Forty years ago, a replica of a traditional, double-hulled voyaging waka was launched in Hawai’i. It was the Hokule’a and, with Nainoa Thompson navigating by the skies, it began making voyages throughout the Pacific. First to Tahiti — and then, in 1985, to Aotearoa.
Those feats were in part a vindication of the belief that Polynesian voyaging and settlement through the centuries had been far more planned and controlled than the doubters were suggesting.
Naturally, the successful voyages were a great source of pride and satisfaction for the Hawaiian boatbuilders and crews. But they were also inspirational for a number of Māori, especially Hekenukumai Busby, a Northlander of Ngāti Kahu and Te Rarawa descent.
He was in his 50s when Hokule’a made it to Waitangi — and changed his life. Here he tells Dale Husband about that influence.
There was a time, mātua, not so many years ago, when none of us Māori seemed to have any understanding of oceangoing waka, or any of the skills to build them. But, with your help, and with the support of others, that kaupapa is alive again. I imagine that you’ve been especially satisfied that there’s been so much progress over the last 30 or 40 years.
It was the Hawaiians who gave us the encouragement way back in 1984. I was just a bridge-builder then, but they were intending to make a waka voyage to Aotearoa — and, when they actually did arrive, it got me thinking about us trying to do something here.
When they landed at Waitangi, James Henare told them it was one of the happiest days of his life because so many critics had said that a planned voyage like that had never been done. He also said he hoped that, one day in the near future, we would build a double-hull waka and sail back to where they had started this voyage of rediscovery. That’s when I really took it seriously.
Were you a sailing guy? I know that you grew up near water as most of us Māori and other Kiwi kids did. But were your whānau water people? Or is it something that came to you later in life?
We were mostly landlubbers, but we did go out fishing. Never ever out of sight of land though. The first time I went out of sight of land was over in Hawai’i, early in 1985, when we sailed from one island to another.
But that experience didn’t worry me at all really. In fact, I liked it. I felt really good about it — and that was the beginning of the end for me.
Mātua, can we talk about your name? You’ve got some lovely names there. Hekenukumai Ngaiwi Puhipi Busby. I suppose the Busby surname comes from James Busby who helped organise the Treaty of Waitangi.
Well, my ancestor was a chief of Te Rarawa. He was Teripi Temaru. And he wanted to become a Christian. And he did so, I believe, in December 1839, not long before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Then, when he was baptised, James Busby became his godfather — and gave him his name, Busby, which is Puhipi in Māori.
Busby was called Puhipi as soon as he arrived here in the north. He was known as Puhipi.
The name Hekenukumai Ngaiwi was chosen for me by a grandaunty — although at school I was called Hector, because that was as close as they could get to Hekenukumai in Pākehā.
You’re from Pukepoto, aren’t you? Not far from Kaitaia. But I don’t know much about your whānau.
Well, there were 12 of us in our family. My mother had two families and, when she met my dad, she already had four children from her first marriage. Then, after they got married, they had eight more — and we all grew up together. I was the second oldest in my dad’s whānau.
And we had a very big house. It was supposed to be a two-storey building but halfway through they decided to just have the one floor. The ceiling joists were these big 8x2s, so that they could take another floor. I can remember that because, even at a young age, I was very interested in woodwork. I took notice of all that stuff.
What did your dad do? Were they farming people, your folks?
Yes. We were brought up on a farm. We used to milk around 40 cows. It was all by hand in those days. No milking machines.
And you were speaking te reo Māori as a youngster?
Yes, yes. Our grandmother lived with us and she didn’t know how to talk Pākehā. We went to Pukepoto Primary, but I never went on to high school.
I knocked off school the day I was 15. That was in 1947. I went to work straight away in a bakehouse. I baked bread for 12 months before I decided to move away from Kaitaia.
But, before that, you’d been living through the war years. That was 1939–45, wasn’t it? What were your memories of those times?
Well, one thing I can never forget — and I’m not quite sure how old I was then — but I can remember we had a farewell occasion in our marae in Pukepoto for our boys who were going off to fight overseas.
I think I was the only one of my age that actually stayed awake right through the whole session. Through the whole night. Right till dawn. Actually, there was a final sort of waltz, or whatever you’d like to call it. The boys all walked around the hall. And I was leading them around the hall. I don’t know how or why or what. But I can remember that I led them.
In actual fact, I can remember my shirt was taken off me and all I had on was just my shorts, and I led the boys around — our uncles and other relations. These were the ones that were signed up to go. I led them around the hall about three times, I think. Then dawn came. And then I can remember the Road Service bus pulling in to pick up the boys — and they were away on their journey overseas.
Very moving, Hek. Touching the walls of the whare, I imagine, as they went around. Did some of these men not come home?
Yeah. Some of them didn’t come home. And I remember, after we all came out of the hall, there was a line on each side — and everyone went and shook hands with the boys, their relations, who were boarding the bus.
My granduncle, my grandmother’s brother, picked out the ones that weren’t going to come home. I’ll never ever forget that. He watched the boys as they went around shaking hands to all the people at home, and I think it was the ones that cried when they kissed their mother. He said then, there were three of them that wasn’t coming back. He was spot on. One of them was my uncle.
Thank you, mātua. Thank you. That must’ve been a really emotional occasion. And it’s getting to me now as you tell the story. (Pause) But let’s move on …
So, you ended up being a baker for a year? In Kaitaia?
The furtherest I used to go, was from Kaitaia to Waitangi. I can remember going to Waitangi and seeing, and touching, the big waka Ngātokimatawhaorua. And, really, I fell in love with that waka when I first saw it. When us school kids went to Waitangi, everybody used to be running around all over the shore. But I would head straight for the waka house and I would virtually sit there till it was time to come home. Really. I can remember all that.
Then, more than 20 years later, I became the caretaker of that waka — and we relaunched it after it had been sitting in its house for 33 years. That was late in 1973 when they took it out and started training and preparing for the Queen’s visit on Waitangi Day, 1974. Boy oh boy! That was one of the big thrills of my life when we actually put that waka back in the water.
But, hang on. How did you get from being a baker’s boy to taking charge of that waka?
Well, some of my schoolmates had gone down from Kaitaia to work at the Portland Cement Works near Whangarei. And, because I was feeling lonely, I went down there to join them. But I’d been working there for only about three months when I got sick. Because of the dust, I think. It was killing me.
So I came back to Kaitaia. Did a bit of drain cleaning and gum digging. Then our bridge next to the courthouse in Kaitaia had to be rebuilt. A new bridge. Myself and my two brothers, we all started as labourers — and that’s when I really fell in love with that kind of work.
I used to take the plans home at night. Sneak the plans home and study them. That was my beginning of being a foreman. And then, finally, I decided to tender against my boss for a small job, a local job here. That was the beginning of my bridge-building career.
Which served you well for many years, didn’t it? Forty-odd years as a bridge-builder. I guess you got married then. Found a beautiful wāhine and had kids. Is that all tied into that period?
Yes, yes. I got married virtually when I started bridge building and, funny enough, I used to remember what year I built a bridge because of which baby was there at a particular job. I knew the bridges and their years off by heart because I knew all my kids’ ages.
Ngahiraka and I had seven boys in a row before we had a daughter. Two daughters — but we lost stillborn twin daughters as well. Then we had a baby son. So we brought up eight boys and two girls, although we’ve since lost two of our sons from cancer.
And now the waka projects. I understand that John Rangihau was one of the high profile men who steered you towards this work and this commitment?
Yeah. John Rangihau was actually the one that introduced the Hawaiians to me. And there were others who gave me the strength to carry on — and who had faith in me.
I see that you’ve built over 30 waka. And, with your latest voyage back across the Pacific, the return journey in effect, you’ve demonstrated once again our abilities to go both ways. But has there been one particular moment when it has hit home and you’ve felt it’s all been worthwhile?
I tell you. It was at the end of the maiden voyage of Aurere to Rarotonga. I felt so . . . well, felt so humbled. After all the welcome speeches and stuff, their prime minister stood up and said: “Over 650 years ago, your ancestors left here for Aotearoa and today you have finally returned. So welcome home.”
That really knocked me. I was so glad that I had all this greenery around my head and eyes, and nobody could see the tears just pouring down my cheeks. What he said really hit me. And that gave me the strength to carry on to Hawai’i and Rapa Nui, the other two corners of the triangle.
I understand that, as part of nursing this project along, you’ve been establishing a wānanga to help ensure that the interest, the kaupapa and the expertise is preserved and developed.
Well, all along, I’ve been very, very careful, trying to make sure I’m doing everything right. Right from going into the forest to choose the trees.
And, from the beginning we’ve had a waka wānanga, in our own way. My house was virtually open to everybody. Our house was everybody’s house from the start right up to now. But now we have this new whare wānanga nearly finished, although it’s at a standstill at the moment.
Once that’s done, though, we’re all set. We’ve got everything else here. We’ve got the star compass and, as long as I’m on my two feet, I’ll be willing to try and help the young. Not that it’s just the young people that want to know about celestial navigation and how it’s done. There’s a lot of old people willing to listen.
And, I tell you what, sometimes when you start pointing out the different clues in the skies, you can see their eyes nearly popping out of their heads. It’s a revelation for them.
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