For centuries Polynesian navigators voyaged across the Pacific in large sailing waka, using the natural world as their guide. That’s how explorers first discovered New Zealand – but until very recently this knowledge was suppressed and it looked like traditional canoe building skills would be lost forever. Now the Herald, E-Tangata and Tawera productions have joined forces to bring you Waka, a six-part online video series which traces the cultural revival of the craft through four teams from across the Pacific. Today Simone Kaho tells the story from the very start.
Click on the video above to watch episode 1
When I was a child, I had a step-grandfather on my Pākehā side who was not a favourite with us kids. He’d rub his stubbly chin into our cheeks when we kissed him hello, and it hurt. But I’ll always remember him for inadvertently introducing me to my Pacific voyaging heritage.
One day, while he was staying with us, he was reading a National Geographic magazine — one of dozens he’d donated to our family, a set that went back many decades. He stopped at a page that showed a photo of a double-hulled waka in a wave so big it took up half the photo. A white-bearded Pacific Island man lay on the hull, dipping his hand into the sea.
The caption named him as Tuita Kahomovailahi, an old, blind navigator who worked by the feel of the wind and the touch, taste and smell of the sea. He would ask the waka crew where the sun was, and what birds could be seen.
He was a practitioner of one of the most advanced navigational systems ever developed, known simply as wayfinding. It’s how our Polynesian ancestors were able to settle the Pacific — Moana-nui-a-Kiwa — the world’s greatest ocean, covering a third of the earth’s surface, stretching from New Zealand at its southernmost end to Hawai’i in the north and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the west.
“Is this your ancestor?” my step-grandfather said to my dad, who had migrated from Tonga to New Zealand in his teens. “Yes,” Dad replied.
And that’s how I learned the story of my navigating ancestor: by chance, in a magazine which in 2018 apologised for its history of racist coverage.
Like many ancestral traditions, the knowledge of wayfinding and tārai waka (waka carving) was almost lost as a living practice, destined to survive only in historical journals and museums. Luckily for us, a small group of crusaders took up the battle to keep them alive.
This is their story.
For Māori, the story begins with Kupe, a great chief of Hawaiki. According to oral tradition, one fateful day the kaimoana that Kupe’s people relied on disappeared, swallowed down the gullet of Te Wheke o Muturangi, a monstrous octopus taniwha.
Kupe provisioned his double-hulled voyaging waka, Matawhaorua, and set off to destroy Te Wheke. He took his wife, Hine-i-te-aparangi, his daughters, the navigator Reti, and a crew of 72 people.
They chased the beast across the Pacific Ocean, southwards across the waves, day after day, until Hine-i-te-aparangi finally called out: “He ao, he ao, he ao tea roa.” A cloud, a cloud, a long white cloud. A cloud which signified that land lay beneath.
Kupe caught and destroyed Te Wheke at Te Moana o Raukawakawa, Cook Strait. After exploring the new land, he sailed back to Hawaiki, and told his people about the giant trees of Aotearoa.
Nukutawhiti, Kupe’s grandson, asked permission to take people to the new land. Matawhaorua was enlarged for the voyage and renamed Ngātokimatawhaorua (“ngā toki” means “the adzes”).
Kupe gave wayfinding instructions for reaching Aotearoa, using intersecting natural phenomena: sun, moon, stars, wind, ocean currents and swells, birds and clouds.
Nukutawhiti set off, accompanied by Ruanui in his canoe, Māmari, arriving safely in Aotearoa. Eventually, these pioneers were followed by other voyaging waka: Aotea, Kurahaupō, Mataatua, Tainui, Tokomaru, Te Arawa and Tākitimu — waka which form the basis of iwi whakapapa.
The new land was plentiful. Tall, wide-girthed trees such as tōtara, not found in the tropical islands, meant that single-hulled waka could be built without the need for an outrigger, or ama (balancing arm). A wide variety of these single-hulled waka were built for different purposes: for gathering kaimoana, river travel, to carry war parties, and for voyaging. For centuries, the skill of waka building, tārai waka, was passed down from generation to generation by tohunga — spiritual leaders, experts and holders of ancient knowledge. They were trained in tikanga and understood the energy of nature. Part of their role was to remember and pass on their knowledge.
European colonisation and its cultural domination eroded and almost eliminated that knowledge. The feats of the navigators were dismissed as flukes.
In the 1950s, a New Zealand civil servant turned historian, Andrew Sharp, argued that it was impossible for the Pacific to have been settled by intentional voyages. Waka hourua were too flimsy to take on the Pacific, he said, and ancient Polynesians lacked the skills to navigate to a known destination. The best they could do was bob about in the ocean and hope to get lucky.
The ingenuity, courage and self-determination of our voyaging ancestors was negated by the presumption of European superiority.
But for Māori, a breakthrough was coming.
In 1940, a giant waka taua was commissioned by Te Puea Hērangi, the granddaughter of the second Māori king, Tāwhiao Te Wherowhero, and a leader in the Kīngitanga (the Māori King movement).
The waka was given the same name as Kupe’s waka and launched for the 100th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It was subsequently housed in a boatshed at Waitangi, and it was there that a young boy named Hekenukumai (“Hector”) Busby saw it during school trips to the Treaty grounds. He would sit for hours with the great waka, pondering its construction and operation.
Decades later, in the 1970s, the academic debate over Pacific navigation still raged. In Hawai’i, a group of voyaging enthusiasts had had enough of theoretical posturing.
Ben Finney, an anthropologist, Herb Kawainui Kane, an artist-historian (who’d drawn the same National Geographic image that I’d see all those years later), and Charles Tommy Holmes, a sailor, decided it was time to prove Sharp and other naysayers wrong. They founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society and decided to re-enact the Polynesian migration voyages.
Their plan was to build a double-hulled voyaging waka, based on drawings of the ancient waka, and sail to Tahiti using celestial navigation, thus proving the skills of our ancestors.
But, by that time, the great canoes and their navigators had disappeared from Polynesian waters, and the only celestial navigators left were to be found in the Caroline Islands in Micronesia. There were only five Micronesian navigators left, and four of them felt culturally bound to keep the knowledge sacred.
The youngest, at 41, was Pius “Mau” Piailug, from the tiny coral atoll of Satawal, population 500. He’d been initiated as a master navigator, a palu, at 18, in the Weriyeng school of navigation.
When approached by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, he decided to share the knowledge rather than let it die out. Mau’s first student was Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian who’d emerged as the primary navigator for the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Meanwhile, in Aotearoa, a bridge-builder in his 50s was about to return to his love of waka. Hek Busby had learned to carve with Taupuhi Eruera. He oversaw the maintenance and refurbishment of the mighty Waitangi waka taua that he had come to know from his youth, and relaunched the vessel for the Queen’s visit, on Waitangi Day, 1974.
A year later, the Hawaiians completed the first modern double-hulled voyaging waka, Hōkūle’a. Guided by Mau Piailug, she voyaged from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976. There was a further voyage to Tahiti and back, in 1980, this time with Nainoa Thompson as the navigator.
At the suggestion of John Rangihau, a leader of Ngāi Tūhoe, Nainoa travelled to Hek’s Northland home to study the southern stars. They made a connection that lasted a lifetime — and confirmed another destination for Hōkūle’a.
On December 7, 1985 — 16 days after its departure from Rarotonga — Hōkūle’a reached Aotearoa and was welcomed at Te Tii marae in Waitangi.
At the welcome pōwhiri, Sir James Henare, the last commander of the Māori Battalion and a revered kaumātua of Te Tai Tokerau, said: “You’ve proven that it could be done. And you’ve also proven that our ancestors did it.”
He laughed and cried. He voiced a dream of a waka hourua, built in Aotearoa, that would make the return voyage to Rarotonga, and then to Hawai’i.
“That’s when I really took it seriously,” Hek told E-Tangata. He started building Te Aurere, the first voyaging waka crafted in Aotearoa in 700 years.
During its construction, Mau Piailug stayed at Hek’s home for six months, and, with Nainoa’s help, he taught the skills of celestial navigation to Hek and a crew he’d assembled from across Aotearoa.
In 1992, Te Aurere set off on a highly anticipated voyage, guided by Mau. They arrived in Rarotonga to great excitement. As Hek told E-Tangata: “Their prime minister stood up and said: ‘Over 650 years ago, your ancestors left here for Aotearoa and today you have finally returned. So welcome home.'”
Te Aurere then voyaged successfully to Hawai’i in 1995, fulfilling Sir James Henare’s dream.
A few years later, Hek was joined by James Eruera. He helped him refurbish Te Aurere and then worked with him to build the next voyaging waka, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, named after Hek’s wife Hilda.
And in December 2012, Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti left Aotearoa and sailed the longest stretch of the Pacific triangle, arriving at Rapa Nui after a four-month, 5000-nautical-mile voyage.
By this point, Hek had done so much more than just shut up the scoffers. He’d built far-reaching connections with waka carvers and celestial navigators across the Pacific, gained and shared ancient knowledge, and carved more than 20 waka. He had set new pathways for spiritual and cultural recovery, and a vision for how ancient ways could survive in a modern world.
On the waka’s return home, he opened a waka carving and celestial navigation school, based at his home in Aurere, in southern Doubtless Bay. Hek was knighted in February 2019, and passed away three months later, in May 2019. At his funeral, he was credited with saving tārai waka and restoring wayfinding in Aotearoa.
But Hek wasn’t convinced that he’d succeeded in that. In his last interview, he said: “Still, I think tārai waka may perish.”
Sir Hekenukumai is an ancestor now, and the fight has passed to a new generation.
James Eruera, who worked alongside Hek for nine years and helped him to build Ngahiraka mai Tawhiti, is now the head of the waka school, Te Tapuwae o te Waka, based in Awanui. He’s a significant part of the future of waka, and the Rātā waka carving symposium is an important event.
James conceived of Rātā, shaped it, and sought approvals and funding over three years. It was held at the Hihiaua cultural centre in Whangārei, in October 2019. It brought together waka carvers from Hawai’i, Tahiti and Aotearoa to practise their craft and bring it to public attention.
Events like Rātā are crucially important for the future of waka tārai. Although many carvers are interested in learning to be waka builders, it requires great commitment, time and resources. A waka carver must have a large workspace, be able to acquire and transport big trees, have access to the right tools, and have the time to carve regularly.
“You’ve got to have something in you,” says Alika Bumatay, a carver from Hawai’i. “It’s a labour of love.” All the carvers at Rātā have day jobs to pay the bills. Freddie Tauotaha, from Tahiti, works as an arborist in Honolulu. Alika is in construction. Billy Harrison, the youngest of the carvers, teaches carving part-time at a whare kura.
To celebrate this cultural revival, E-Tangata, Tawera productions and the New Zealand Herald have joined together to bring you Waka, a six-part online video series which takes you inside the legacy of Sir Hekenukumai Busby, through the Rātā symposium. You’ll meet James Eruera and the carvers, learn about their craft, how they connect with rākau, and the skills and tools they use to transform rākau into waka.
Come close to the skilled and spiritual practice of tārai waka, as it survives today.
On Monday, watch Waka, episode 2: Moment of truth for NZ waka carver Billy Harrison.
Waka was made with the support of NZ On Air.