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Ancient wa’a connects cultures across the Pacific

Leslie Matiu, James Eruera and Bryce Motu will head to Washington DC this month to document an ancient Hawaiian wa’a.

An ancient Hawaiian wa’a (waka/canoe) is connecting experts from across the Pacific and providing a unique opportunity for Māori canoe builders to document the canoe’s construction and help revitalise the ancient craft.

The Hawaiian wa’a was revealed to New Zealand Māori Art and Crafts Institute carvers during the Tuku Iho l Living Legacy exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC in July 2017.

Now, a NZMACI waka expert and two students will return to the Smithsonian this month > to join those from the museum and two wa’a experts from Hawaii to participate in an unique project to investigate and recover the ancient traditions.

The canoe is reputed to be the oldest existing documented Hawaiian wa’a in the world and was given to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History by Queen Kapiʻolani of Hawaii in 1887. It is made from lashed planks, a construction technique now dormant in Oceania.

Head of the NZMACI Te Tapuwae o te Waka (National Canoe School), James Eruera says the ancient canoe incorporates a longstanding knowledge of engineering, combined with “new” materials and techniques from the mid-1880s, when this wa’a was likely built.

“The wa’a takes its form directly from a tree, but today, a tree’s shape doesn’t necessarily dictate the shape of the finished canoe. The canoe itself is a lens into the past.”

Mr Eruera (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Kaharau and Te Uri o Hina) will take part in the Smithsonian project in Washington with two of his waka building students, Bryce Motu (Te Rarawa and Tainui) and Leslie Matiu (Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu).

Te Puia general manager sales and marketing, Kiri Atkinson-Crean says the objective of Tuku Iho is to create a unique environment for cultural conversations, enabling the sharing of knowledge and experiences between Māori and host nations across the globe.

“In addition to traditional and contemporary works of art, live tā moko (Māori tattoo), kapa haka and contemporary music, the exhibition in Washington DC also included in-situ canoe building.

“The canoe completed on site as part of the exhibition was gifted to the Smithsonian to strengthen ties between our two countries. The relationship forged from this is one of the key reasons why we were invited to view the wa’a,” says Ms Atkinson-Crean.

“Ultimately this opportunity has come from Tuku Iho l Living Legacy, an international cultural engagement and events programme. We have exhibited in Los Angeles, China, Malaysia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, but this is the first time we have been invited back in an official capacity to further a cultural project.”

Mr Eruera says as a group, the carvers will examine the wa’a in detail, with a particular eye to assessing its construction and lashing, as well as investigating the canoe building tools and models.

“A digital copy of the wa’a will also be made, to make it accessible to communities of origin and the wider Pacific. We hope the scanning will also result in a better understanding of the canoe.

“To come together from different points of the Pacific, to have this conversation, and share our views on canoe building is an honour and a once in a lifetime opportunity for myself and my students.”

As part of the project, the conversation between the carvers will also be recorded, with the aim of later producing a film to convey the knowledge generated to a wider audience.

Ms Atkinson-Crean says this exclusive opportunity has stemmed from Tuku Iho.

“It is an example of how Tuku Iho provides the opportunity for Māori and New Zealand to reach across cultural and geographic boundaries, to forge and strengthen relationships in all areas – economic, social, cultural and political – and demonstrate the values these can bring to each culture.”


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