Hoe waka home again?

The hoe waka, displayed as part of the Tū te Whaihanga: A Recognition of Creative Genius exhibition, are part of a massive hoard stored in museums and private collections outside Aotearoa New Zealand. This 12-month long exhibition has stretched out to three years, but time is running out if you want to see it. 

Close up of a stone-carved hoe waka in a museum case.
Hoe, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, D1914.67 Photo: Tairāwhiti Museum.expand/collapse

Traded, gifted or taken 250 years ago, these hoe waka (canoe paddles) and many other taonga departed Aotearoa onboard the HMS Endeavour in 1769. After years of negotiations, 37 pieces were transported back to New Zealand to be part of the exhibition which opened in Gisborne on 7 October 2019.

Steve Gibbs (Ngai Tamanuhiri) who is a Trustee of Tairawhiti Museum where the exhibition is located, explained that there are some 5000 taonga held in overseas museums and private collections. To their keepers, they are merely exquisite artefacts. Hoe waka and other taonga are seen as remnants of the past and they are classified as inanimate objects, consequently many will never see the light of day.

Steve who co-curated the exhibition with Eloise Wallace, described how gaining access to these taonga required patience and Kanohi ora – the premise of developing and maintaining relationships through meeting face to face - with the representatives of international institutions. “It is an intellectual game for patient high thinking people. They do not understand what our taonga are because they do not comprehend indigenous concepts,” he said.

The dollar value attached to these taonga pales in comparison to their cultural value and the mana (enduring prestige) that they hold. “Our Taonga are living relics which represent people.”

He explained that the exhibition was a labour of love which began many years ago when work began to uncover the locations of these many taonga. Since then, three hoe have been repatriated and are now held at our National Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. Repatriation negotiations of taonga are on-going. The process sometimes includes bringing representatives to New Zealand to show them where these taonga came from.

All the taonga on display are exceptional. What makes the hardwood hoe waka stand out is that they were carved using only stone tools.

Covid-19 has disrupted their return to the institutions which own them, however even Omicron cannot detain them indefinitely: “The exhibition will come down in May,” said Steve.

For information about this exhibition click here

- Niki Partsch