Story: Canoe traditions

Page 1. The meaning of canoe traditions

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The canoe (waka in Māori) traditions or stories describe the arrival in New Zealand of Māori ancestors from a place most often called Hawaiki. They also refer to the construction of canoes, conflicts before departure, voyaging at sea, landing, inland and coastal exploration, and the establishment of settlements in new regions.

Readers of published traditions need to be aware that such accounts are often influenced by the Great Fleet (or Grand Settlement) theory. According to this theory, the Polynesian explorer Kupe first discovered New Zealand from Tahiti in 925 CE. Kupe was followed by another explorer, Toi, in 1150; after this, in 1350, a fleet of seven canoes sailed from Tahiti and Rarotonga, bringing the ancestors of Māori to New Zealand. In the 1960s and 1970s research by the historians David Simmons and Keith Sorrenson proved that this idea was largely false. Today, as a result of further research including radiocarbon dating, it is generally accepted that New Zealand was settled by people from East Polynesia, who set off in different canoes at different times, with the first canoes arriving some time in the 1200s.

The myth spreaders

The Great Fleet theory was the result of a collaboration between the 19th-century ethnologist S. Percy Smith and the Māori scholar Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. Smith obtained details about places in Rarotonga and Tahiti during a visit in 1897, while Jury provided information about Māori canoes in New Zealand. Smith then ‘cut and pasted’ his material, combining several oral traditions into new ones. Their joint work was published in two books, in which Jury and Smith falsely attributed much of their information to two 19th-century tohunga, Moihi Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū.

History or mystery: interpreting traditions

The meaning of canoe traditions remains a matter of debate. Early writers such as Percy Smith tended to treat them all as historical accounts, on the assumption that the word ‘waka’ invariably referred to human canoe arrivals from foreign shores. However, canoe traditions cannot always be treated so literally, because many contain much that is symbolic. Some ancestors are said to have been nine feet (2.7 m) tall, while others are said to have flown, swum or travelled on taniwha (sea monsters) to New Zealand. The Aoaonui is a poetic image of a canoe transporting newborn infants into the world, and Rangikēkero and Rangitōtohu are also metaphorical vessels that convey the souls of the dead to their final rest in Te Ao Wairua (the spirit world).

In contrast, some writers including Margaret Orbell have taken the view that all canoe traditions are religious-poetic narratives composed simply for reasons of tribal identity. However, this ignores the evidence that they represent much that seems to be historical, such as place names and genealogical coincidences with Polynesian accounts. Historian James Belich has criticised both of these approaches, arguing that the while the first displayed an excessive tendency to see myth as history, the second tended to see myth too much as mystery. A better conclusion is that canoe traditions contain both symbolic and historical elements.

Migrations within New Zealand

The anthropologist David Simmons has suggested that many of the stories might actually describe periods of later migration by canoe around New Zealand’s coastline. Others, including Roger Duff and Janet Davidson, have suggested that original canoe traditions were transported and relocated several times as people moved from island to island in the Pacific. The oral accounts might therefore contain information about several voyages, including distantly remembered journeys in Polynesia before the colonisation of New Zealand, arrivals in New Zealand from the tropical Pacific, and subsequent migrations within New Zealand waters. This might explain the mix of history and symbolism in the accounts.

Canoe traditions and identity

In later years, canoe traditions became important to the identity of Māori. Whakapapa (genealogical links) back to the crew of founding canoes served to establish the origins of tribes, and defined relationships with other tribes. For example, a number of tribes trace their origin to the Tainui canoe, while others such as Te Arawa take their name from a founding canoe. When identifying themselves on a marae, people mention their waka first and foremost.

So canoe traditions do not only explain origins. They also express authority and identity, and define tribal boundaries and relationships. They merge poetry and politics, history and myth, fact and legend.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe traditions - The meaning of canoe traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005