Native Affairs Summer Series – The dying art of waka building

By Heeni Brown

Traditional waka building is one of the most endangered Māori artforms. But hopes for the revival of the ancient tradition received a much-needed boost last year when two young men became the first graduates of a special waka school. 

Billy Harrison and Haimona Brown are the first waka graduates of Te Wānanga-a-Kupe Mai Tawhiti  - the National Māori Canoe School - in Aurere, Northland.   

The school was established in 2013 by the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute and master waka builder, Hekenukumai Puhipi (Hector Busby), in an effort to revive the art of building Māori waka.

Harrison was drawn to waka building by its link to the past.  “It reminds us of our origins and how our ancestors came to be on this land,” he says.

For Brown, it was the irresistible pull of the ocean and a love of Māori art.  “I came to be here,” he says,  “because of my love for the sea and my love for all things Māori, Māori arts especially.”

The young men join a select few craftspeople able to construct waka correctly.

“There are so many people who have built waka over the years, says master craftsman Busby. “But I know some of those waka aren't right on the water.”

It’s rare, he says, to find people suitably skilled in this art, “there are not many people who know how to build waka correctly."

But, Busby is positive that Harrison and Brown know how it should be done.  "I have no worries, I'm confident that if they build a waka they'll build a sturdy one that won't tip or sink," he says.

Brown is aware how precious the skills they’ve been taught are and how at risk their craft is. He says, “That's the reason this has now been bestowed onto both Billy [Harrison] and I so that this type of craft will never ever be lost.”

Although the two men now hold these rare skills, they hope other builders will join them on their journey so their artform will have a bright future.

 “In 100 years I wish to see a waka on every river, every lake and sea. Where I can see one no matter where I go,” says Brown.