Te Warihi Hetaraka says before Māori had written word there was carving.

Carving was a way of telling stories and connecting people, and it is still used to tell stories today.

"Carvings was our written language basically. Letters were symbols that created the words and became the tohu of what the words stand for.

"Carvings were the same sort of situation where the whakarei - whakarei is the service decoration - those carried the philosophies and stories of our ancestors," Hetaraka said.


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Hetaraka is a tohunga whakairo - a master carver in Northland. He has been carving since age 8, and when he was 16 he was chosen to go to Rotorua to represent all the tribes of Northland as a student at what is now known as Te Puia.

His work can be viewed all over. He has worked on Kaka Porowini Marae, a piece in the police station, and the kōhatu (rock) on the top of Parihaka - to name a few.

"Carving is a very spiritual exercise. When you're carving, the marks that you're making on wood is marks that were handed down from generation to generation that depict certain aspects and philosophies of ancestors. And because of that you can't help but wonder and awe at the matauranga tuku iho (knowledge) that was handed down to us through this medium."

Te Warihi Hetaraka has been carving since he was 8. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Te Warihi Hetaraka has been carving since he was 8. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Hetaraka said every carving tells a story and what story will be told through his carvings depends on the situation.

"Say if you're doing it for a local hapu then the first thing we take into account is the local history.

"Say for example if I went into a strange area, the first thing I would do is find out what their legends are, to find out from them what story should be included."

He says the vision of the carving starts developing when he listens to the stories.


"For example, when I hear a story about Maui and how he fished up the islands of the Pacific, that then starts to form the image that will be placed in the meeting house."

Carving was not the only way of telling stories - raranga (weaving), waiata, and chants were also used.

Hetaraka said after Māori language was written down, it started to change.

"It started to put it in a little box whereas when I hear the old people talk they even included 'L' in their language and sometimes included an 'S' in there. When it was written down it changed the creativity or mood that allowed them to say things however they want to say it."

Hetaraka said it was important however that carvers understand te reo Māori.

"The reo is an integral part of gaining all of that deeper meaning of what whakairo (carving) is about, it's contained in the reo because the reo cannot stand alone. There's a term that we use 'ko te reo me ona tikanga' - they go hand in hand."