Waka, episode 2: Moment of truth for NZ waka carver Billy Harrison

The Herald, E-Tangata and Tawera productions have joined forces to bring you Waka, a six-part online video series which traces the cultural revival of traditional canoe building skills through four teams from across the Pacific. Today Simone Kaho meets the Aotearoa team leader, Billy Harrison.

Click on the video above to watch episode 2

It’s the second week of the Rātā carving symposium in Whangārei which has brought together waka carvers from Aotearoa and the Pacific.

I’m watching as the Aotearoa team levers the body of their waka from the trunk of the poplar tree they’ve been working on.

It’s a critical moment for Billy Harrison and his team, who are easily the youngest and least experienced carvers at the symposium. This is the first time Billy has cut a waka from a tree without guidance from his teachers. The first time Billy has led a team.

Billy, 25, had graduated from waka school (Te Tapuwae o te Waka) in 2016, only three years before. His teammates Bryce O’connor Motu and Hine Waitai-Dye — who’s the only female carver at the symposium — are third-year students at the same school.

Billy was taught not to make the first cut until he could see the waka in the log. And this is the moment of truth — where he sees for the first time if the irreversible lines he’d chainsawed into the log were true. If the waka he saw in the tree is the waka that’s being lifted out.

As the waka emerges, there’s relief, and smiles. The waka is sleek, balanced, and gracefully curved. It’s 6-metres long and 4-metres across at its widest point.

It’s a waka kōpapa, for everyday use — “fishing, setting nets, picking pipis, going for a cruise, taking the kids out for a ride,” Billy grins.

Billy isn’t just carrying the mana of the Aotearoa team in this symposium. He’s the future of waka building in Aotearoa. If tārai waka is to survive here, it will need more like Billy and his teammates.

James Eruera — the driving force behind the waka symposium and the head of the waka school, Te Tapuwae o te Waka, at Awanui — has great hopes for Billy. It’s why he picked him to lead Team Aotearoa.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in that young man. He works with humility and integrity — and you can’t ask for more than that.”

If Billy feels the weight of expectation, it doesn’t show. He lopes around the Hihiaua carving workshop in a bucket hat and gumboots. Looking more closely, you see a constant low-key intensity. Even when he pauses for reflection, as all the carvers do, Billy is focused.

Billy was born and raised in Kaitaia, Northland. Every year, on Waitangi Day, an uncle would take him and the other young boys in the whānau to the Waitangi Treaty grounds for the celebrations.

That’s where he first saw the giant 80-seater waka taua, Ngātokimatawhaorua, which was built in 1940 for the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Billy was too small to paddle at first, so he’d bail water on the waka. Later, he graduated to paddler and then helmsman. In the early 2000s, Billy’s school visited the Aurere workshop of Hekenukumai Busby, the Far North kaumātua who built the double-hulled waka Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti.

Hek was part of a cultural revival, which began in Hawai’i in the 1970s, with the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Hōkūle’a. He was leading the charge in Aotearoa, building voyaging waka capable of retracing the pathway of Polynesian ancestors, and helping to revive traditional ocean navigation.

For Billy, it sealed the connection with waka that had begun at Waitangi. “I thought they were amazing. I didn’t think it’s something I’d ever be able to do, but I stuck with waka, and Pāpā Hek ended up giving me my first job.”

When he’s not working on waka projects, Billy teaches carving part-time at a whare kura, a full immersion reo school, while his partner Erina works full-time and studies to be an early childhood education teacher. They have four children, aged from one to nine.

Erina admits that it’s tough, working and studying and raising four children, but they’re both committed, and the rewards are worth it. “Our almost one-year-old has been on a waka journey,” she says. “How many children can say that? Those are the stories we want our kids to tell at school. Stories about waka.”

Billy’s team is the first to finish their waka. Her name is Kuaka, after the bar-tailed godwit, which flies vast distances across the Pacific and beyond. She is painted black and terracotta, with a carved stern and prow. Her scalloped interior is left unvarnished, to let her breathe.

“I see all waka as female,” Billy says. “They bear life through the waves.”

On the day of the waka launch in Kororāreka (Russell), the waka are carried into the sea and Kuaka sits low and balanced in the water. Billy climbs in with his four-year-old daughter and paddles out, straight and fast, through the glassy bay.

Waka was made with the support of NZ On Air.

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