Waka on the Waikato
Ian D. Robinson
On the slippery grass banks of the Waikato River at the Turangawaewae Marae at Ngaruawahia, willows drape their fingers in the current as early morning mist hangs above the flow. Maori warriors stand with paddles in their hands, their heads bowed in prayer. It is cold and the men are barely clothed, dressed as their ancestors did, fiercely tattooed, bristling with feathers and pride. In the stillness a chant low and subtle makes me look around wondering where the sound is coming from, as if it came from the earth itself. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck are standing not only due to the cold.
Lying on the banks are six ornate waka taua, war canoes. Figures of taniwha water spirits extend to the water line and all the way around the hull, great eyes peer beyond the sculptured prow and the carved stern rises high above the river. The oldest waka is around seventy five years old cut from a solid totara log, they carry 30 to 46 paddlers each and, although their use today could be described as ceremonial, two hundred years ago they carried fighters up and down the rivers of Aotearoa on voyages to battle and conquer.
On a command the waka are launched, picked up from the banks or pushed from the mud into the current. Warriors in their places the paddles dip and dip again in perfect time with each other and with the chant. They move off up the river sliding between the scrub covered banks, against the current it’s easy to see the effort required to move the vessels forward. Beyond a bend they disappear from view, it will be some time before the waka return and for that while they will be alone, just the waka, the paddlers and the river.
The Turangawaewae Regatta has been held continuously for 114 years and despite the incredible visual display the day offers it seems the occasion is not so much a ‘show’ to be put on for visitors, it’s more of a day for Tainui to celebrate their own rich cultural heritage, to spend a day beside and on their river. Of the thousands of people lining the banks on the day most are Tainui.
As everyone waits for the waka taua to re-appear kapahaka cultural groups entertain the crowd and dignitaries from a barge/stage moored by the river bank. Stalls sell hangi lunches, ground-cooked food, and spit-roasted mutton sandwiches.
Suddenly the music stops and even the crowd falls silent, the waka are returning. From up the river the six great vessels, preceded by the chant of the haka come round the bend and into view. The commander of each waka stands mid-ship cloaked in feathers leading the chant, conch shells sound and the canoes cut through the current. It is a rare and magnificent sight and one for which I struggle to think of an equivalent elsewhere in the world.
The waka pass and turn in front of King Te Arikinui Tuheita Paki, paddles raised, eyes rolled and tongues extended in salute. Enlivening the river and celebrating its importance, the waka reinforce the links between the waters and the people who connect to them, as someone said to me later in the day; “What is the river without its people? And what are the people without their river?”
Overseeing the waka on the river is Hoturoa Kerr, “In the old days when a canoe went to battle they carried the mana of their people, if you were successful then the prestige of your people was increased, today waka are still an icon that carries a lot of mana. The handling of the canoe and the skill of the paddlers reflect on the mana of the people, just owning waka it is not enough, you must be able to paddle it and the ability to control a waka taua well shows your iwi doesn’t just own this ‘artefact’, they are also able to use it well, it reflects on your greatest resource, your human resource and this brings respect.”
The benefits for young people getting involved with waka are wide ranging,
“Certainly it’s not for time wasters, you are either in or you’re out! It ties young people into their tribe and into a group of people and a relationship with them they might not have otherwise had; there is a unity and a sense of working towards a common goal in a situation where you can’t just quit because it gets hard. Waka taua teaches discipline, commitment and a pathway to responsibility.”
On top of this Hoturoa sees participation in waka taua as a way to reinforce a spiritual connection to the river.
“Those involved are not just learning to paddle and say the chants, they are learning other cultural values, our protocols, history and traditions, this becomes an investment in themselves and their tribe, they become a person who knows about their own people and they will be the ones who pass this on to the next generation.”
The pride shown in the Ngaruawahia regatta is a reflection of a resurgence in interest in waka.
“In the past the traditions of waka were in danger of being lost, the activities of waka were something that had been relegated to the world of myth and legend, people talked about the voyaging exploits of the ancestors sailing across the oceans, but it sounded like a fairytale, and I think that attitude had permeated into other aspects of waka culture and sometimes people didn’t want much to do with it, as if it was coming from a world of make-believe.”
“But now waka are coming out of the world of legend and into the world of reality, we may not be paddling them to war anymore but we are showing the mana and power of our people and expressing our affinity with the river. When we paddle the canoes we are making a statement; ‘this is our river, this is what my ancestors did, this is where they travelled and this is what I’m doing now, I’m not in a world of limbo, I’m directly connected to my ancestors’.”
The activities of waka on the Waikato River are one example of the deep cultural relationship Tainui continue with the river.
“Tainui connect to the river on a number of levels, it is a vital lifeline for the people. Of course in a physical sense it is where we travelled, the watercress, eels and mullet we ate, where we washed and drank, but more than that the river is the well-spring of everything that makes a person physically whole, the river is a place of meditation, of solace, of recovery, of reinforcement.”
“Our grandparents and great-grandparents were more involved in the culture of the river and today people talk about what their grandparents told them, about what they did, but we have to remember that this knowledge is not a genetic thing, it’s not automatically passed on and that we have to participate in the life of the river to learn its secrets ourselves.”
“There is a growing tribal and cultural renaissance, more river marae want to get their own waka, the waka is still taking us on a journey, back to the river, back to our cultural roots. It’s not trying to live in the past but it is part of making people feel they are a living part of their marae; we need to retain, maintain and support. The waka can save us, just as it saved our ancestors when they left Hawaiiki.”