Te Hokinga a mai… Te Rā – the Māori Sail

Once in a while an opportunity comes along where you have the possibility to look into the past, catch a glimpse of what your ancestors actually saw through their eyes and created with their hands.

Te Rā is not only one of those opportunities but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to view our past technology and techniques used to produce such taonga. The only known traditionally Māori woven sail in existence, the age of Te Rā is believed to be over 200 years old. Its true age is unknown as there are no records of when or where Te Rā was created. The British Museum records show that Te Rā was part of its collection by the late 19th Century, however, it is presumed it was acquired far earlier. Te Rā may have been collected by Cook when in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is believed to have been gifted by the British Admiralty who commissioned Cooks first voyage in 1770s.

Te Rā is not a display item, rather it is kept in storage at the British Museum with viewing by appointment. For many years Te Rā has sat alone in the dark in a foreign land until December 1922 when Te Rangihiroa | Sir Peter Buck challenged Māori weavers to visit and work out the techniques used to create Te Rā so they can be revived. Many have taken up the challenge, the most recent Te Rā Te Ringa Raupā of Taitokerau | Northland who have created a replica unveiled in 2022.

Perhaps the most important work undertaken to date, is that of a 3-year Research project Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau – Raise up again the billowing sail: Revitalising cultural knowledge through analysis of Te Rā, the Māori sail. Begun in 2017 and funded by the Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Fund, the project group has not only documented Te Rā but also has negotiated its return, on loan, for exhibition at Te Puna o Waiwhetū | Christchurch Art Gallery from 8 July to 23 October and Tamaki Paenga Hiri | Auckland War Memorial Museum from 13 November to May 2024.

This rōpū consists of:

  • Rānui Ngārimu ONZM, senior Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga weaver specialising in the repair, restoration and replication of customary Māori textiles.
  • Ms Donna Campbell senior Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui and senior lecturer at the University of Waikato,
  • Dr Catherine Smith from the Dodd-Walls Centre, University of Otago,
  • Ms Jeanette Wikaira (Ngāti Pukenga, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāpuhi) undertaking contextual research on sails as taonga.
  • Dr Hokimate Harwood (Ngāpuhi), bicultural science researcher from Te Papa, feather identification used on Te Rā.

Together they have documented and identified the materials used to create Te Rā and the techniques used to produce it. While initially it was thought the base material was Tīkouka | Cabbage Tree due to its durability, however tests have shown it is solely constructed of Harakeke | Phormium tenax with kererū, kāhu, kākā and kiri kurī | dog skin trim with tinges of kōkōwai | red ochre noted. In addition to this, the rōpū interviewed experienced Kaiwhakatere | Māori navigators / sailors such as Tiaki Wepiha Te Kapene “Jack” Thatcher, kaihautū of Te Aurere, in regard to its possible use and design.

Such findings have generated much discussion within the Toi Māori | Māori Art practices and Waka Hourua | Double Haul Canoe communities. Given kōkōwai and kiri kurī were reserved for those of seniority, was Te Rā created for someone of standing? Given the condition of Te Rā and corrosiveness of saltwater, was it created for ceremonial purposes or was it only used on inland waterways like rivers or lakes? Given its size, was this the smaller of two sails or was this for use on a small waka | canoe?

Undoubtedly the biggest question on everyone’s lips is where does Te Rā come from and who made it? This perhaps will never be truly answered, as the harakeke and feathers may have been harvested in one place, prepared in another and woven in yet another place. For me, I’m okay with that, as I feel Te Rā belongs to all of us. It is the sum total of all the knowledge gained by our tīpuna | ancestors accumulated on their migratory journey through the Pacific to Aotearoa New Zealand. As I listen to Papa Jack talk about the design, methods of sailing and use with Aunty Rānui my heart fills with joy to know that such practices are being rejuvenated and preserved for future generations. We are so lucky to have these dedicated people who are committed to reviving these practices. I like Papa Jack look forward to seeing these sails back on the water on our waka hourua.

I congratulate Aunty Rānui, Whaea Donna, Whaea Catherine and Whaea Hokimate on the work to date and thank them for bringing Te Rā home. I implore all who reads this to take the opportunity to go and view this amazing taonga | treasure, and look forward to the day its repatriation.

Check out Te Rā on Facebook for more photos of the arrival of Te Rā at Te Puna o Waiwhetū | Christchurch Art Gallery.

Find out more

Te Rā: The Māori Sail exhibition until 23 October 2023

Te Rā

Panel Discussion: Vikings of the Sunrise

Using the writing of Te Rangihīroa Sir Peter Buck as a starting point to talk about Te Rā, Anna-Marie White chairs a discussion with Ranui Ngarimu and Jamie Tuuta, who explore what this taonga tuku iho tells us about ourselves and our future. This event took place on the opening weekend of Te Rā: The Māori Sail at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
*The title for this talk is taken from the 1938 book Vikings of the Sunrise by Te Rangihīroa (Sir Peter Buck).

Panel Discussion: On the Trail of the Rising Sun

Robert Gabel leads this panel of kaiwhakatere / expert navigators including Hoturoa Kerr, Martin Bercic, Stanley Conrad, Joe Conrad, Hemi Eruera and Jack Thatcher as they discuss the history of Polynesian navigation and the extraordinary knowledge and skill used by their tūpuna to voyage across the Pacific Ocean. This event took place on the opening weekend of Te Rā: The Māori Sail at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
*The title for this talk is taken from the 1938 book Vikings of the Sunrise by Te Rangihīroa (Sir Peter Buck).

Panel Discussion: Revitalising Cultural Knowledge

Panellists Ranui Ngarimu, Dr Catherine Smith and Dr Donna Campbell discuss the project to bring Te Rā to Aotearoa. Find out more about this awe-inspiring taonga and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden funded research project that led to this exhibition. This event took place on the opening weekend of Te Rā: The Māori Sail at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Related events

July 2023 Photos of the mini exhibition of contemporary Māori Art from TOIHOUKURA – School of Māori Art and Design based in Gisborne
Led by Tā/Sir Derek Lardelli, professor at Toihoukura, Te Rā i Whiti exhibition features small works his students have created to tautoko/support the homecoming of the traditional woven harakeke/NZ flax sail Te Rā .

Te Rā i Whiti exhibition on Tuakiri | Identity, Level 2, Tūranga