Piripi Smith on the revival of traditional celestial navigation in New Zealand
Long exposure shot of the sunset at Ātea A Rangi, the celestial compass. Photo / Provided
Before Matariki, Sarah Pollock takes a traditional journey around the Milky Way at Napier’s Ātea a Rangi compass.
It’s 6:05 a.m. Friday morning when we turn off State Highway 51 in Napier and follow the flashing sign and you’ll miss it for Waitangi Regional Park.
Standing outside the car, in a small gravel parking lot, we silently gaze up at the sky, an inky, star-flecked, rose-stained expanse that stretches to the horizon. For us, the stars are simply ornamental; tiny lights that decorate the sky.
For people like Piripi Smith, one of Aotearoa’s few traditional navigators, these celestial bodies hold important stories, which have guided travelers across the Pacific for centuries.
After a few minutes of waiting in the cold dawnwe hear the creak of bicycle wheels on the gravel as Smith arrives with his wife, Michelle, and two children, Tainga, 12, and Mārere, 8.
After handshakes, a hongi, and a karanga, Smith asks what we know about celestial navigation. After confirming our ignorance, he begins to tell his long and controversial story.
“Over the past 4,000 to 5,000 years, we’ve lost the practice of whakatere waka, which is sailing through the stars,” Smith says. As technology advanced, the techniques that helped people travel between tiny islands in the vast Pacific without even a map seemed not only unnecessary but impossible.
“In the 1950s and 1960s there were a few people who were quite condescending to Pacific Islanders and Maori,” Smith says, referring to New Zealand historian Andrew Sharp, who wrote a book called Accidental Voyagers. In the Pacific.
In it, Sharp asserted with typical Western condescension that Polynesians lacked the intellectual know-how and equipment to have traveled intentionally. Instead, he believed, they ended up on islands by chance. A theory that has since been widely criticized.
So in 1973, a group created the Polynesian Voyaging Society, built a fiberglass travel waka, and planned to sail to Tahiti to prove it could be done. The problem was that only a few people on the other side of the Pacific still held the knowledge of navigation.
Mau Piailug, a man from the Caroline Islands known as the “Grand Master Navigator”, was one such person.
“He agreed to teach Tahitians and teach others,” Smith says, including Hekenukumai Busby and Jack Thatcher; two of Aotearoa’s most renowned celestial navigators and Smith’s mentors.
“If it wasn’t for Mau Piailug, we wouldn’t have gotten this taonga back. Now that we got it back, we want to make sure we don’t lose it again.”
Atea to Rangia giant celestial compass in Napier’s Waitangi Regional Park, is one of the ways Smith intends to do this.
Located between the national road and the coast, the compass is made up of 32 wooden pous that measure up to 3.5 m high in a circle of 30 m. Inspired by a traditional star compass, each pou represents a point on the horizon where celestial bodies rise and set and is accompanied by a unique mythological kōrero.
The Compass was opened in 2017 as part of a larger project to restore mana to Waitangi Regional Park. As the Takitimu waka landing point for Ngāti Kahungunu, and where Maori and Europeans first lived together in the area, the land was rich in significance, but over time this had been forgotten and the land was plundered.
“It was Hawke’s Bay’s largest illegal dump,” Smith said. “You were coming here and there were burnt out cars and old sofas and it was affecting the land and the water.”
When Smith’s kaumatua said it was time for him to teach, he knew he needed something like Ātea a Rangi. After walking to Waitangi Regional Park one morning, he knew this spot, right on the coast with a clear view of the horizon, was perfect.
In 2016 the land was slowly cleared and replanted with native bush. After Smith partnered with the regional council and received funding, construction of the compass began.
Working with the board has not been without its quirks. Before creating the compass, Smith knew it had to be built using the very techniques she would teach future navigators.
“If you support yourself to go to an island, you have to support yourself to do something like this,” he says.
For months, Smith marked the site at different times of the day and night. When the council sent an engineer to the site, they couldn’t believe Smith hadn’t used any tools or devices.
“The council person asked me how I did and I just said ‘with my eyes,'” Smith said with a smile. Dissatisfied, they hired a consulting engineer to check it, but found that all the points were perfectly placed. “I think one point was about 10mm away,” he concedes.
Smith, his wife Michelle, and local sculptors Phil Belcher and Nathan Foote then formally founded the Ātea a Rangi Educational Trust, which operates the compass and trains the next generation of navigators.
“Understanding it here makes it easier to understand in the water,” Smith says of the life-size compass.
Four people have already been trained, including two Tahitians whose graduation test was to sail from Rarotonga to Aotearoa on a large voyage waka, of which there are 14 in the Pacific and five in Aotearoa, one in Ahuriri.
Having started sailing in 2005 and training in 2010, Smith’s final test back then had been a bit tougher; he was to lead a waka from Aotearoa to Rapanui (Easter Island).
“It’s the most remote piece of land in the whole region,” Smith said, exasperated. “I was like ‘thank you boss’.”
Walk towards the compass, we pass several informative panels, which indicate the other way of using the space: to educate and inspire the tamariki. Over the years, many children, from pre-school through college, have learned astrology and ao Māori tea.
“Each culture has a different kōrero about how the heavens were created,” Smith says.
“It’s the most western way of seeing things,” he said, pointing to a sign with a scientific diagram of the Earth and the sun.
“But our tūpuna saw it in a different way,” he said, guiding us to the compass. Over the next hour, we learn about this other, rich and meaningful path.
There is the louse carved in the shape of a voluptuous woman, known as Hineraumati, the “summer maiden” of the sun who is positioned in line with where the sun rises and sets during the summer .
On the other side of the circle stands Hinetakurua, the “winter maiden”; the two numbers indicate how the sun “travels” between two points on the horizon between seasons.
There is Kāinga, the whare where the constellation of Matariki is located. “They’re called whare or houses because the stars live there,” Smith says. He’s a tender personification who brings to life a subject so often rendered in sterile angles and exact numbers.
Walking counter-clockwise around the compass as the sun drifts past the horizon, I’m struck by the richness of it all. The way every detail, whether on a sculpture or in a story, represents something that represents something; all pointing both skyward and across generations.
Unsurprisingly, this is why, despite advances in boating technology, Smith remains drawn to traditional practices.
“I think it’s the same as why people can do kapa haka or different art forms, it gives you a real connection to your tipuna, your ancestors,” he says looking at the illuminate horizon.
“You teach things that have been taught for thousands of years and you understand them.”
It’s not easy, he adds. “You have to go through a lot, it’s a real character building but I noticed that in me, it changed me as a person and I saw that it had a positive effect, especially for young people.”
The teaching had a profound impact on Smith’s life.
“Once you are in this place of teaching, you become a link in a chain that has been going on for thousands of years and you can pass it on. It feels really important when you do that.”
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