Māori and their Extraordinary Waka

By Hayley White

As a culture with Polynesian roots, Māori once travelled the seas like any other. Great seamen, they would travel all day in their extraordinary waka and use the stars to guide their way at night.

Ngā waka are large water vessels that are essentially the Māori equivalent to boats. They either have beautiful ornate designs or are simple, strong, and plain. Waka were the vessels that brought Māori into Aotearoa and it is this connection between New Zealand and Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland of Māori and Pacific peoples that places the waka at the core of Māori culture.

Ngā waka play a large role in the discovery of Aotearoa in Māori legend, specifically the legend of how Māui found the North and South Islands.

By Hayley White

As a culture with Polynesian roots, Māori once travelled the seas like any other. Great seamen, they would travel all day in their extraordinary waka and use the stars to guide their way at night.

Ngā waka are large water vessels that are essentially the Māori equivalent to boats. They either have beautiful ornate designs or are simple, strong, and plain. Waka were the vessels that brought Māori into Aotearoa and it is this connection between New Zealand and Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland of Māori and Pacific peoples that places the waka at the core of Māori culture.

Ngā waka play a large role in the discovery of Aotearoa in Māori legend, specifically the legend of how Māui found the North and South Islands.

When his brothers were setting off on a voyage in their waka, young Māui hid inside and used his powers to make the land seem so far away that when he was discovered, his brothers would not turn back. One day, he lowered his magic fishhook into the ocean and felt a tug, bigger than any fish. With the help of his brothers, Māui pulled up Te Ika-ā-Māui (the fish of Māui), known now as the North Island. Worried that the Gods might be angry about their discovery, Māui left to talk to the Gods and asked his brothers to wait for him.

Once Māui left, his brothers began to argue about the possession of the new land and so they took out their weapons and started to beat at Māui’s catch. In doing so, they created the hills and mountains in the North Island. The South Island was subsequently named Te Waka-ā-Māui (Māui’s canoe), and Stewart Island was called Te Punga-ā-Māui (Māui’s anchor) because Māui’s waka was held by the anchor as he pulled up the giant fish (Whitmore, 2004).

Nothing is more important to Māori than our own whakapapa, our genealogy. It is a proclamation of our identity and history, one that links us to ourselves and our land. It is the recitation of our tūpuna, whānau, whenua, iwi, marae, and equally important, our waka.

According to the Great Fleet myth, it was believed that seven waka landed in Aotearoa around 800 years ago; Tainui, Te Arawa, Mātaatua, Kurahaupō, Tokomaru, Aotea, and Tākitimu. They landed all across the North and South Islands, some in more places than one, and it is said that all iwi and hapū can trace their whakapapa back to these waka.

Tainui waka is mostly known as the waka of the Waikato. It makes up a good portion of Auckland, King Country, the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, and Hauraki. Te Arawa waka is also partly based in the Waikato, as well as the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, and the East Coast. Mātaatua waka encompasses the Bay of Plenty and a great part of Northland, along with Kurahaupō waka, who also settled in parts of Northland, as well as Taranaki. Tokomaru waka has iwi and hapū based around Taranaki and some of Wellington, and Aotea waka established itself in parts of Whanganui, Taranaki, and Waikato. Tākitimu waka has iwi in the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast in Hawkes Bay, but the waka is associated with Ngāi Tahu which has the largest Māori takiwā, tribal boundary, making up almost the entirety of the South Island.

The Great Fleet myth, describes how Māori arrived in Aotearoa. We are taught that these waka brought the original settlers, but in reality, there were many more waka arrivals in Aotearoa. Evans (2009) argues that the seven waka were not arrivals from across the Pacific Islands but rather memories of waka voyages from across the shores of Aotearoa. Others say that there were multiple arrivals of settlers from across the Islands.

When Māori settled in Aotearoa, they realised that it was an abundant new land with ample space for their people and full of building materials and supplies. Because of this, their waka needs and how they were designed changed. The native trees found on these lands, notably the tōtara, kauri, rimu, mataī, kahikatea, and mangeao had a big part to play in the redesign. They were so large that raised top strakes (the planks underneath that give waka a raised bow) could be made without requiring an outrigger (a structure that projects from the side of the waka for stabilisation). Tōtara was the most common wood used for waka, though kauri was used more often in the North.

As Māori established themselves in Aotearoa, they did not require waka for long voyages anymore, so their designs became more tailored to inland and coastal waterways. This led to the building of new types of waka; waka taua (war canoes), waka tētē (fishing canoes), waka tīwai (river canoes), mokihi (rafts), and modernday waka tangata (the people’s canoe).

Of the five types, waka taua were the largest and most elaborate, ranging from nine metres to over 30 metres long with a decorative stern and high carved hulls. Waka taua were sometimes referred to as waka pītau to describe the spiral carving that held up the carved figurehead in the tauihu (prow). Waka taua were highly tapū (sacred), so no cooked food was allowed in the craft, and people could only enter the waka over the side gunwales – never the bow or stern. Waka taua were often painted white or black to represent death or red to represent tapū. Selecting the tree for the waka taua was based on the tree’s strength and length. If the tree was too young, Māori would say a karakia (incantation) to prevent it from being knocked over by Tāwhirimātea, the god of winds, and leave it to stand for a few years.

When a tree was chosen, it became taunahatia (claimed, set aside) and a clearing was made around it. A tohunga would say a karakia to remove tapū and appease Tāne, god of the forest, so that they could cut down the tree. When the tree was cut down, tapū was reinstated. For the construction, workers would be put under a tapū for a day that would be lifted before nightfall. They would hollow out the hiwi (hull) where the tree fell before moving it to somewhere they could work on it properly. Dressed and carved timber was used for the rauawa (top strakes, topsides of the waka).

Traditional waka at Waitangi treaty house site
Photo: W. Bulach – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

When the waka was ready, carved and decorative pieces called tauihu (prow carvings) and taurapa (sternpost) were attached to the ihu (bow) and kei (stern) of the waka. A kawa ceremony (tapū removal) was performed and a karakia was said at the launching of ngā waka into the ocean. As a war canoe, its main purpose was to transport warriors on expeditions and sometimes return the dead to their tribal homes. This gave spiritual status to waka taua.

Waka tētē, or waka pakoko, were used in a variety of ways and did not have ritual restrictions like the waka taua did. Waka tētē carried goods, produce, and people along many coastal and inland waterways. According to early settler records in the mid 19th century, the waters in the Auckland waterfront were teeming with waka, loaded with supplied for trade (Barclay-Kerr, 2006). These waka were usually shorter and plainer than the waka taua, though the bow piece usually had a distinctive figurehead with a wide face and an outstretched tongue, called a tētē or pakoko.

Waka tīwai were the most common waka and were carved out of a singular, hollowed-out log. They were used for transporting iwi and hapu and their belongings up and down waterways and for recreation. Waka tīwai are still used in regattas, especially in the Waikato region. They are sometimes called waka peke (leaping canoes) because the regattas held races where people used their waka to jump over raised logs in the water, sometimes called canoe hurdling. This was last practised at the Tūrangawaewae in the early 1990s.

Waka tangata were similar to waka tētē, plain and unadorned, and were used by everyone.

There were two types of mōkihi, one specific to the East Coast and another one to the South Island. One form of mōkihi was described by a Ngāti Porou leader in the 19th century as being constructed by his tribe for inshore fishing. Also known as amatiatia (outriggers), they were made from buoyant wood from smaller trees like whau or houama and pinned together with mānuka. They were then layered with smaller timbers and held it together with supplejack vines. Two of these were put a metre apart and tied to three or four connected poles on each side. People would sit on these and paddle out to fish or crayfish traps.

The form of mōkihi specific to the tribes in the South Island, was made of raupō (bulrush) and harakeke bundled together so that a person could sit on and paddle with either their hands or a bit of wood. While these did not quite last as long as other waka, they were good for short-distance, temporary transport.

For Māori, the waka is a powerful symbol of culture and heritage and is celebrated today through the sport waka ama (outrigger canoes). Waka ama was brought to Aotearoa around 34 years ago when Nga Kaihoe o Aotearoa (Waka Ama NZ) formed in 1987 and hosted World Sprint Championships in 1990. People from as young as five, to as old as 81 participate in waka ama annually. Steeped in the culture and history of the Māori peoples’ Pacific voyages, it keeps their heritage and culture alive.

 

Sources: 1. Waka – canoes, teara.govt.nz 2. Nga Waka O Nehera: The first voyaging canoes. Oratia Media 3. Māori legends and myths: The legend of Maui and the magic fishhook, history-nz.org

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