Position: Senior Lecturer, Field: Language technologies, Organisation: Computer Science Department, University of Waikato, Hamilton.

Dr Te Taka Keegan is a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Waikato. His research interests are in traditional navigation, Māori language technologies, indigenous language interfaces and multilingual usability.

Te Taka had an unusual career path that has involved working as a hardware engineer, returning to university to do a degree all in Māori and to continue his study with a master’s thesis on traditional navigation. He completed a PhD in 2007 titled Indigenous Language Usage in a Digital Library: He Hautoa Kia Ora Tonu Ai.

For his master’s thesis, Te Taka studied traditional Māori navigation and had the opportunity to help rig and sail a traditional double-hull canoe (waka) from Hawaii to Rarotonga.

One of the purposes of doing that research was to tell our stories formally, explain to our children that these things … are reality – it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

The waka voyage: how Te Taka got involved

While at Waikato University pursuing a degree through Te Tohu Paetahi (Māori immersion stream), Te Taka did a paper on the traditional Māori waka, which was taught by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr. This, together with his interest in paddling, led him to do his master’s on traditional Māori navigation. He’s says, “I basically wrote this thesis because I just wanted to find a topic that would be fun and I thought sailing on the oceans for 30 days would be fun.”

But there was a deeper motivation for his study as well. “I wanted … to make our people aware that some of these [early journeys across the Pacific] aren’t just legends … these things actually happened. One of the purposes of doing that research was to tell our stories formally, explain to our children that these things … are reality – it’s not like it couldn’t happen … I feel that I have achieved what I wanted to do – prove that it was quite a possible thing to do.”

Earning his place on the voyage

Te Taka soon found out that actually getting to go on a trip as one of the sailors wasn’t easy. A Māori saying goes: Mā muri ka eke mai ki mua (When you are on the marae, if you want to get to the front, you should spend your time working in the kitchen first). That was Te Taka’s philosophy.

With the help of Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, who was his teacher and the source of his knowledge about sailing, he travelled to Taipā (in Northland, New Zealand) on weekends for 18 months to assist with rigging the traditional waka (Te Aurere) designed and built by Hector Busby. In the process, he learnt about traditional Māori navigational skills. He eventually secured a place on the sea voyage from Hawaii to Rarotonga.

Preparing for the journey: researching navigation

Te Taka used several approaches to get more background knowledge on traditional Māori navigation:

  • Asking people who had any kind of traditional navigational or star knowledge. Te Taka said this was difficult “because it was so long ago that our ancestors were doing this kind of travel. People have settled on the land and the knowledge of the oceans is lost.”
  • Turning to what had been written. He spent a lot of time reading books by Elsdon Best, John White and Te Matorohanga and any other related material that he could find. He also searched traditional stories for information.
  • Studying SkyGlobe (a computer program with information on stars). He spent a lot of time looking at how the stars were moving and relating the stars that would be relevant for his trip. He would then go outdoors and identify the stars in the sky. He admits that he started from scratch with regards to his star knowledge.

Useful links

Look at Te Taka’s Masters thesis online (in Māori). It describes several Pacific journeys using traditional navigation techniques and shows how position and direction were calculated.

Watch this video clip in which Mau Piailug, who navigated Te Aurere on its trip from Rarotonga to New Zealand, explains how he used traditional methods to extricate the waka from a storm.

This article is based on information current in 2011.

    Published 2 May 2011