Northland's newest Knight has been honoured for reviving the ancient knowledge of sailing and navigation which brought Māori across the world's biggest ocean to New Zealand.

Hekenukumai Puhipi (Busby) was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in a powerful, tribute-filled ceremony at Te Whare Rūnanga, the carved meeting house at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

The 86-year-old from Aurere, in Doubtless Bay, received the title in last year's Queen's Birthday Honours, but the official ceremony only took place yesterday.

Many hundreds of people crowded around the whare as Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy tapped him on each shoulder with a ceremonial sword before telling him, ''Arise, Sir Hekenukumai''.

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Kaihoe (waka paddlers) and schoolchildren who had travelled from around Northland then performed a series of spine-tingling haka and waiata in his honour.

Kaihoe (waka paddlers) perform a powerful haka in honour of the new Knight. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kaihoe (waka paddlers) perform a powerful haka in honour of the new Knight. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Sir Hek, as he is affectionately known, was knighted in recognition of his role in reviving Māori traditions of waka hourua (double-hulled voyaging canoes) and celestial navigation, in which stars, currents and wildlife are used to navigate across vast expanses of ocean.

He was welcomed earlier in the morning with more haka and more than an hour of tributes in te reo before it was Dame Patsy's turn to be welcomed.

The investiture itself was attended by a dozen Government MPs. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the seat next to Sir Hek and held his hand at times during the ceremony.

Haami Piripi, chairman of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, said Sir Hek's quest to build ocean-going waka and sail them around Polynesia without European navigation aids was a break-through for all New Zealanders.

''It affirmed our oral history that we are in fact navigators extraordinaire who traversed the greatest expanse of water on the planet for millennia ... His feats dispelled the long-held myth that we Māori are here by accident and not by design.''

The newly knighted Sir Hekenukumai and Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy watch a series of spine-tingling haka in his honour. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The newly knighted Sir Hekenukumai and Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy watch a series of spine-tingling haka in his honour. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Piripi said Sir Hek had left school at the age of 15, set up his own bridge-building business, and built 158 bridges around Northland.

An encounter with the Hawaiian waka hourua Hokole'a, which arrived at Waitangi in 1985, changed his life. He went on to build 52 waka and founded a school of traditional navigation at Aurere to pass on his knowledge.

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He silenced doubters time after time with his ethos of ''There's no such thing as can't'', Piripi said.

The regard for Sir Hek around the Pacific was demonstrated by the presence of a delegation from the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii.

Randie Fong described Sir Hekenukumai as the ''senior elder'' of the Pacific.

''He is held in high esteem by the people in Hawaii and everywhere in the Pacific. Him being honoured in this way that reminds us all that Polynesians are wired for this, it's been in our DNA for thousands of years. We still have this eagerness to explore and this capability to achieve,'' Fong said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds hands with Sir Hekenukumai and Ngāpuhi kuia Titewhai Harawira; on the left is Gina Harding, Sir Hek's daughter-in-law. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holds hands with Sir Hekenukumai and Ngāpuhi kuia Titewhai Harawira; on the left is Gina Harding, Sir Hek's daughter-in-law. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Waitangi Day organising committee chairman Pita Paraone said Sir Hek was the first person to be knighted at the Treaty Grounds.

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

It was a fitting location because as a young man Sir Hek had been asked to look after the waka Ngātokimatawhaorua based at the Treaty Grounds. Taking up that challenge helped set him on the path which had eventually led to his knighthood.

Paraone said he felt a tinge of sadness, however, that Sir Hek's late wife Hilda, without whose support he might not have achieved so much, could not be there.