Māori carvers complete traditional canoe as gift to Smithsonian

New Zealand Māori carvers, working in Washington DC, are completing final decorations on a traditional wooden waka (canoe) for the Smithsonian Museum.

New Zealand Māori carvers, working in Washington DC, are completing final decorations on a traditional wooden waka (canoe) for the Smithsonian Museum to strengthen ties between the two countries.

The six-metre-long waka is a central piece in the Tuku Iho: Living Legacy exhibition currently running (July 22 – 30) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Museum. 

Made in New Zealand from a single mature totara tree, the canoe’s side strakes, bow and stern are being carved on-site, before being fitted and lashed together. The waka was designed and created at New Zealand’s national canoe school - Te Tapuwae o te Waka.  

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the waka will be gifted to the Smithsonian by New Zealand ambassador Tim Groser and will become part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The touring Tuku Iho exhibition showcases more than 70 Māori art pieces including stone, bone, pounamu (greenstone jade) and wood carving, weaving and bronze works, handcrafted by students and teachers at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI)at Te Puia which is based in Rotorua, in New Zealand’s central North Island.

Tuku Iho has been travelling around the world since 2013, and has already exhibited in China, Malaysia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. 

After its North American tour, Tuku Iho will travel to Japan in 2019, exhibiting in at least three locations, coinciding with the country’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The Japanese tour will start in Hokkaido, where artists will connect with the indigenous Ainu people before travelling to two other exhibition locations.

Tuku Iho project director, Karl Johnstone says the exhibition’s mission is “to share culture and experiences, and to strengthen relationships with other communities around the world by giving people an inside out view of our social and creative architecture.”

The waka project represents an insight into the inner workings of Māori culture, Johnstone says. The students and master carvers working on the waka had a broad understanding of their environment and nuances of Māori knowledge and practices.

“They know how to extract the tree from the bush, then how to build and carve a seaworthy waka, as well as how to navigate on the ocean by using the stars, moon, sun, ocean currents, birds and marine life to guide them. Students and teachers don’t only carry the responsibility to build a safe vessel, they carry the responsibility of perpetuating the knowledge of our ancestors.”

The waka has its own story to tell.  It was made from a single 100-year old tōtara tree (a native New Zealand hardwood) sourced from a significant location and gifted by the landowners to the project. The hull was made over a period of three weeks and took three months to dry and ready for carving. 

The carving on the waka prow represents an early 20th century style that was most likely derived from a double hulled sailing vessel. The designs on the sides represent the ebb and flow of tides.

James Eruera, head of the National Waka School, who worked on the waka describes the process as “transforming it from one life to another”.  

“As canoe builders, we’re connecting and sharing through the mauri (life essence) and that’s what humanises the kaupapa (initiative) with the gifting to the Smithsonian Institute. You’re sharing each other’s life force.”