The art of recording Māori history

Whakairo rākau (wood carving) is an ancient Māori art form that continues to help keep Maori knowledge alive.

Whakairo rākau (wood carving) is an ancient Māori art form that continues to help keep Maori knowledge alive.

At Te Puia | New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, you’ll find a number of ancient and contemporary carvings, as well as Te Wānanga Whakairo| The National Wood Carving School, where you can watch students carving traditional works.

Carving was used long before the arrival of the Māori written language to preserve stories for the future, effectively communicating a tribe’s history through figures, symbols and designs.

Just as stories of each tribe are unique, so too are the carving styles. Stories and styles are passed from generation to generation, with knowledge passed on from the tribe’s master carver to the younger tribe members. 

Many of today’s master carvers learnt their skills at the Te Wānanga Whakairo | The National Wood Carving School. Opened in 1927, the first graduates set about carving and restoring a large number of wharenui (meeting house) across New Zealand, many of which are still used by iwi (tribes) today. 

The carved wharenui is the pinnacle of a carver’s career – the wharenui depicts and records the ancestry and history of a tribe and is the centre of Māori identity. It is a carver’s responsibility to record the tribe’s history, guided by whakapapa (genealogy). Their role is to translate ideas and thoughts into carvings so that the essence of the story emerges from the timber.

Tohunga whakairo (master carver) Te Taonui a Kupe Rickard says “the wharenui represents the hopes, dreams and whakapapa of the iwi and it is the carver’s job is to help the iwi achieve these.”

To understand the genealogy of the tribe, a carver will korero (talk) with the kaumātua (elders) and listen to their stories. As well as the discussions about whakapapa, carvers will do research on waiata (traditional song) haka (posture dance) and pepeha (ancestral sayings).

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