notice there is a line in the niho of tanekaha colour symbolising the thread of knowledge passed down. The poutama is about higher learning, intellectual achievement and attainment. The rau kūmara is about manaakitanga, caring for people which is what these wāhine do. – Adrienne Spratt, 2020

Tokotoko have been a visible part of Māori culture for hundreds of years, with a history that stretches far prior to contact with Europeans.

Though the tokotoko today differ in shape and form from those in the past, they continue to reflect the whakapapa and stories of those who own and carry them.

Like Māori themselves and the environment we live in, tokotoko continue to evolve, grow, and change with us.


  1. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  2. Very interesting and beautiful work, thanks.

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