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Ngātokimatawhaorua:The biography of a waka by Jeff Evans

Countless numbers of visitors to the Waitangi Treaty grounds have admired Ngātokimatawhaorua, the mighty ceremonial carved waka taua (war canoe) resting in a whare waka (canoe house), or had the thrill of seeing it being paddled on the water during the annual Waitangi Day celebrations.

At 35.7 metres, it is the longest to be built in modern times. A superb example of Māori craftmanship, it connects Māori to their proud history of waka building and the crews who paddled them and is a powerful symbol of Māori identity, strength and pride.

In Ngātokimatawhaorua Jeff Evans has traced its fascinating story. It was named after the waka called Matawhaorua, which the great explorer Kupe sailed on his epic journey to discover Aotearoa. On his return to Hawaiki, it was re-adzed and Ngātoki was added to its name. (Ngā toki means ‘the adzes’). Kupe’s grandson Nukutawhiti captained this Ngātokimatawhaorua back to Aotearoa.

In the late 1930’s Princess Te Puea Hērangi had a dream, that a fleet of 7 waka toa should be built, each representing one of the canoes that had brought a major tribal group to Aotearoa, for the centennial celebrations of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940. She was the granddaughter of the 2nd Maori King .

Had she not encountered Rānui Maupakanga, by then in his seventies, Ngātokimatawhaorua might never have been born. This expert canoe builder was a vital link to the tohunga tārai waka (master waka builders) of years gone by and heir to the skills and knowledge required to build waka taua. His knowledge was essential.

Rānui Maupakanga was tasked with locating and choosing two massive kauri for the construction of the mighty waka in Puketi Forest. The tallest of these giants was 70 feet ( 21.3 metres) tall and had a circumference of 28 ft ( 8.5 metres) at its base.

It took three weeks, a team of 24 bullocks and a number of experienced bushmen armed with timber jacks, to extract the massive central section of the waka from the forest to reach the waiting truck and trailer unit.

Te Puia engaged filmmaker and photographer Jim Manley to capture a lasting record of the project. It is awesome to see some of his historical photographs, especially those he took in Puketi Forest, reproduced in this book.

The finishing of Ngātokimatawhaorua took place at Waipapa landing on the banks of Kerikeri inlet and was overseen by Master carver Piri Poutapu. As the work progressed, there were holdups, but Ngātokimatawharua was completed just in time for the centennial celebrations.

On Waitangi day 1940,10.000 spectators watched an elaborate re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty. Jim Evans writes:

The crew aboard the giant waka revelled in the occasion, surging across the harbour as their ancestors once had, their white-tipped hoe flashing against the calm blue water.

But, Princess Te Puea Hērangi and the Māori king were absent. Along with some other prominent Māori leaders they had chosen to boycott these commemorations because of unresolved grievances over land confiscations in the 1860’s.

After the centennial celebrations, Ngātokimatawhaorua sat landlocked for over 34 years until a group of kaumātua, including the renowned waka builder and master navigator Heka -nuku-mai-ngā-iwi ( Hec) Bushby refurbished it to be relaunched for the 1974 visit of Queen Elizabeth. From then on it became a regular part of Waitangi Day ceremonies.

The 1980’s and 1990’s were turbulent political decades at Waitangi. An eyewitness account, as told to Jeff Evans, of how this mighty waka and its crew were at one stage caught in the crossfire makes for disturbing reading.

1990 was declared to be The Year of the Waka. It was government-sponsored but grossly underfunded. The grant of $ 50,000 came nowhere near the money needed. In one case, the shortfall was hundreds of thousands of dollars! Māori communities had to meet the extra costs themselves.

It was thanks to their great generosity and hard work that 22 waka made it onto the water at Waitangi that year. The tārai waka skills of their ancestors were revived for building some of these waka while in others, modern technology was harnessed.

Ngātokimatawhaorua’s biography finishes on a positive note. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited the waka camp at Bledisloe Domain, near Paihia, in 2021. Here, hundreds of kaihoe (paddlers) from around the country camp every year in the lead-up to Waitangi Day.

She made a pledge that the history and relevance of the waka, would form part of New Zealand’s new history curriculum so would be taught in the nation’s schools.

Jeff Evans was there. He felt that if Te Puea had been present, she would have shed tears of joy to hear the Prime Minister make this pledge to the kaihoe (crew) of Ngātokimatawhaorua.

Early on, Jeff Evans learnt that the best place to find stories about Ngātokimatawhaorua was directly from past and present crew and support staff. He was especially fortunate to be able to interview Eru Heperi, the last living member of the historic crew. In 1940, he was 13 years old and was one of the boys aboard tasked with bailing the waka.

It was their willingness to share their anecdotes, photographs and scrapbooks that has brought Ngātokimatawhaorua’s story to life and contributed greatly to this riveting and insightful biography. Well worth reading!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press

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