Māori waka carved in US in unique cultural exchange

Members of the waka-building team, from left, James Eruera, Billy Harrison, Bryce Motu and Joe Conrad at work in the US.

A cultural exchange between a waka school at Awanui and a Native American tribe has led to the creation of a one-of-a-kind Māori canoe.

The waka was completed last month by a six-strong team from the Far North on a Suquamish tribal reservation in Washington State, in northwestern US.

While built to a Māori design using traditional methods, the waka was carved from a western red cedar log, the timber used by the seafaring Suquamish for their own canoes.

The team was led by James Eruera, the tumu or head of Te Tapuwae o Te Waka at Awanui, a satellite campus of the Rotorua-based Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.

Mr Eruera, of Kaitaia, said the team spent 30 days in the US, with the waka taking 20 days to build from start to finish.

“So it was a whirlwind.”

Like kauri in New Zealand, much of the United States’ cedar had been felled, so the log used by the waka builders came from Canada.

“We were really privileged to be able to access this old growth cedar. And without help from our Suquamish whānau — like acquiring the log and logistical help — we wouldn’t have been able to complete it. There was a shared energy during the build, that was what got things done.”

Mr Eruera hoped to return with a smaller team around the same time next year to add the finishing touches and launch the waka, which would then take part in Tribal Canoe Journey 2020.

The annual Tribal Canoe Journey draws as many as 10,000 people and 100 canoes from indigenous communities of the Pacific northwest coast of the US and Canada, who stop at various tribal territories along the way.

The rest of the waka-building team was made up of Billy Harrison (Kaitaia, lead carver), Bryce Motu (Pukepoto), Ashley Dye (Kaitaia), Haimona Brown (Te Kao) and Eruera’s 11-year-old son, Rima Eruera.

The waka will remain at the Suquamish reservation, where in the long term the team also plans to build a dedicated whare waka.

The project was a collaboration between the Suquamish people (specifically the Tana Stobbs Canoe Family), Ngā Waka o Te Tai Tokerau, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and Te Tapuwae o Te Waka, with funding from Creative New Zealand.

Mr Eruera said it had been “an absolute pleasure” to work with the Tana Stobbs Canoe Family.

“The way they organise, and the way they come together to make things happen, was a privilege to witness and be a part of.”

The seeds of the project were sown when Joe Conrad, captain of the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, met Suquamish leader Bennie Armstrong during the 2010 Tribal Journey.

Their idea for a cultural exchange evolved into a plan to bring a group of waka carvers to the Pacific Northwest to share knowledge with First Nations people reclaiming their own traditional ways.

“The waka and Tribal Journeys are part of their healing process after 500 years of colonisation. It can be a massive learning curve for First Nations people to take back what seems lost, but the knowledge is still there,” Mr Conrad said.

The initial idea was to build the waka in Aotearoa from a native tree but Mr Conrad said using North American red cedar connected the two cultures and cemented the waka’s ties to the Suquamish hosts.

“I wanted the DNA of that waka to be from their tree so its whakapapa meant that it truly belonged to their land. It’s their tree but it’s our mauri, our living force, that’s in it.”

Both sides were able to share knowledge and compare waka-building techniques.

The Suquamish, for example, make their canoes from a single trunk by steaming and hollowing out a tree, while Māori use lashing techniques to bind together parts carved from the same tree.

Mr Conrad said the project was a continuation of the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby’s dream of spreading kaupapa waka around the world.

Waka are already based overseas in Hawaii and the Netherlands.

The North American waka measures 12 metres and seats up to a dozen kaihoe (paddlers).

Its name, which will reflect links between Māori and Suquamish peoples, will be revealed during next year’s blessing and launch.

Mr Eruera said the project had some similarities with a waka exchange with the Dutch city of Leiden which started in 2010. While the Dutch students had fully embraced kaupapa waka, the latest project had a more indigenous feel.

“Everything we did, they understood, and everything they did we understood.”

Another difference, Mr Conrad said, was that the new waka would be available to anyone who wanted to use in an appropriate way.

The waka building took place from June 10 to July 10.

The Tribal Canoe Journey was first held in 1989. Two New Zealanders — Kevin Harrison (Kaitaia) and Māori Television presenter Piripi Taylor (Whakatane) — took part in this year’s event, which was hosted by the Lummi Nation.

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