For the past 10 years, I have been asking schoolchildren if they like MY waka. Te Mata o Hoturoa is one of the most prized and iconic taonga in the Whanganui Regional Museum. So after the kids finished laughing, I would iterate it is mine, before continuing with morsels of interesting facts to complement the feast before their eyes. This year, I learnt it was "mine" from the time it was made.

Te Mata o Hoturoa was built during a time when Whanganui iwi and Tuwharetoa iwi wished to strengthen their alliances after years of political unrest in Te Kahui Maunga (the central plateau region). In the time of Manunui (the eponymous ancestor of Ngati Manunui of Tuwharetoa), conflict arose between the two iwi at Manganui-o-te-Ao. A number of arranged marriages helped settle the disputes.

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One of these unions was between Tukaiora and Hinekaihinu. Their son, Te Pikikotuku, was a famed tupuna and ariki of several iwi in Te Kahui Maunga and Tuwharetoa. One of his strongholds was Ruru-mai-akatea, just below Taumarunui.


Te Pikikotuku married Te Taruna, the granddaughter of Manunui, cementing a lasting relationship. The father of Te Taruna is Te Tarapounamu, who is believed to be the tohunga whakairo (master carver) of this waka taua. His grandparents were Te Rangiita and Waitapu, whose marriage represented a significant union between the Tuwharetoa and Raukawa tribes. This may be why the name of the waka suggests a strong Tainui link - Hoturoa is the name of the captain of the Tainui waka.

The takere (hull) is made from a single totara grown at Kakahi, near the confluence of the Whanganui and Whakapapa Rivers at Ngarahuarua and presented to Te Pikikotuku as a wedding gift.

The couple had twins, Tupoto and Tuhaha, from whom I descend.
This magnificent waka is 22 metres long and 1.5 metres wide. It can carry 70 kaihoe (paddlers), some of whom would be resting, ready to take over the hoe when needed.

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In the 1820s, Te Mata o Hoturoa was part of the assault fleet of at least 2000 warriors from coastal tribes who combined against Te Rauparaha and his stronghold at Waiorua, on Kapiti Island. The battle was won by Te Rauparaha, who consolidated the mana of the lower North Island tribes, including Ngati Toa, Te Ati Awa and Ngati Raukawa.

The waka also took part in major battles on the Whanganui River, including the Battle at Moutoa in 1864 and the Battle of Ohautahi in 1865. During the skirmishes leading up to the Ohautahi battle, it is understood Te Mata o Hoturoa changed hands from the upper river iwi to Hipango of the lower river iwi. Bullet holes from these conflicts can still be seen in the takere.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

Hipango was seriously wounded at the Battle of Ohautahi and died shortly afterwards. Waata Hipango, his son, bequeathed the waka taua to his wife Ema, who presented it to the Museum in 1917, along with another waka taua named Teremoe.

When they arrived at the museum, only the takere remained. In times of peace, whakairo (carvings) were removed from waka taua and karakia (prayers) were performed to enable them to be used for transport, fishing and social contact.

The Dominion Museum (now Te Papa Tongarewa) wanted Te Mata o Hoturoa for their own collection. Our museum director and the Board of Trustees were reluctant to part with this taonga, but had no funds to complete necessary refurbishments to ready it for display.


They agreed to exchange Teremoe for two carvings and £15. Then they set about gaining the permission of the "native owners", as reported in correspondence.

The carvings, a tauihu (prow) and taurapa (stern) were exchanged on delivery of Teremoe to the Dominion Museum on February 24, 1930 and now adorn Te Mata o Hoturoa. Ema may have helped select them. The £15 was used to buy timber to make new rauawa (side strakes) and kiato (thwarts).

Recent investigations found that the taurapa originates from the Ngati Kahungunu people of Te Wairoa, Hawke's Bay, my great-grandmother's people. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find more information on the tauihu.

Both taonga needed work to replace sections lost or missing. A local tohunga whakairo, Tauri, was engaged to complete this intricate work. In the early 1930s, the museum board called for tenders to carve new rauawa and kiato. Despite having the lowest tender price, Tauri was not selected. Museum trustee TW Downes selected the carving designs and Thomas Dewson, an English carpenter, won the tender.

Downes and museum curator George Shepherd fitted them to the waka and repainted the hull with kokowai (traditional red ochre pigment).

I sincerely thank the Hipango whanau for sharing this taonga with us all, and am reminded that taonga pass through many hands in their lifetimes. This means many people may lay claim to taonga in some way.
Is MY waka also YOURS?

Awhina Twomey is Kaitiaki Taonga Maori and Kaiwhakaako at Whanganui Regional Museum.