Endangered Māori Artform Supported to Adapt in Covid Environment

5 Jul 2021

This content is tagged as Multi-Artform .


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Mātanga Waka (waka specialists) Heemi Eruera, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, Jack Thatcher and Te Waarihi Hetaraka.

Over three days in May 2021, Tārai Waka (traditional Māori canoe building) practitioners gathered at Waiora Marae (Far North) to wānanga (expand knowledge) and share information to revitalise this practice.

Recognised as an endangered artform, a partnership with Mātanga Waka (Waka specialists) was established in 2019 to develop and implement a mātanga-led strategy to protect mātauranga Māori (associated knowledge systems) of tārai waka.

Work has been progressed under Creative New Zealand’s Māori Arts Strategy, Te Hā o ngā Toi; and from 2020 under Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s Arts and Culture COVID Recovery Programme, Te Awe Kōtuku Mātauranga Māori initiative.

Critically low numbers of tārai waka experts and the decrease in opportunities for intergenerational knowledge transfer means that it is now imperative that action is taken to stem the decline and retain mātauranga toi.

Mātauranga toi for Tārai and Kaupapa Waka has been restored in Aotearoa through the life work of people such as Tā Hekenukumai Busby.  This mātauranga includes tikanga, reo and technical knowledge of environments from the ngāhere (forest) to the moana (sea).  All of this is required to create safe, well-built, culturally informed waka.

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Wānanga attendees and local hapū members gathered at Kapowairua to hear the history of kaupapa waka and future plans for waka in the area.

“Knowledge sharing wānanga with mātanga and emerging practitioners such as the one held in May are vital to ensure artforms are not lost and we retain accurate knowledge of artform practices for future generations” said Creative New Zealand’s Kaitohu Mahi Toi, Māori (Arts Practice Director) Kereama Te Ua. 

Learnings from the wānanga included identifying and appropriately extracting rākau (timber) in accordance with tikanga, traditional and contemporary build methods and conservation practices for endangered resources.  Discussions were also held on the impact of Government legislation on taonga Māori and efforts to restore them through measures such as the Waitangi Tribunal claim WAI262.

“Wai 262 is a platform to speak directly on matauranga maori and taonga tuku Iho. We can draw on Wai 262 insight to form how we preserve and disseminate Tarai waka matauranga, tikanga and technical skill” said mātanga tārai waka (waka specialist) and wānanga convenor, Heemi Eruera.

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Sheridan Waitai (Ngāti Kuri) leads the wānanga through a discussion on WAI262 that sought to protect ownership and use of Maori knowledge and indigenous flora and fauna, of which tārai waka reflects.


In an adaptive method to aid long-term sustainability of rare materials such as the rātā and kauri, students were charged to build waka using pine trees.

“As we search for ways to continue the technical aspects of Tarai waka we need to expand our view beyond the use of our rakau Rangatira. If we don’t then we risk doing more harm to our native resource, harm historically caused by industry. The pine and other exotic species when viewed through an indigenous lens, afford us the opportunity to recalibrate our thinking towards them and their usefulness. The pine was not a commodity nor an environmental issue until industry made it so. It has deep indigenous whakapapa and was utilised as a resource for many things including rongoa for instance” said Eruera. 

As Head of Te Tapuwae o Te Waka the National Waka School, Eruera also endorsed one of his students Hine Waitai-Dye to lead her own waka project build, the first female to be invited to do so in decades.

“Hine has worked alongside us for a while and has participated in some big projects. As with all my students in the last decade I need to test what they have learnt. I’ve found the best way to do this is by giving them a log and letting them show me what they have absorbed.”


Tārai Waka carver, Billy Harrison discusses the approach for assessing raw materials for a waka build. Behind him are pine logs to be used in the upcoming canoe building symposium. 


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Mātanga Pingao, (Pingao specialist) Betsy Young shares her expert knowledge on the restoration of Pingao.  Betsy and whānau of Ngāti Kuri have dedicated over 20 years to restoring the habitat and weaving of the pingao. 

“He taonga te waka nō te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Mei kore te waka, mei kore te iwi Māori e whakawhiti moana, e whakauta mai ki tēnei whenua.  He tātai whakapapa, tātai tangata te waka nō nehe, nō naianei.  Koia a Toi Aotearoa e manaaki i tēnei taonga o tātou mō ngā uri whakatipu” said Te Ua.

(Waka are prized objects throughout the Pacific.  Without waka we could not have sailed oceans and populated these islands. They are an important part of our history, culture and identity and why Creative New Zealand has committed to preserve this knowledge for future generations) said Te Ua.   

Over the next 18 months symposium and public engagements will be delivered by practitioners beginning in Whāngarei. 

Tārai waka tohunga, Heemi Eruera and student Hine Waitai-Dye assess the usable material in this log.