Many hundreds of people gathered at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds this afternoon to honour Sir Hekenukumai Puhipi, who was knighted for reviving the ancient Māori arts of ocean voyaging and celestial navigation.

The 86 year old, who lives at Aurere in Doubtless Bay, received his knighthood in front of Te Whare Runanga, the carved meeting house, from Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.

Tapping him on each shoulder with a ceremonial sword, she proclaimed "Arise, Sir Hek" - prompting a series of powerful haka and waiata from kaihoe (waka paddlers) and schoolchildren who had travelled from around the Far North.

People came from as far as Hawaii to see Sir Hek receive his knighthood, a sign of the esteem he is held in around the Pacific.

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He was seated next to PM Jacinda Ardern and Ngapuhi matriarch Titewhai Harawira for the first part of the ceremony, while his citation was read in te reo and English.

His arrival at the Treaty Grounds about 9.30am was greeted with a haka powhiri and more than an hour of speeches. Dame Patsy was also formally welcomed at Te Whare Runanga before bestowing Sir Hek's knighthood.

Hekenukumai Puhipi (Busby) was named a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in last year's Queen's Birthday Honours for services to Māori, but the honour — one of New Zealand's highest — was presented this morning by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, shortly after she was formally welcomed to the Treaty Grounds.

Ngapuhi welcome Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds today. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Ngapuhi welcome Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds today. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Sir Hek, as he is now often known, is the first person to be knighted at Te Whare Rūnanga, the carved meeting house on the Upper Treaty Grounds.

Dame Whina Cooper and Sir Graham Latimer were also knighted at Waitangi but their honours were bestowed at Te Tii Marae.

Pita Paraone, chairman of the Waitangi Day organising committee, told the Northern Advocate today's ceremony was hugely significant — but it paled into insignificance next to the recipient himself and the work he had done to revive waka hourua (ocean-going canoes) and traditional celestial navigation.

Paraone said Waitangi was a fitting place for Sir Hek to be knighted given its connection to the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua.

Sir Hek, who is 86, originally worked as a bridge builder. He built around 200 bridges, mostly in what was then Mangonui County but some as far south as Waipū.

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An invitation in 1984 from John Rangihau to travel to Hawaii, where efforts were under way to revive the ancient arts of building and sailing waka, was the spark that ignited Sir Hek's passion.

In 1985 the Hawaiian double-hulled waka Hokole'a landed in New Zealand after sailing across the Pacific, prompting Sir James Henare to voice his dream that one day Māori would build their own waka and sail to Hawaii on their own Voyage of Rediscovery.

Sir Hek took up that challenge, telling the Advocate in an earlier interview: ''When he died in 1989 I made up my mind to do what his wishes were.''

He built the first of his ocean-going waka, Te Aurere, in 1990; he reached Hawaii in 1995. He has built many more waka since.

He has also built a school for traditional navigation, the Kupe Waka Centre, at Aurere in Doubtless Bay, and has held many roles with organisations such as Waitangi National Trust, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and Te Tai Tokerau Maori District Council. He is a senior adviser to his iwi Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri and Ngāpuhi, has been a member of the Waitangi Day organising committee for almost 40 years.

He is still involved in waka activities during the annual commemorations on February 6.