It’s a cold winter’s afternoon in Karitāne, north of Dunedin. Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa/the Pacific Ocean, that famous bridge to Polynesia, shivers blue beside the coast. On a hill above, low sun silhouettes the carved waharoa, the gateway fronting Puketeraki marae, then slants in through the whare’s open doors.
Inside, in a wedge of sunlight, women sit round a red plastic bucket, pants rolled to the thighs, dipping skeins of muka into warm water. They roll the fine, pale harakeke fibre down and back along their legs. Raw muka on the downstroke, plaited cord on the return. Down and back, down and back. Two-strand twines into six-strand. They’re making rope.
Nearby, Ruth Port (Te Arawa, Te Aupōuri) and Suzi Flack (Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, Kāi Tahu), teacher and student, hunch over a span of weaving shot through with a zig-zag openwork pattern. Each woman holds a half-dozen strands between her fingers, counting, separating, folding, tightening. “What does it need to do here?” says Flack, lips pursed, glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could be forgiven for asking directions—the pattern was reverse-engineered only last year, and before that, it hadn’t been woven for around 200 years.
To her right, Lisa Phillips makes tiny incisions in a kererū feather, then carefully splits it lengthways. The two halves unzip in a striking black-and-white pattern. The feather is rendered wispy, at the whim of the wind. “Look at that!” beams Phillips. It’s her first time doing this (“Have you ever split a feather before?”). She’ll get faster with time, which is useful when you have around 3000 feathers to do.
These women are from Te Rā Ringa Raupā, a collective from Whirinaki in the Far North, and the local weavers of Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki.
The afternoon fills with the aromatics of fresh-cut harakeke, the scrape of knives and mussel shells, endless technical discussion and laughter.
Each person’s back is curved, their head down—the universal posture of the weaver. The local rōpū have previously made things like tukutuku, kete and whāriki, or mats. Today, under the guidance of their Northland manuhiri, they’re making rope, ties, feather telltales, swaths of wind-eating fabric. Today, they’re making a traditional woven sail.
Back in the 13th century, this triangular form is what would have appeared on the horizon off Aotearoa’s coast, announcing the arrival of humans to the last major landmass on which our species settled. It enabled Polynesians to cross the southern Pacific to become Māori. Up until the early 19th century, such sails were used to assist voyages up or down the coast—and they will soon be raised atop waka again, thanks to a taonga known as Te Rā, the last historic Māori sail.
Te Rā is nearly four-and-a-half metres long, two metres wide and tapers to a narrow base. Tufts of kererū and kāhu feathers adorn the top. Dogskin and kākā feathers grace the loops that attach the sail to its spars. It’s woven from harakeke in a complex, unfamiliar pattern by unknown hands. For weavers, scholars and sailors, it’s a kind of Rosetta stone, unlocking old weaving knowledge, translating between known Polynesian and unknown Māori sailing technologies, and offering a major contribution to the waka-building renaissance underway today. And until recently, it has spent most of its life in a drawer at the British Museum.
In the staffroom at the British Museum’s offsite store, you have to bring your own teabags. Everyone has their own little stockpile. No one mentioned this to Rānui Ngārimu (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga) or Catherine Smith when they visited in 2016. Ngārimu is a gentle, straight-talking great-grandmother, Smith a highly-educated larrikin originally from Melbourne. They still remember the weird vibe when museum staff realised someone was going to have to hand over a teabag or two.
As well as not having teabags, the British Museum holds 3000 taonga Māori, of which a tiny handful are on display. The rest is in the stores, where the pair had gained permission to spend three days studying old kākahu, or cloaks. On the final day, they were asked if there was anything else they’d like to see.
“Yes,” replied Ngārimu. “Te Rā.”
Ngārimu is a leading weaver and historic textiles expert. Her journey with Te Rā began with her close relation Te Rangihīroa, Sir Peter Buck, who wrote about Te Rā in 1924. The celebrated Ngāti Mutunga anthropologist, doctor, MP and Yale professor was often at her grandfather’s house when she was growing up. He’d issued a wero, a challenge, to future generations: visit the British Museum, figure out how Te Rā was made, and make replicas for our own museums.
Given the fact it’d taken a year to access the kākahu, when Ngārimu asked to see Te Rā, she wasn’t holding her breath. But she has a grace and a generosity with her own knowledge that opens doors. The answer was an unhesitating “Yes”.
When British Museum staff unrolled part of the sail, she at first felt overwhelmed. “I had a karanga and a tangi.” Then her whole face lit up. “I just said to Catherine, we’ve got to bring this home.”
Back at their hotel room that night, they were buzzing, and began to make plans. They soon asked Donna Campbell (Ngāpuhi), a weaver, scholar and artist who had previously studied Te Rā, to join them in creating a research project, Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau, the Te Rā project for short. Others had studied the sail over the decades, but much remained unknown. Could they help identify and provenance the materials used, and perhaps figure out who wove it and where? It’s long been assumed Captain Cook collected it, but where was the proof? Most of all, how was such a complex object actually woven?
Ngārimu also had a question of her own. Before leaving the museum, she’d asked the staff: What was the likelihood of bringing Te Rā home? “I was told it was nearly impossible,” she recalls with a small, cheeky smile. “I thought, ‘Nearly is close enough for me. We’ll have a go.’”
A week after Te Rā touches down at Christchurch International Airport, I’m with a small crowd shuffling into a back room at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna Waiwhetū. Te Rā lies spread on a table beneath perfect, even lighting. A quiet karanga fills the functional space. There’s a sense of reverent anticipation in the air.
After six years of grant applications, scientific and archival research, weaving experiments, COVID disruptions and a loan request, Ngārimu, Campbell and Smith have turned “nearly impossible” into a definite yes. Te Rā is being exhibited at the gallery until October, before heading to Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Te Rā is home—for now.
In ones and twos, people move forward to surround the sail. They are weavers, makers of nets and eel traps, historians, archivists, sailors and navigators. For three days before the public opening, they have this chance to pay their respects and study Te Rā. They geek out over the blanket stitch used on the hems, the dog-fur and kākā-feather adornments, how the zig-zag openwork pattern continues uninterrupted through triple-layer joins.
A ripple passes through the room—someone’s spotted a mummified insect trapped in the weave. Could it be a clue as to Te Rā’s provenance? British Museum conservator Nicole Rode hurries over with a magnifying glass. No. It’s a standard-issue British Museum carpet beetle, fattened on treasures from distant lands.
Given the expertise in the room and the fact that no one here has seen a Māori sail before, the conversation is rich with rediscovery and possibility. What’s also striking is the absence of barriers or white gloves at this point. We’re free to lay our (carefully washed) hands on the fine weave. It’s not carte blanche; conservators spend an hour flipping the sail once per day. But it does signal a slow recognition that for indigenous peoples, these treasures are not merely objects but living entities that connect us to the ancestral past.
Maureen Lander (Ngāpuhi, Te Hikutu, Pākehā) has been one of the driving forces behind the study of Te Rā. She’s a contemporary artist, weaver and Māori material culture expert. “When you can touch an object, especially if you’re a maker, it’s as if you’re connecting with the people who made it,” she says. “The knowledge is almost like a tingle on your fingers… it starts a flow, and after that there’s a commitment to keep that flow going.”
After seeing Te Rā in London in 1998, Lander has made it her mission to help her students get access. She mentors the weavers group from Whirinaki, and in 2019 tasked three of their members, Ruth Port, Rouati Waata and Mandy Sunlight, with visiting Te Rā. The visit was “life-changing”: the group soon changed its name to Te Rā Ringa Raupā and took on the challenge of making a replica sail. Being able to touch Te Rā bore immediate fruit. Rouati Waata (Ngāpuhi, Te Aupōuri), a “rāranga native” who’s been weaving from a young age, discovered things solely through her fingers. She learned by touch that separate fabric had been added to make a false hem, so finely done it’d gone undetected through days of scrutiny.
In making their first, smaller replica, Te Rā Ringa Raupā found that once the individual woven layers were joined, the irregular edges were demanding to fold and hem. However, trimming the excess on their second, full-sized replica left offcuts that neatly filled the gaps—requiring a false hem like Waata discovered on the real thing. After nearly 2000 hours of work, the rōpū has now completed both replicas and, starting at Puketeraki, are travelling the country teaching other groups to make their own. “We want to create a renaissance of Māori woven sails, on waka, on the water,” Port says.
Given the labour and detail involved, it’s easy to think Te Rā might have been purely ceremonial, but subtle changes in texture also alerted Waata to the fact that Te Rā had been expertly patched, perhaps suggesting wear through use. Other subtle signs of wear and tear, like stretched weave at the sail’s base, confirm it has been used.
Used, yes. But how, and where?
On June 1, 1773 in Tōtaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound, the crew of Cook’s Resolution noticed something interesting about local waka. As naturalist Georg Forster recounted, “three of them had sails, which are but seldom seen among them. The sail consisted of a large triangular mat, and was fixed to a mast, and a boom… which could both be struck with the greatest facility. The upper edge, or broadest part of the sail, had five tufts of brown feathers on its extremity.”
Waka with sails were seen on all of Cook’s voyages and by most other early European navigators. Such historic accounts point to sails like Te Rā being actively used. An 1820s illustration shows a waka powered by a sail almost identical to Te Rā, complete with chevron patterning, feather tufts and trailing matairangi, or pennant.
Emeritus professor Atholl Anderson (Ngāi Tahu) has studied Māori and Polynesian sailing technology for decades. He agrees that Te Rā was functional. “That’s the sail that they used. It’s a type that’s known from the Western Pacific, around Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait.”
It’s long been debated exactly how our first ancestors arrived. Oral histories talk about early explorers like Toi, who returned home and kickstarted later waves of migration. In the 20th century, some argued Aotearoa could only have been settled by castaways blown off course. From the 1970s, experimental voyaging waka proved the power and consistency of traditional navigation. Today, it’s accepted that settlement was deliberate, with large, double-hulled waka voyaging back and forth between Aotearoa and Polynesia, navigating by the stars.
Pivotal to this kōrero is the idea that such waka were “weatherly”—with sails, rigging and hulls that allowed them to sail upwind. Which leaves a puzzle. Why had such voyaging ceased by the time Europeans arrived, and what happened to the technology? Early European voyagers noted sails like Te Rā being used with a tailwind only and were otherwise dropped in favour of paddling.
Many believe the answer lies within Aotearoa’s forests, where huge trees led to the development of dugouts like the waka tētē/fishing canoe or waka tauā/war canoe. The latter is a big, fast canoe when paddled and stable enough not to need an outrigger or second hull—but not stable enough for voyaging upwind. “You wouldn’t want the wind from the side, because a single hull canoe would have a tendency to roll,” says master navigator Jack Thatcher (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pūkenga, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngāti Awa). The theory is that the proliferation of these craft led to more paddling and downwind sailing, and a loss of knowledge about voyaging craft and sails.
Anderson, on the other hand, thinks Te Rā is a later example of the original voyaging sails’, that were only ever rigged to sail downwind. They were effective with the wind at your back or nearly out to a right angle on either side. When the wind swung round into your face, you dropped the sail and paddled, to great effect—as the first Europeans observed here. He suggests long-distance voyaging ceased when climatic shifts altered the direction of trade winds.
Te Rā is a relatively small sail, likely made for coastal or river travel. What is clear, however, is that a waka rigged with a sail like Te Rā was amply capable of travelling between Polynesia and Aotearoa.
Anderson reached this conclusion on historic evidence, whereas for the University of Auckland’s emeritus professor of anthropology Geoff Irwin, it came from computer modelling.
First, Irwin and a team created a scale model of a voyaging waka, based on laser scans taken from the two oldest waka found in Aotearoa, from the 14th and 15th centuries. For sails, they made simple replicas of three examples held at the British Museum, including Te Rā.
Next, they put their hybrid craft in the wind tunnel at the University of Auckland’s yacht-research unit to test each sail’s performance. This data was used to create virtual canoes, which were then ‘sailed’ on computer simulations of voyages back and forth between Rarotonga and Aotearoa, based on actual wind data.
While Irwin, Thatcher and others think more upwind-capable rigs were used historically, even with Te Rā rigged to sail only downwind, on 180 simulations, the virtual canoes all made landfall. The average voyage took two and a half weeks. Obviously, some real voyages ended in disaster, and real sea trials are needed—Te Rā Ringa Raupā are working on this—but the simulations help confirm a sail like Te Rā was up to the task. “The narrative of Polynesian exploration isn’t contingent upon having sophisticated technology,” argues Anderson. “It’s contingent on expert seafaring knowledge and hard work.”
When those real, historic canoes landed on the hard wet sand of Aotearoa’s beaches, success immediately gave way to a new challenge. Stepping into the bush, the weavers aboard found none of the usual Polynesian plants. Few seeds they carried would grow. And every woven item they carried—sails, fishing lines, nets, clothing, kete, rope—was perishable. Once those rotted, the explorers couldn’t fish, carry loads, keep warm, or tether or sail their waka. The clock was ticking. The story of Te Rā—an old Polynesian design woven from a new New Zealand plant—is also the story of how quickly people learned to adapt.
“I’m constantly amazed when I think about the discovery of muka fibre,” says Campbell. “You look at the plant, you can’t see the possibility of it.”
Smith, an academic and conservator specialising in early Māori textiles, says that within 100 years of arrival, people had explored the country top to bottom, experimenting, collecting and trading plants. They developed cultivars suited to weaving and unlocked the secrets of other plants like the tī kōuka/cabbage tree. Its leaves contain excellent, durable fibre, but only once they’ve been soaked—for six months. Overall, harakeke was the plant that enabled people to thrive. “Harakeke is really about the survival of Māori in Aotearoa,” says Campbell.
Right now, rāranga/weaving is getting a major boost in visibility thanks to the parallel work of the Te Rā Project and Te Rā Ringa Raupā. The sail’s homecoming is building the mana of our weavers and weaving traditions. Te Māori, the exhibition that put Māori arts on the world map, contained no woven items. Giving our rarest woven taonga centre stage is a pivotal moment—and it’s bittersweet.
“When I look at Te Rā, ka tangi taku ngākau [my heart weeps], because we lost more than our whenua,” says Ngārimu. “We lost that knowledge, so it’s just so wonderful to have it home, so everybody can pore over it, and take away what they’ve learned, and create what they want. That’s the job of Te Rā now.”
What happens when the exhibitions finish, and the conservators pack Te Rā into a custom-made flight case and send her back to the stores beneath the British Museum? Why should Te Rā leave our shores again? Why, when major European museums are increasingly returning other people’s cultural treasures, and the British Museum is increasingly conspicuous in its refusal to do so?
When I meet Julie Adams, curator of the Oceania collection at the British Museum, she is well aware of these tensions. Years ago, she wrote her dissertation about the only other time Te Rā has been exhibited, at the British Museum in 1998. That show, entitled Māori, was framed around Cook’s voyages. Adams interviewed and later befriended one of the Māori artists involved, the acerbic John Bevan Ford (Ngāti Raukawa). He explained how this framing erased Māori from their own story. He told her, “Captain Cook was a great European navigator. He was not a Māori of note.”
“It just always stuck in my mind,” says Adams. “You know, I try to keep his voice in my head.”
As we chat about her role managing the 40,000 objects in the Oceania collection, she is quick and warm, adopting a knowing, wry tone when talking about Cook. She is more clipped, and given to brief, awkward laughter when on less certain ground, like the emotional intensity of when Māori come to see ancestral treasures in the stores. When we come to why Te Rā should or should not go back to London, her speech nearly grinds to a halt. “The museum has a history and a vision of being, ah, a global museum that is free to people who come to London and visit, to learn about the amazing cultures from all over the world.”
Our conversation stutters between the talking points her role demands, subtle nods to the museum’s colonial legacy and the unvoiced feelings of a woman who has spent years building relationships with those who most care for Te Rā.
Ngārimu and the others are grateful to Adams for her role in making Te Rā accessible in London and in bringing it home. It’s a gratitude made difficult by history and the museum’s policies: having to negotiate permission to access your own heritage, or be continuously supervised with taonga you know far more about than its keepers. But it wouldn’t have happened without Adams’ endorsement and hard work.
There are some good people in the big institutions, says Ngārimu. “Julie’s one of those. She knows that these are beautiful taonga, but she knows that rightfully there’s somebody out there in the world who has a heart for them, more than the British Museum has.”
That said, Ngārimu stresses that their group is pursuing the sharing of Te Rā’s knowledge, not repatriation. “That kaupapa belongs to iwi, and iwi leaders. If we want Te Rā home, it’s up to them.”
Lander also thinks it would be a pity to focus on repatriation. “We have repatriated the knowledge,” she says. “In the past, they used to bury cloaks with people because people knew how to make them. It seems that Te Rā was [in the British Museum] so the knowledge was there to be passed on, and that’s what’s important.”
In the coming years, waka across the country will sprout sails and take on the wind, the complex patterns recovered from Te Rā will make their way into other projects, and the original ancestor may yet find a home here again.
Adams tells me repatriation questions are for museum directors and governments. Then she looks down at the floor, choosing her words. “There are those of us who are on the ground who ask, ‘What can we do, what can I do to try to facilitate change and access?’ What I can do is help with a loan like this.” She lifts her gaze and makes tentative eye contact. “And if this is the start of a journey onwards, that’s great.”