Two cultures blended perfectly at Waitangi on Monday, when 86-year-old Hekenukumai Puhipi (Busby), the world renowned master of waka-building, sailing and navigation from Aurere, was invested as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

"[Sir Hekenukumai's work] affirmed our oral history that we are in fact navigators extraordinaire who traversed the greatest expanse of water on the planet for millennia ... "

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Many hundreds of people crowded around Te Whare Rūnanga, the carved meeting house at the Treaty Grounds, as Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy tapped him on each shoulder with a ceremonial sword before telling him, "Arise, Sir Hekenukumai." Kaihoe and school children from around Northland then performed haka and waiata in his honour.

Sir Hekenukumai had been welcomed earlier with haka and more than an hour of tributes, Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi saying his quest to build ocean-going waka and sail them around Polynesia without European navigation aids had been a "breakthrough" 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," he said.

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He had left school at the age of 15 and established a bridge-building business, but it was an encounter with the Hawaiian waka hourua Hokole'a, which arrived at Waitangi in 1985, that changed his life.

He subsequently built 52 waka, and founded a school of traditional navigation at Aurere to pass on his knowledge.

Randie Fong, a member of a delegation from the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii, 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," he said.

"Him being honoured in this way 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."

Waitangi Day organising committee chairman Pita Paraone said Sir Hekenukumai 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 at Te Tii Marae.

He was saddened though, that Sir Hek's late wife Hilda, without whose support he might not have achieved so much, could not be there.