As told to Elisabeth Easther New Zealand.
I was brought up in Bulls, but my fondest holiday memories are of going back to Manutuke about 12km outside Gisborne. I always looked forward to staying with my grandmother and seeing my cousins — because my whakapapa goes to Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata and Ngāti Kahungunu, I knew, in my heart of hearts, tribally that is where I came from and where I belonged. There was a little swing bridge over Te Arai river. We used to jump off the bridge then swim to shore and cover ourselves in mud. We'd bake in the sun till the mud was completely dry, then stand up all crinkly and crunkly, before going back to the bridge to jump back in and go through the process all over again.
After school, I went to Wellington to study engineering. I never really had an interest in the arts, but I remember going home one weekend because mum told me a healer was coming to Parewahawaha Marae. The tohunga wore big dark glasses and, as we went into the meetinghouse, he walked around naming all the carvings. When he got to the end, he looked directly at me and asked, "how did I do?"
I was taken by surprise as it wasn't that difficult, because they all had nametags. But he asked me how he did and then said, "you should know because you're a carver". At that stage I'd never considered carving. When I got home I told mum and she said, 'you do know he's blind?' Obviously he had an insight, and for the first time I thought maybe I'm meant to be a carver.
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My first trip overseas was to Australia in 1980 to participate in the World Conference of Indigenous People. I met some Aboriginal people from Alice Springs and they invited me to join them in the desert for a few weeks. We'd get up each morning and drive all day, miles and miles along straight dusty roads. I knew Australia was big, but driving to Alice Springs, I really experienced it. Sleeping by campfires along the way, they said if I felt something crawl into my sleeping bag, it was probably just a snake trying to keep warm. So I made my bed on top of the truck, snakes were not part of my landscape. One guy caught a snake in the middle of the night, knocked it over the head then baked it over the fire for breakfast. It tasted a bit like chicken
In 1992, I sailed from Taipa to Rarotonga on Sir Hector Busby's waka Te Aurere. I'd been dreaming about such a voyage for years. We got beat up by about five different storms, the waves were enormous, but I am never scared on the ocean, I just think I am part of the ocean. I'm in the realm of Tangaroa and Tāwhirimātea.
And if you do get scared you become inefficient, and you can't let that happen at sea. We caught a lot of fish along the way, just as the ancestors would have. Over all the voyaging I've done,
I've caught all sorts of fish, but the biggest was a marlin on a handline, sailing back from Hawaii to Rarotonga. It took four of us to get it on board and I cracked three ribs in the process. It was at least six foot long, before the bill, and it fed 23 people for nine days so it was worth it, but it was pretty painful to breath for a while.
In 1983, I was given a dream by the ancestors to carve a canoe prow, not just any old canoe prow but the largest in the world and in 1985 I decided it was time to live in Gisborne. In those days, the main street had statues of Captain Cook all over the place, and I thought this is where I must carve the prow, to bring balance back to the storyline. Twenty-seven years after I first dreamed of carving the prow, I knew I needed to create the finest waka I could, using everything I had learned from all the other waka I'd helped build, from those trials and tribulations. Thanks to the Tairāwhiti Voyaging Trust, and my mentors, we now have a floating classroom that combines education and tourism. On the tourism side we have storytelling in port, bringing to life 7000 years of Polynesian and Maori voyaging history. The other tourism offering involves sailing in the bay, giving people a chance to experience, in a small way, what the ancestors did.
At school we were taught that the ancestors were nothing but accidental drifters who were blown off course while fishing; but my mum told me that wasn't right and she taught me my genealogy and my whakapapa and that became a strong part of my life. Ever since then I've felt an obligation to help people discover who they are, to teach them what's in their DNA, and to realise they can do amazing things with their lives. I've made a point of fulfilling the dreams the ancestors gave me and, to the best of my ability, I've made those dreams come true.
Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp is CEO of Tairāwhiti Voyaging Trust, wakavoyagers.com/strong>