James Eruera (bottom, left) at the Rātā waka carving symposium last year. The tōtara tree, from a farm in Kaikohe, was carved into a Hawaiian wa’a during the symposium.

There may have been a feeling, when Hekenukumai (Hector) Busby died last year, that his death could signal the imminent death of the waka revival. Hek had been such a dominant and colourful figure in reviving the art and skills that had, for many centuries, made Māori such successful voyagers through the Pacific and then back and forth from Aotearoa. But he wasn’t just an old northerner who was especially handy at choosing trees, shaping them into waka — and navigating them at sea. He was also an inspiration to the next generation of carvers and navigators. And a significant one of those has been James Eruera who’s here talking with Dale.


Kia ora, James. We need to spend some time talking about your association with Sir Hekenukumai Busby and about his commitment, and yours, too, to the craft of waka building. But, first, can you tell us something about your whānau and whakapapa?

Tēnā koe, Dale. My dad was Rima Edwards who was from the Hokianga and was staunch Ngāpuhi. He did a lot of work on the Muriwhenua claim and on the Ngāpuhi claims. A very knowledgeable and well-respected man among his colleagues and iwi. He died in 2011.

Mum Hariata is from Pukepoto, not far from Kaitaia. She’s true blue Te Rarawa and she comes through the Busby and Norman whānau. And it was through that whanaungatanga that I first connected with Sir Hek.

I was born and raised in Kaitaia with an older brother, Katene, and three sisters, Marama, Leanne, and Donna. All of them clever people. I’m kinda the black sheep. Unfortunately, Donna passed away just after Dad died. Both of them from cancer.

Katene spent some time as a lawyer, then in the airforce, and is now the first Māori principal of St John’s Theological College in Auckland. Marama works for the Ministry of Social Development and Leanne is a business manager for Auckland University. So that’s us.

Are you a religious family?

We were raised to have faith but we were also encouraged to shape that faith, to grow rather than be locked into any one particular philosophy. Our father was quite liberal like that. We were brought up deeply Karaitiana (Christian) as well as standing that alongside our whakapono Māori.

So we were steeped in our tikanga and our faith. They sort of blended together. As individuals, we’ve grown our own philosophies around our faith.

Hariata and Rima Edwards, James’s parents.

How were your school days in Kaitaia?

I didn’t do too well at school. It wasn’t that I was slow or anything. I was in the top stream, as they called it then. I had no issues academically. The school system just didn’t work for me. I lasted two years at high school and then gave it the flick.

One of the most influential people I had at school was Pare Nathan. She’s from Tainui but she spent her married life in the north. She was the equivalent of head of Māori at Kaitaia College. I gravitated towards the more Māori parts of the curriculum and I enjoyed kapa haka.

But I didn’t really get into the artwork such as whakairo. I never felt the need to pick up the chisels and become an artist. When it comes to carving waka, that’s a different skill set and whakairo is only one component.

And te reo Māori, for you, over the years?

Māori was an elective at school. It wasn’t there in your face. You had to fall into it. I don’t know that there was a “drive” to do te reo. It just felt like it was the right thing to do.

But there was a passion for te reo and daily exposure from Dad, although we weren’t experts. We had English as the first family language with te reo Māori around us all the time, if I can put it like that.

Did you do some hard yakka after your time at school?

When I left school, I went straight into Māori trade training. I picked up spray painting, panel beating and coach building. So I gathered a fair bit of trade skills within that programme, which served me well when it came to building waka. After that, I spent a couple of years following my passion for music in the South Island.

During that time there was an accident when 14 people lost their lives after a DOC platform collapsed at Cave Creek. That was in April 1995. And I knew some of them because they were mostly students and we all lived in the student hostel in Greymouth. That disaster played a big role in shaping the person I’ve become.

Are you comfortable to talk a little more about that?

Yeah. That’s okay. At Cave Creek, you had a bunch of people mostly between 16 and 19, some a little older. Basically, we were all kids thinking we were indestructible and that the world was our oyster. We’d been together only six months, maybe not even that long. But, in that time, we’d got to know one another   — and there were a couple of my pretty good mates on the platform that day.

I think the biggest impact it had on me was coming to understand our mortality and to realise that, just like that, your life can be taken away. There was also the great sadness for the families of those who lost their lives. And we saw the resilience of those who survived. Those survivors have had their own struggles over the years — and they’ve had a strength which I admired then and still do.

When that happened, I was completing a music performance course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic. Strings are my thing. Bass and guitar. Later, I went on to do courses in live sound, event production and audio engineering. I didn’t follow those through but I still tinker with them. And I did gain the music performance qualification.

After I left Greymouth, I came back to Auckland for a period. Did labouring for one of my uncles and sort of floated between doing nothing and asking what was wrong with the world. I was trying to find some direction. A few years later, I went back to Greymouth where I ended up doing youth work and also some workshops on the Treaty.

But then, Dad drove down from Kaitaia and brought me home.

Why do you think he did that?

I think he needed me home. He was one of the five pou kōrero who established the foundation for the Ngāpuhi claims. He made the decision to drive the discussions towards the Ngāpuhi hearings focusing on the issue of sovereignty.

As part of that strategy, he placed three generations of claimants on the claim — himself, myself, and one of his mokopuna — because, in his view, it would take three generations to get to the truth of the matter. I think that was the reason he came and got me. He could see the big picture, and he needed me at home to at least stand by and help carry those kaupapa through.

I think your dad had great foresight. It’s important that it’s done right. And I don’t disagree with his belief that it may take three generations.

When Dad passed away, he was very clear about how we needed to move. But, when he died, nine years ago, I kinda took a monitoring position on where Ngāpuhi was. I’m still monitoring. We got the report confirming that we hadn’t ceded our mana, but then I think the leadership within Ngāpuhi steered it in a direction that wasn’t conducive to good outcomes for our people.

That’s not a criticism of the leadership. It’s just that it’s really hard to figure out the best road forward.

I think that, if I do step back into the ring, I’d need at least to gather people around me who can see what the vision should look like — and how we can move forward for the benefit of everyone. That was Dad’s approach. It was never about him. It was always about service to our people. That’s what he instilled in all of us.

Hekenukumai Busby. (Photo: teaurere.org.nz)

Let’s talk now about your waka life. When did you first get lured into that? And who helped you get involved?

The first I was ever involved in waka was in the late ‘80s when they were building the waka for the 1990 celebrations. Dad and my father-in-law, Ross Gregory, were part of the waka project to build the trimaran that we now call Tinana.

That was an amazing way to bring our people together— and that, I think, was when those kaupapa waka seeds were planted in me.

I never thought much about it, though, until sometime later. The clincher was when my grandfather Ben Job passed away in the early ‘90s. In 1992, Te Aurere was on its maiden voyage to Rarotonga. That was the double-hulled waka built by Hek Busby. My grandfather had quite a bit of respect for Hek, and I recall that, on his death bed, he requested that, every time there was a report on Te Aurere on the local radio station, we were to turn it up so he could listen.

I think that was when I decided that one day I’d go and meet Hek and see if I was able to contribute to what he was doing, or to learn something about what they were trying to reignite for our people.

My grandfather was a great fisherman. He loved the ocean and he’d often talk to us about the stars and stuff when we were kids. He had a book which he gave me called The Stars of the Southern Sky. That started me down the road of astronomy. Those are probably the seeds of where the waka thing came from.

Can you tell us about how your kaupapa waka journey unfolded and how you got into carving, voyaging and navigation? Because you’re seen now as one of the leaders of this wonderful kaupapa that follows and celebrates the traditions of our old people. 

Let’s skip forward to 2002. My dad has brought me home and I’m just sitting around wondering what to do. I remember hearing that Hek was looking for crew to sail Te Aurere to Rapa Nui, to Easter Island. I thought maybe that was a good opportunity.

Then an uncle from Hawai’i came to visit Hek. He was Iwi Henare who was a good friend of my father — and we all ended up at Hek’s place having a kai. That was the first time I met Hek properly. And, when we were talking, he pulled out a star compass that he’d drawn on a bit of cardboard with the waka in the middle — and he took me through that and explained how it all worked.

I got it straight away. Or at least I understood the basics of how it operated. And later, when I got an email asking for volunteers to come up to Aurere to help refurbish Te Aurere, I was especially interested. So I came home and worked alongside Hek for that summer. I also did as much as I could, mowing lawns and scrub-cutting to make a few bob and keep myself going.

After we’d put Aurere back in the water and after I’d done my first trip, Hek asked if I’d like to carry on with this. I jumped at that opportunity. I was young, single, and had no kids to worry about, so I jumped on board and worked with him to help create the things he was creating.

So that’s the first part of it, Dale.

Keep on going. It’s a lovely story, mate. As a modern-day Māori, I love being reminded of the navigational skills and the courage of our forebears. So for you to be a part of Hek’s rediscovery of those skills must have been amazing.

I remember going to the first wānanga that Hek called in the lead-up to the Rapa Nui voyage. And there were these legendary characters: Hek, Stanley Conrad, Jack Thatcher, and Philip Evans. I felt privileged just to be able to walk in and say hello to these guys.

Hek had a very humble place. Most of his work at that time was done in a rusty old Skyline garage with a concrete floor. I felt honoured to be sleeping there on the concrete — and to be there with those guys and listening to the kōrero of their experiences with waka. That was my perspective when I started off.

As you grow and you get to know them, they become less mentors and more friends. That’s how my relationship with Hector developed. We had — I don’t want to say a father-son relationship — but there was definitely whanaungatanga there.  Hek knew my great-grandmother very well. She was his dad’s sister.

I remember saying to my mother once: “The old fulla got angry with me today, but he was pretty good about it.” And Mum said: “It was probably his aunty in his ear giving him a good growling and telling him not to hurt her moko.”

Another thing beside the whanaungatanga was the way I was brought up. Working alongside my grandfather and my father meant we learned how to do stuff. Picking up skills by fixing bikes and then cars. All sorts of things.

Hek was the same generation. They’d all been raised knowing how to fix things, how to build things, how to create things. And, when I walked in to work alongside Hector, I got what he was about and how he taught. There were a number of things I had to learn from scratch. But he had a lot of patience, especially if he could see potential in someone.

What’s given you the most satisfaction? Building waka or the voyaging? Is there one particular voyage or waka where it all came together for you?

That’s a good question, Dale. I remember, early in the first year that I was working alongside Hector, we were building a waka taua called Rangimarie for Ngāti Kahu. It was the first waka I had the chance to work on with him, and I remember there was a defining moment for me when that waka went in the water.

It wasn’t that we’d spent three months getting it together, carving and all that. It was actually the faces of our young people when they got in that waka. That was the hook for me.

Later, I thought: “Wow, we achieved something really cool for our people that isn’t political, that’s not predicated on making a profit. It’s just about the kōrero between me and my father and him teaching us about service to our people.”

And I thought this was something I can keep going with because we’re serving our people in a traditional way. We’re building them a waka that will carry their aspirations forward. And it’s helping lift them as individuals as well as whānau, hapū and iwi.

That one had a great effect on me. And there was a second moment when I was navigating Te Aurere back home from Raro. We’d just come out of an eight-day storm  and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti came up alongside us, maybe half a day after the storm had subsided.

Ngahiraka was the sister waka hourua, a double-hulled canoe.

Part of the whole Rapa Nui thing was about building another waka hourua. And I’d told Hek that I’d commit my time to helping him build it. He said it’d probably take six to eight months. But that turned into a couple of years — and then it was six years before we had it ready to go in the water. And it was another few years after that before she was ready for her maiden voyage to Rapa Nui.

Ngahiraka became a sort of love-hate thing for me. It’d taken us six years to build and, in a way, I felt it had stolen time from me being with my father and sister when they were ill.

But, as I mentioned, on the trip from Raro back to Aotearoa, after the storm, Ngahiraka came up on us while we were doing some running repairs. I remember sitting on the front nets of Aurere and looking out at Ngahiraka and seeing her ploughing through the waves with our people on board, nice and safe.

And I shed a few tears. In that moment, I realised that’s what it was all about — creating this vehicle for our people to reinvigorate our voyaging mātauranga. Again, I was honoured and privileged for being a small part of that.

Mate, when the waka arrived at Rapa Nui, that brought tears to my eyes. I was watching it on TV. All of the richness of our history came rushing in.

At that stage, I’d done nine years with Hek and we’d built 16 waka. But my father and sister were ill, so I told Hector I had to take some time off to be with them. I didn’t know how long they were going to be around, but I didn’t want to spend any more time without them. That’s why I took a break from the old fulla.

During that time, I got a call from Hek. It was 2012. He’d just had radio information that the waka were about to arrive in Rapa Nui and he rang me. And he was bawling his eyes out — crying and crying and crying. We sat there for a while and, as the carvers, just talked about the journey.

There are very few who’ll understand how it feels to know that you’ve built this vessel that’s gone across the ocean and that’s delivered your people safely to their destination. When any of our waka go out on the water, we carry the burden of our workmanship because we’re constantly worrying about what could go wrong.

That’s part and parcel of being intimate with the waka and knowing every inch of it, knowing its strengths and weaknesses. When that phone call came through from Hector, there was all his emotion, and there aren’t too many who’d understand where that’s coming from.

I’m very pleased you’ve spoken of the elements of danger. You’ve got other people’s lives in your hand, haven’t you? And I like your reference to an intimacy with the waka.

It’s very much like a child, Dale. We use that analogy quite a bit. We talk about the transformation of mauri from the forest to the ocean. As carvers, we’re responsible for transforming the mauri when it comes from the forest as Tane and leaves for the ocean as Tangaroa. We draw mauri from the tree but we also give our own mauri to it. We become part of that waka, and the waka becomes part of us.

So it’s not unlike how you’d view a child. When it’s launched, that’s the moment of birth.

You’ve got a lovely way of speaking of this kaupapa, James. Thanks for taking us into your heart and mind. I really appreciate that. You’ve carried on with Hek’s work in the wake of his death a year ago — and after, in effect, he’d ordained you as the one who could take this kaupapa forward. But where are we now?

The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute had a big part to play in sponsoring the Rapa Nui  voyage, and one of the outcomes was that they established a satellite school in the north called Te Wananga a Kupemaitawhiti. That’s when I came back into it because the institute wanted me to be the head teacher there. Hek was our tohunga. And we pushed through two graduates in three years.

At the end of that time, I wanted to move on, and do something else and I’ve carried on trying a different model in Awanui, where we’re continuing to develop those who’ve graduated. We had another graduate in February.

The kaupapa itself is so strong there’s already enough support to carry on what we’re doing at Awanui. There’s iwi support, and support as well from arts organisations and from our graduates and me as the “expert” leading the kaupapa.

To me the future looks bright despite the impact of coronavirus. I’ve been telling some of my colleagues in the arts fields that our traditional arts just depend on our relationship with nature.

If it comes down to having to go back to stone adzes, you could still build your waka. Weavers could still weave their mats. All they have to do is be with nature and harvest their kōrari.

Those arts are solid. They’re not going anywhere. All it takes is for us to be motivated and do our mahi without trying to make a profit.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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