Opening Portals with Our Hands: On Te Rā, the Māori Sail

Te Rā, the only remaining Māori sail, has temporarily returned home. Mya Morrison-Middleton visits Te Rā, asking questions of its origins and future, while highlighting the work of those who are actively reviving Māori sails.

We huddle close in the gallery corridor. As we round a corner and pass under a maihi, the crowd slows as it meets the sail, Te Rā. We stop in awe, but get kindly and swiftly rushed on – the group needs to keep moving because a crowd of manuhiri, gallery staff and Ngāi Tūāhuriri are waiting in the foyer of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū to whaikōrero and waiata for this massive occasion. After being held in London for over a century, Te Rā is home.

In an interview, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Ngāpuhi and Waikato) describes Te Rā as “he taonga mōrehu”, a survivor. It is the only known remaining Māori sail from pre-British settlement. Te Rā is not only a sail, but a testament to the ever-unfolding, bountiful expertise of tīpuna Māori. It is over four metres tall, in an elongated triangular shape, featuring vertical lines of complex openwork weaving and stitching that run across multiple joined panels. All of this is made from harakeke. It is edged prominently with kererū and kāhu feathers, and more subtly with kākā feathers and dog skin. The techniques to make Te Rā have been dormant for many generations.

In the 2022 issue of Marinade: Aotearoa Journal of Moana Art, Natasha Matila-Smith wrote an essay called (re-a)Wakening Sleeping Giants, about Indigenous creative practices “sleeping” – a state where the technical ability to practise them is lost from living memory. But traces of them remain – artefacts, illustrations, descriptions and oral histories. On the state of an art form sleeping, she says:

The term ‘sleeping’ denotes a slumber, a pause in activity, but also a potentiality: a waiting to be roused from sleep and filled with a possibility to return.

Until last year, Te Rā was thousands of kilometres across the globe at The British Museum. There is mystery around how exactly it arrived there, and when. According to the 2010 book The Māori collections of the British Museum it is likely from the Cook Collection, a collection of hundreds of items collected on Captain James Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. Dr Julie Adams, Oceania Curator at The British Museum, says the first record the Museum has of Te Rā being in London was in 1898, when it was sketched by an artist, but it likely arrived before then. The rest is so far unknown.

“Nā wai koe? Nō hea? Nā wai i hanga? Who are you? Where are you from? Who made you?” These are the first questions that come to mind when Ngahuia Te Awekotuku meets taonga, which we can still echo to Te Rā now.

I have repeatedly humbled myself while writing this essay. Across multiple trips from Ōtepoti to Ōtautahi to visit Te Rā, and hours of reading, listening, and wandering pā harakeke, I have more questions than answers. So I’m writing from the fascinating realms of te kore and te pō, filled with trepidation while sifting through void and darkness. I don’t even feel sure of the words to use; do I refer to Te Rā as ‘it’, or ‘she’? Or both interchangeably, as others do? Maybe I wouldn’t have this problem if I wasn’t ‘thinking Māori’ but writing in English. My questions are eternally folding into new questions.

Visitors enter Te Ra: The Māori Sail during the opening ceremony, 8 July 2023, underneath Riki Manuel's Waharoa (c.1995). Photo: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

This is what I guess the work has been like (although they are experts!) for Rānui Ngārimu ONZM (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutungā), Dr Donna Campbell (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui) and Dr Catherine Smith, leaders of the research project ‘Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! – Raise up again the billowing sail!’. The efforts of this group, with the support of Dr Julie Adams, led to Te Rā being brought to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū for Te Rā: The Māori Sail in July 2023.

This group, and their invited collaborators, are responsible for significant research on Te Rā which is free-flowing online for all to access. They have been testing theories and finding answers; notably, they took samples to determine the exact materials of all parts of the sail. They employed a whole range of experts to weigh in with their skill sets on areas such as feather identification, waka and navigation, te reo Māori (to find words to describe the sail’s features, such as awa matangi, which describes the zig-zag openwork), and archives and history (to comb through journals and records for description and illustration of Māori sails).

At a talk during the opening festivities in Ōtautahi, Ngārimu confirmed my feelings about the unknowns of Te Rā, stating: “The more we saw Te Rā, and looked at it, the less we knew … It is the genius of our tīpuna.” Ngārimu also revealed the seed of their research, within a challenge set by Te Rangi Hīroa (Ngāti Mutunga). Hīroa is a whanaunga of Ngārimu through Ngāti Mutunga and within his journal research she discovered his challenge. In an issue of Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand from 1924, Hīroa wrote on his experiences after sighting Te Rā at The British Museum, saying:

Close up photographs of the sail should be obtained from the British Museum and replicas plaited for our own museums. This could be done quite easily. Sails have been so long out of date that the possibility of obtaining such a copy of an authentic old-time sail should not be neglected.

The possibility has not been neglected by this group. One of the outcomes of their labour is that each millimetre of the sail has been recorded using photogrammetry, a form of overlapping photography that records 3D surfaces. So that’s part one of the challenge completed.

The following talks during the opening festivities from experts across many fields produced more curiosity, such as: How was the sail used? What settings was it used in? Close coastal sailing or ocean sailing? What are the purposes of its features? What would have happened if Te Rā had never left this country? And the even bigger brain-busting uncertainty – are we asking the right questions of Te Rā?

I’m not any closer to having answers. But I can say Te Rā, he taonga mōrehu, has shifted me.

Installation view of Te Ra: The Māori Sail at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū in 2023. Te Rā was on loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

Raranga transmits us through a sensory portal to the work of our ancestors. This is what I’ve been reflecting on, as I try to find a way to write about Te Rā. There have already been many excellent articles written with information about Te Rā, the context around it, and her knowledge being revitalised. To avoid simply repeating their words, I’ll write about portals, from my place as a fledgling learning to weave.

Before I harvest harakeke, I’ll check the weather forecast, but I’ll also be watching the colours of the sky and feeling the humidity in the air, staying vigilant to a surprise rain shower. A friend came over one afternoon after a weaving session, and the first thing they commented on was the scent of harakeke that filled the house. After I finish weaving fresh harakeke I’ll eagerly check on it as it dries to its final form and colour. I watch it lighten from green to pale gold, weigh and gently shape it in my hands, listen to the sounds as it moves, and, favourite of all, I smell it. Usually the smell gets sweeter, until the harakeke dries fully and it becomes faint and delicate. These are old sensations. Weavers have been sensing all these things long before me, and will be for long after me.

“When you’re weaving, you’re connecting to your tīpuna.” Kākahu Melbye Banks, a friend and weaver, gave me this wise advice. I was complaining about the things everyone complains about: not having enough time or energy to do the things I want or need to. I never have a whole weekend free to harvest, prepare and just weave, so I will avoid starting at all. But this advice was a warm reminder of why I’m learning – to move between then and now. My ambitions for weaving are shifting. Instead of always setting high hopes for what I will make, sometimes I weave just to experience the sensations and intelligence of my tīpuna. I’ll still responsibly check my calendar before I harvest, and consider what’s appropriate to make with the type and amount of harakeke I have. But after all that, following the advice of many other friends and mentors, the aim is to surrender and see what comes when my hands touch the harakeke.

Makers unknown Te Rā [The Sail] c. 1770 - 1800. Harakeke, kererū, kāhu and kāhu feathers, dog skin. Te Rā was on loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. Photo: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

In this same way, Te Rā is a portal.

The feathers that line the top of the sail have been a popular topic, especially the dazzling kererū feathers, which are split along the shaft in an alternating pattern of notches. I excitedly scratched out the same questions again and again in my notebook while attending the opening of Te Rā: The Māori Sail. What sound do they make? What were the people sailing with Te Rā hearing?

I’m sitting with a kit of taonga pūoro, testing sounds, hoping they might guide some of my wandering through the unknown. Would the air catch in the open shaft of the feathers, creating a high whistle that crackles at the edges? Or would they hum and whirr, stirring air with the same heaviness that kererū do? Would the sail scrape against itself as the wind buffs against it? Or would it move in stealthy silence? Or all of the above, depending on the conditions?

Image: Makers unknown Te Rā [the sail] (detail) c. 1770–1800. Harakeke, kererū, kāhu and kākā feathers, dog skin. On loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. © Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau Te Rā Project. Photo: Cultural Heritage Imaging

The gallery that held Te Rā: The Māori Sail was adorned with whakairo and toi standing in support of a constant welcome home. Curator Māori at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Chloe Cull, explained that each artwork was not presented as independent unto itself, they all support the presence of Te Rā. A maihi by Riki Manuel (Ngāti Porou) held firm, watching over the entrance. The Ngāi Tahu manaakitanga was salient, with Liz Kererū (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi Tūāhuriri) enacting karanga through an audio recording and the artwork Karanga Ngāi Tahu II by Cath Brown (Ngāi Tahu) present, also calling manuhiri in. Initially concealing Te Rā from view, Louise Pōtiki Bryant (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha) and Paddy Free’s video and audio artwork Te Au o Te Moana expanded across the central curved gallery wall. An arching horizon bountiful with crashing waves and illuminated stars pushing across the sky, leaving pathways of light. It filled the space with the sound of water, wind and birds.

In the wake of Te Rā’s homecoming, I’ve been reading Vikings of the Sunrise (1938), Te Rangi Hīroa’s survey on the voyaging and arrival of Polynesians. This quote on the bravery of those voyagers has stuck with me:

Polynesian paddlers faced forward toward impending waves and ever-receding horizons, and they gazed open-eyed on the ocean vistas that unrolled before them.

Installation view of Te Ra: The Māori Sail at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū in 2023, also featuring work by Cath Brown (courtesy of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu), Paddy Free, Louise Pōtiki Bryant and Fayne Robinson. Photo: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

Te Au o Te Moana is the vortex of the portal. We are transported into the ocean vista, feeling sea spray on our skin, led by the stars, with Tāwhirimātea spiralling around us. I imagine being on the water, staring face-upward and open-eyed, at the stars as they peek through the awa matangi of Te Rā.

Balancing against this captivating whirlwind is an unease. Ariana Tikao and Mat Tait’s book, also named Te Rā: The Māori Sail, uses stream-of-consciousness poetry and illustrations to craft an emotional perspective from Te Rā to tell its story. It feels joy and exhilaration riding the currents, showing the action-packed world that surrounded our sails. But the feeling becomes cold as Te Rā is locked away in storage, experiencing years of loneliness and despair, described by this passage:

I am alongside other captives.

We are colonial booty.

I hear manu, now extinct, such as huia;

the sad echo of their song,

harmonic tones carried ghostily

through dark, dry chambers.

“Will Te Rā come home permanently?” This question is routinely raised in conversation about Te Rā, and always answered with firm declarations that it should. Rānui Ngārimu answered this question during the opening festivities in Ōtautahi. Her answer felt honest and gracious. “That’s always in the back of our minds, but to get it home we had to promise to take it back [to London].” She reminded us of how lucky we are to have Te Rā come home, and of those who gave their word to The British Museum to enable it to return home. Ending with the statement, “I don’t want it to go back, but I will take it back.”

Repatriation of taonga Māori from The British Museum is a tense subject for clear reasons. It’s easy to connect the dots between the survival of Te Rā and the survival of Māori. I suspect that’s why the call for it to come home is an immediate and emotional gut reaction for many of us.

The Museum’s mission is to represent all cultures of the world within its collections. Critics of repatriation claim artefacts should be held where they are safest, and can do the most good, which, they say, is by reaching the most people. Obviously people believed, and still do, that this can happen on behalf of the whole world at one institution in London.

I keep remembering that Te Rā has only been on display once during its time at The British Museum, as part of a wider exhibition of taonga Māori, for four months in 1998. I’m not sure what to resolve from this. I have more questions: What value does Te Rā have to the whole world, versus her value to this place, our people? Do we need to share with everyone, considering we’ve been without our sails for so long?

Time and again, it’s easy to feel defeated. I debate this all internally, until I feel so powerless I have to withdraw.

Image: Makers unknown Te Rā [the sail] c. 1770–1800. Harakeke, kererū, kāhu and kākā feathers, dog skin. On loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. © Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau Te Rā Project. Photo: Cultural Heritage Imaging; compiled by John Collie, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

If Te Rā is a portal to the past, it is also a portal to a future abundant with mātauranga Māori.

Our group huddles close to pass quickly through back corridors on the way to the conservation lab at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. It’s a few weeks before Te Rā: The Māori Sail opens, and we encounter excited whanaunga in the corridors – kairaranga, ringatoi, researchers, curators and museum professionals. They’re all here for a private viewing of Te Rā, to absorb and learn from every angle. We get briefed on tikanga, we carefully wash our hands, and turn our phones to silent. Then we step into the lab, just as the conservators are starting the 45-minute process of turning Te Rā over to display her back. I pause in shock. The contrast between the overall size and the fine detail is overwhelming. Even more overwhelming because, despite the fine detail, it’s made to be strong, durable and manoeuvrable. It takes me 20 minutes to build up the courage to get any closer.

Whītau, or muka, is Māori magic. When I was shown how to extract whītau, I would watch with awe as tough green harakeke split open to reveal silky silver fibres. That awe sent me into a frenzy, scraping and soaking fibre non-stop for months. “This is it, I’m living the dream,” I thought, while I sat with a bucket and craft knife in a lounge room crowded with bundles of fibre.

Hands hold practical knowledge. Sometimes when I try my hands at extracting whītau it doesn’t flow. It’s all wrong. My tension is off, the shell feels bulky and unnatural. Usually this is because I’m visualising the steps in my head, anticipating what might happen before it does. But when my busy mind slows down and allows my hands to guide the process, my tension corrects, the shell moves to its correct position and the flow returns. Phew.

The rōpū Te Rā Ringa Raupā have been working with dedication to return the technical knowledge to create sails to kairaranga. Their name ‘ringa raupā’ literally translates to ‘calloused hands from working hard’.

Using Te Rā as a teacher, the rōpū have woven multiple replica sails. They have reclaimed the mātauranga within Te Rā, embedding it into their hands, and have been travelling the country offering wānanga to share the techniques. They know that Te Rā is more than just a physical object – life force is contained within her, which flows from the hands of the tīpuna who once wove and used these sails, to the hands of present day weavers.

Image: Makers unknown Te Rā [the sail] (detail) c. 1770–1800. Harakeke, kererū, kāhu and kākā feathers, dog skin. On loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. © Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau Te Rā Project. Photo: Cultural Heritage Imaging

At the current showing of Te Rā: Navigating Home at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira Te Rā is presented alongside two sails woven by the rōpū, Māhere Tū ki te Rangi, a full-scale recreation and Hine Mārama, a small, scale-model.

In a recent interview, Dr Maureen Lander (Ngāpuhi, Te Hikutu, Pākehā), who is a mentor to the rōpū, explained the need makers feel to channel connection into making after encountering a taonga like Te Rā. “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.”

During our visit to the conservation lab I admired the back of Te Rā, and fixated on how visible the makers’ hands are. They’re at the ends of the whenu, folded through the hono (or joins), and in the rhythm of the weave as each whenu glides diagonally. Those hands created highly functional technology to roam, or maybe zoom, around with. Harakeke is the vessel to our techno-future-past, and we’re all on board.

The replica sails have been created. So that’s the second part of Te Rangi Hīroa’s challenge completed.

If Te Rā has been sleeping, we have surely woken it up.

After two days occupying the gallery foyer in Ōtautahi, talking to friends and relatives, listening to masters and specialists, and watching kaitā from Toihoukura adorning manuhiri, it’s time for our weary group to travel home. I make a final visit, passing under the maihi, rounding the curve of stars and sea, to meet Te Rā. Under my breath, shyly, away from the crowd, I sing a few lines from ‘Te Hokinga Mai’, the waiata sung for taonga returning from their travels overseas as part of the exhibition Te Māori in 1986: “Te Hokinga Mai tēnā koutou, Tangi ana te ngākau ki te aroha, Tū tonu rā te mana te ihi o ngā tīpuna kua wehea atu rā.”

I look over at the video projection of Te Rā on the opposite wall – she is upright and rippling through light like she has been stirred by the wind. Whakaarahia anō! Rise up again, awaken again.

Image: Makers unknown Te Rā [the sail] (detail) c. 1770–1800. Harakeke, kererū, kāhu and kākā feathers, dog skin. On loan from the Trustees of the British Museum. © Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau Te Rā Project. Photo: Cultural Heritage Imaging

On the drive home I’m left trying to stitch together everything that has come forth from this portal between present and past. The many years of people’s lives spent dedicated to retracing, visiting, recovering and replicating Te Rā. All of this is mixed with conversations about the nature of Te Rā’s accession into The British Museum. Was it a gift? Was it stolen? Was it traded? Was it fair?

I didn’t want to suppress innocent curiosity but these questions slowly grew to worry me, for a few reasons. Research has already been generously provided that could quieten some of those queries; the underlying assumption from those conversations was that this yet-unknown history is a powerful factor in determining the future of Te Rā; and, most importantly, I feared those questions might overshadow the awe around Te Rā and the hard work of many people.

When Te Rā left this country and went to The British Museum it was a different world. I wonder about what conditions might have turned people’s hands away from weaving sails. Could our ancestors foresee that sails were going into a period of dormancy, or the turbulent future awaiting us? While the reasons these skills went to sleep aren’t yet clear, the skills are being revitalised, and revitalisation doesn’t happen in isolation.

The efforts to recover our sails by the people mentioned, and the many other people not mentioned, fulfils another challenge set by Te Rangi Hīroa: “Kaua mā te koroingo noa iho, engari mā te werawera rānō.” The quote was gifted by Jamie Tuuta (Ngāti Mutunga) as a subtitle of the Ōtautahi exhibition Te Rā: The Māori Sail. The interpretation given in English is “Success cannot be attained by resting on the doings of our ancestors, but is achieved by hard work, sustained effort and unyielding courage.” In explaining this quote, Tuuta says it reflects the ethics of Hīroa, and his belief that Māori should draw upon the past but that each generation has a responsibility to evolve for the better. “We mustn’t be complacent, we must be focused and work hard.”

I have endless gratitude to those people who appreciated the wonder and genius of our tīpuna, but did not rest on that alone. They have worked with tenacity and excelled in bringing the mātauranga of Te Rā back into te ao mārama, the living world, to continue.

I don’t know what will happen next to Te Rā. I hope, like many others, that it is allowed to come home permanently. I’m enjoying asking questions now. How do we keep the mātauranga of Te Rā awake, and let it inspire us to excel? What is Te Rā to the people of Britain (and the rest of the world), and who is Te Rā to Māori?

Te Rā originated from Māori hands, its relationship to us will never end. That connection isn’t compromised by the terms Te Rā entered The British Museum on, or the reality that the practice has been dormant, and it will not be broken when Te Rā inevitably returns to London. We can access it through the portals at our fingertips.

I do know that we have been altered permanently by its visit. Go and be amazed. Warm the room for Te Rā. Encourage momentum for her tēina. Acknowledge the significance of this taonga mōrehu returning however you can. But most importantly, support the people with calloused hands who are re-awakening the sails. The future of Te Rā is within Māori hands.

Te Rā is currently on loan from The British Museum. It has been exhibited at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Te Rā is currently on display at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum.

This essay has been supported by Public Interest Journalism, funded by NZ On Air.

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