There have been heavy hearts since the passing of Hek Busby last month. The contributions of Sir Hekenukumai, especially in waka building and navigation, have been unsurpassed over the last 40 years.
But his legacy, for now at least, is safe. And, as you can see in Dale’s kōrero with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, there’s a new generation embracing the waka kaupapa. Here he talks about the importance of carrying on that legacy, and why he’s the co-chair of the upcoming Tuia250 commemorations.
Kia ora, Hotu. Naturally, seeing that your name is Hoturoa, I’m not surprised that you’re a seafaring man. History tells us that many hundreds of years ago, it was Hoturoa who captained the Tainui waka in the voyage from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. We might even assume it was pre-determined that you’d find yourself in this kind of mahi.
Apparently, there were a few people who had input into deciding that my name should be Hoturoa, so maybe they had some idea that this is what I would be doing. I remember talking to my parents about this and it wasn’t them that chose this name. It was some other kaumātua within the iwi.
My full name is Turanga Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, but most people know me as Hoturoa Kerr. On my birth certificate, it says Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr. That ties into my father’s whakapapa. And that goes back to Dad’s father, Wattie Barclay, who was a captain of the Māori All Blacks in the 1920s.
He was really well-known — and that was partly because of a controversy in 1927 when he was playing for Hawke’s Bay. They’d been a great team and had held the Ranfurly Shield from 1922 to 1926. That was in the days of George Nepia.
But, after my grandfather played for them against Wairarapa in Masterton — even though they won 21-10 — Hawke’s Bay lost the Shield on a technicality because Wattie, at that time, hadn’t been living in the region long enough to qualify as a resident. So, after a big dispute, they had to hand the Shield over.
So that explains the Barclay bit. But where does the Kerr name come from?
That’s my dad’s adopted father who brought him up. My dad put those two names together on the birth certificates for me and my younger brother.
You grew up in Kāwhia, nē? This is very meaningful wāhi for our people of Tainui whakapapa lines.
I spent a lot of time in Kāwhia and Taharoa, on the southern side of the Kāwhia Harbour. But, when I was pretty young, we moved, because my dad, Whare, became the principal of Rūātoki District High School. So my early years were spent in Tūhoe.
That’s where we learned to speak Māori and all of those things. I owe a lot to my friends, whāea, and mātua over in Rūātoki who looked after us when we were little and spoke Māori to us. Our parents spoke Māori to us as well. Going to a place like that when we were young was a great boost to the efforts of our parents to make us competent in te reo.
But we’d still go back from Rūātoki to Kāwhia, all the time, because my grandmother lived there. Like for the opening of the wharenui, Auaukiterangi. That was something that I remember from when I was a very small child. Memories from times like that. With all our uncles and aunties and the stories they told us. They still resonate today.
And there’s the hill at the back of the marae, where the two stones represent the final resting place of our Tainui waka. When I was small, there was a big barbed wired fence all around it and there were these mānuka trees growing all over the hill. It was very different from the way it looks now.
Now what about your mum? Where was she from?
My mum’s from Parawera. That’s a marae near Te Awamutu, just past the Ōrākau battle site. That’s where she grew up. That’s my connection through to Ngāti Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga. She was a teacher. So both my parents were teachers.
I was a late arrival into the family. My parents had been married for close to 20 years before I was born. And they made sure that we understood that getting a good education was a big thing. She and my father really pushed me through school and university.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that you’ve become recognised for your knowledge of waka culture although you spent so much time at Rūātoki, and somewhat removed from waka?
You’re right. When we were in Rūātoki, I didn’t encounter any waka stuff. But because we came back over into Tainui territory all the time, I’d always be at Tūrangawaewae on the Waikato in the mid-‘60s.
All the waka were parked up in a shed by the riverbank, so I’d be wandering around down there amongst them. At that time, they were almost like ancient relics. But, over the years, that’s changed because all those waka are still being used today.
I remember there being a bit of restoration on Te Winika. That’s the war canoe which is in the Hamilton Museum now. And a lot of my kaumātua, who were young guys back then, took Te Winika on to the Waitemata Harbour for the Anniversary Day regatta in 1970. And my dad took us all to watch that.
That really sparked something in me because, until then, I’d only ever seen these waka in the shed. Then, suddenly, there’s this waka out on the water being paddled by all my uncles. That was an awe-inspiring sight. I guess that flicked a switch in me to try and do as much waka stuff as I could. And it opened a door for me into waka kaupapa.
Somewhere along the way, you must’ve shot off to high school.
Well, my dad had tried to get me to go to a boarding school. Either St Stephen’s at Bombay, or to Wesley College at Paerata, because that’s where he went. I sort of railed against that, and I ended up going to a mainstream school in Auckland. I went to Onehunga High. I had some really good teachers there.
When I started, the expectation was that I’d be in the same classes as all the rest of my cousins. But I was put where not too many Māori ever go. That was the academic stream where you did the sciences and languages.
I went all the way through to seventh form, although, when I was in the sixth form, I remember one of my teachers saying: “Look, Kerr, I think you’re wasting your time by coming back to school.”
But I just kept going with it. And I had a very good science teacher, Banks Laxton, who was always encouraging me. Then, when I went to Auckland University, I was in classes that inspired my interest in te ao Māori.
I’ll always remember the classes I had with Ranginui Walker and Anne Salmond because of their understanding of the Pacific and what our tūpuna did — and because of their response to the drift theory which was still prevalent in academia. They encouraged me to think about getting out there and focusing on these issues myself.
I understand that, at varsity, you did a thesis on waka in contemporary times. What did you have in mind by focusing on that?
I was really looking at waka as a symbol of mana. My concern was that, in many ways, people were looking at the waka culture and kaupapa of not just us, but of the Pacific, and thinking that it wasn’t much more than a little pastime. Almost as if it was time-wasting, or something you turn to when you haven’t got anything else to do.
My feeling was that, if you fully understand what waka is all about, and if you do things well, the quality is reflected in the mana of your people.
Today, you have these waka ama races that are organised all around the world. Aotearoa does really well in those contests. Our mana is substantial. And, because of what we do in waka ama, we’re well known and highly respected throughout the Pacific.
And the same applies to waka taua. It’s a reflection of the mana of an iwi or hapū when they put their waka taua out on the ocean or the river. It’s a reflection of the mana of the canoe builders. And of our sailors.
We’re not just sailing from point A to point B. There’s a whole other side to this which reflects the greatness of our tūpuna and the knowledge they had. It’s much more than a pastime. It’s actually a way of showing who we are and what we’re all about. And waka hourua is a symbol of the mana of not just Māoridom, but of all our whānaunga from the Pacific.
We could fast-forward 30-odd years, to your book Wayfinding Leadership with Chellie Spiller and John Panaho. You three are pointing to age-old traditions so that we can see leadership qualities in a different light. It’s a book that’s received critical acclaim — and it seems to me that it marries up with your work as a young student, doesn’t it?
Oh, it does. Absolutely. And I have to really thank Chellie for this because, for a long time, while we were sailing, we’d discuss the way that, on our waka hourua, everything gets done well and everyone feels they’re part of the team doing a really good job.
In many ways, the leadership model is based on whanaungatanga. In a whānau or an iwi, when you want something to happen, you come up with a way of leadership that makes everybody want to do what you want them to do. That’s because everyone has to do it for nothing, pretty much.
So you have to apply principles of leadership that makes everyone feel valued, and know they’re part of a team putting in the effort. I kept saying to Chellie that one of the biggest things for me is having everyone getting off the canoe at the end of the journey and still being friends.
And that’s quite different from some of the Western leadership frameworks which amounts to: ”We need to get to this point — no matter what the cost, financially or in human terms.”
I’ve always seen it from the view which goes back to that whakataukī: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata. (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people.)
So our kaupapa isn’t rocket science. It’s fairly basic and straightforward. It’s a book about looking after each other. And about understanding that, by looking after each other, we can achieve great things.
No doubt you’ve been on many remarkable trips. Can you describe one that stands out in your mind?
One of them was when we were sailing to Hawai’i from the Marquesas Islands in 2012. It was a journey that was a test for Manihera Forbes, our apprentice navigator. We were sailing 2000 miles across the ocean.
I’d never done this trip to Hawai’i either. I’d sort of done other trips all around the place, and I knew what we needed to do to get to Hawai’i. So did Manihera. As we were sailing along, every now and then, in the course of the 12 or 13 days, he’d ask me: “Oh, how will I know such and such?”
And I’d ask: “What did I tell you that my teachers told me?” And he’d recall those conversations that I’d had with him. Then I said: “Okay. Just wait and see if those things turn up.”
All the way through the trip, these signposts from the ocean kept appearing. And, after we sailed into Hilo Harbour, we parked up and I said to him: “So, what do you reckon?” He goes: “Well, the one thing I’ve learned from this trip is that your ancestors will never let you down.”
I said: “Good. If there’s anything I needed you to take from this trip it’s that the words of our tūpuna will keep you safe.” That was a pretty memorable experience for me that, from being a student who’d spent his time learning the theory and the practice, he’d come to see and believe what our tūpuna told us.
It totally transformed his thinking about who he was and where he came from. It was great.
There must’ve been some moments, too, which were frightening. We know that the sea has its own ways. Have you ever been out on the water where you thought you were going to die?
Yeah. There’ve been a few times that have been pretty scary. We’ve had 12-metre breaking waves coming over the top of the waka. Smashing us around all over the place.
I think the longest period we’ve had something like that was 12 days sailing through this stuff. High winds. About 50 knots. Yeah, it’s very scary.
I remember one trip we did to Rarotonga a few years ago. We had a young guy, and this was his first trip. It took us 16 days and maybe 11 or 12 of those days were storm. Not in a row, but maybe five days of storm, then a good day, then another four days of rough weather.
In the second round of rough stuff, this young fulla comes up to me and says: “Mātua, are we going to die?” And I’m thinking: “Well, not if I’ve got anything to do with it. It’s not our plan. We’re going to sail through this until we get to some good stuff.”
Then, in the third set of bad weather, he comes and sits by me and says: “Our canoe’s good, eh?” I said: “Yep. As long as we look after our waka and make the right decisions, we’ll be okay. But don’t relax. Don’t relax. This stuff can be pretty challenging.”
What changes have you witnessed in people when you’ve seen them linking with our waka traditions? Is there something special about being on the moana and in our waka?
I think they have a revelation about the value of mātauranga. That’s the big influence. Even though we have the kōrero about our tūpuna sailing across the ocean and being on waka, for a lot of our pupils, it still kind of falls within the realm of myth and legends, almost like magic.
It’s not until they actually come on board. Not necessarily going on a long trip. Sometimes it’s just short sails around the Hauraki Gulf, or up and down the coast of New Zealand. And, suddenly, there’s this transformation and understanding that, actually, they are descendants of people who were scientists, mathematicians, biologists, astronomers, and marine architects.
The education system in Aotearoa has never been a system that emphasises how good our traditional knowledge has been. And so, it’s been left in this realm of myth and legend. But to be able to get on a waka and do all this stuff — and to see that there’s a traditional science. Well, they understand.
I’d be doing things like: “Let’s figure out how fast we’re going. Without using any instruments.” Then, I’d show them how to do that. Really, it’s all physics and maths. And they’d say: “But our tūpuna didn’t do any of that stuff.” And I’d say: “Yeah, they did. They just didn’t call it physics and maths. They called it living.”
In order to survive and live, you needed to know all this science. But because no one wrote it down, people don’t realise that we’re descended from scientists. They just think we’re a bunch of indigenous people who fluked getting to places.
But this sort of experience tells us who you we are. For a lot of the pupils, it gives them a kind of psychological boost to say: “Actually, I can do all of this. Science. Maths. Biology. Environment. It’s just a part of who I am.”
It transforms their way of doing things together as well. When they’re stuck on a waka, it’s not about me, it’s about all of us. In the modern world, people can be very self-centred. But, when they’re on a waka, they can see that anything they do affects a whole lot of others — and they need to think out the whole plan. There’s all these consequences.
So they become very community-minded. They think more about the rōpū. And, after they get home, their parents ring me up and say: “What did you do to my kids? They actually help me around the house. They work as a team.” And all of that stuff is really great to see.
I’m sure it is, Hotu. For some time, you’ve been seen as something of a tohunga, although you might not go there yourself. But, with Hek Busby’s death, the mantle has swung across to you and others he mentored. How would you describe your relationship with Hek?
I first met him in 1984. I was already out sailing around with the Hawaiians in their canoe up there and getting it ready for the sail to New Zealand. And we had this relationship from that time. Whenever I was back here, I’d head up north and help him out with his canoe-building and getting the kaupapa up and running.
He’s probably the only guy who could’ve got that happening here in Aotearoa. So it was great for me to be able to work with him and learn from him about waka design and waka construction. All of that.
He had a great innings and his passing is a big loss to everyone in the waka community, not just us, but to all those in the Pacific. And it’s a huge challenge for us. It’s not as if the waka has landed and it’s all over now. We’ve got to keep trying to move along and face all the challenges like he did over the last 40 years.
We’d be irresponsible not to try to carry on with his mahi and kaupapa. Otherwise, our time with him would’ve been all for nothing. His passing is a loss, but he was pretty crook over the last part of his life. A large burden has been lifted from him, and our job now is to ensure that we are true to the things he taught us.
That turns our attention to Aurere, the wānanga which he championed and which, I’m pleased to say, is getting some support these days. It’s especially important now, isn’t it?
I think any wānanga and workshop for waka-building and navigation is important right now because, if we don’t work hard, those skills could be lost again. We have an obligation to work towards fulfilling his dream of establishing a proper school of navigation.
There’s already the likes of Jack and Piripi who run a lot of navigational training stuff. So we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But we’ve got to take a serious look at how we get all these other facilities up and running.
And one of the biggest projects for us is the restoration of Te Aurere that we built back in 1992. She’s in a fairly bad state of disrepair. So we’ve got a big job on our hands, not just to get the buildings right for the wānanga, but also to make sure that this iconic waka that represents the resurgence and revitalisation of navigation in Aotearoa is returned to her former state.
Te Aurere, I believe, should become a national icon, a taonga of this country, because she really does epitomise the voyaging spirit of our ancestors and she’s done so many voyages throughout the Pacific.
That would be the best way to honour Hek and honour that waka. Not so that we can sail off to all corners of the Pacific, but so that she is returned to a state where people can come and look at her and say: “This is the waka that has taught all our people that Aotearoa wasn’t discovered whenever Tasman and Cook turned up.
“It was discovered by our tūpuna who had the courage and the toughness and the skill and knowledge to sail beyond the far horizon, and who knew that somewhere over there was going to be land.”
That’s why I think she should be a national treasure, because it tells that story of true grit and determination that our ancestors had a thousand years ago.
I must tautoko that push, too. It’s a remarkable and very strong reminder to us, as you’ve touched on, that our settlement here is no way a fluke.
You’re now the co-chair of the Tuia250 project. It’s been controversial because, initially at least, there was so much focus on the role that Captain James Cook has played in New Zealand history, dating back 250 years ago to 1769, when he “found” us. There will be protest action. And I guess that’s not unexpected.
What have your feelings been as we head towards the commemorations later in the year?
Well, it’s a challenge. When I first got involved with this a couple of years ago, I really didn’t want to play any part in it because, at that stage, it was an event that was geared only to celebrate Captain Cook and his so-called discovery of Aotearoa.
I and the waka leadership of Aotearoa went to a meeting and, when we were asked if we would participate in this, we said no. We said that, if we were going to be a part of something like this, we wanted to talk about our discovery stories and the stories of our ancestors.
And we also said that, if there was a desire by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to have waka involved, then we’d want to go to places of significance for our waka, not just to places where Captain Cook had been.
Later, the ministry said they were thinking of trying to restructure the whole thing — and we went back to another couple of meetings. At the second meeting, they said that, really, it wasn’t about the Endeavour arriving in 1769, but that we couldn’t change history because he arrived here and there were lots of stories about him.
But the ministry also acknowledged that iwi have stories to tell because, for one reason or another, they’ve been marginalised in the telling of their stories — or there have been such traumatic events that they’re whakamā about talking about what happened.
We said that, if we’re going to play a part in this, we want to see our iwi participate and tell their stories — a lot of them not at all funny, and some challenging the establishment thinking about what took place during that time.
We made it clear that we wouldn’t be involved in something focused only on Captain Cook. We wanted to be involved in something that talks about the overall maritime heritage of this nation, which means we need to start a thousand years ago with the first arrival of our tūpuna.
By the third meeting, about a year after they first tried to engage with us, they came to us with this idea of Tuia250 and the whole concept of Tuia, weaving together the stories of the encounters of Aotearoa and our stories of discovery and the years of maritime tradition that belongs to us.
And then there’d be the stories of encounters from when Captain Cook arrived, right up to now. All of us can talk about their story of arrival in Aotearoa, how they’ve come to be here. The reality is that every person in Aotearoa has come from somewhere else. We can’t change that. All that stuff has happened.
I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations with people who’ve asked why I’m doing this. And I’ve said that, if all the stories about those encounters with Captain Cook are finally brought to the public domain, many more people will be able to understand why many Māori have an issue with the arrival of Captain Cook. That’s because a number of our tūpuna were killed.
But a lot of the general public in Aotearoa don’t know those stories. However, once they hear them and once those stories are included in the history curriculum, they can become an ongoing part of the regular education for all our kids in Aotearoa.
And that’ll help work towards a shared future where we understand what’s happened to all of the people in this country. Then, maybe from that, we’ll all be able to understand why certain parts of our population feel the way they do about some of our history.
It’s a big story. A big kōrero. But it’s got to start somewhere. Someone put this question: “What would your tūpuna think?” I reckon they’d probably think: “Good on you, boy.” I’m more worried about what happens, say 100 or 200 years from now, when my great-great-grandchildren could be saying: “These issues should’ve been sorted out many years ago. But my great-grandfather was too scared to make something happen.”
As I mentioned, I was unsure about taking this co-chair position. But, hopefully, it’ll pave a better way for the future if we can share our kōrero with the wider New Zealand public and have our story become part of a general New Zealand-wide conversation about who we are in Aotearoa.
Thanks very much, it’s been an interesting conversation as I expected. Just finally, is there something else you want to say, Hoturoa? Or tell us what other goals you have?
There’s a couple. I’d still really like to sail to Rapa Nui. I’d just got back from sailing to the Solomon Islands when Hek sailed to Rapa Nui. So I missed that trip with him. I’d really like to do that one day.
The other big challenge for me at the moment comes from the fear that there may be a time in the future when waka voyaging might have a downtime. We’ve trained quite a lot of young people who are good sailors and navigators and who know how to maintain a waka. But there may come a time when one generation lets it all go.
And, if that ever happens, I’d like to see that the canoes can be all pulled up and put under shelter, cared for, and put into hibernation, until the next lot of people can put them back in the water and continue with what we’re doing now.
I can’t see a problem in the near future, but I could envisage something like that happening further off in the future. So I think we need to make provision for that kind of development so that all this knowledge and these skills aren’t lost forever.
Thanks so much for sharing your kōrero. Beautiful kōrero it was, too, Hoturoa. I’m not surprised. Yours has been a wonderful mahi over the years.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.