Carving a Legacy

By Lauren Hassani  |  Photos by Marco Javier

Te Puia’s woodcarving school exemplifies efforts to save traditional Māori arts.

The presence of the ancestors is palpable in the hushed room, with its steeply sloping roof and soaring rafters adorned with intricate curved patterns of white, red, and black. Down the length of the hall, on tallwooden panels, eyes of shimmering white abalone shells pressed into faces of dark brown wood gaze upon all who step across the threshold. In this wharenui, or meeting house, in Te Puia, a cultural center in Rotorua, New Zealand dedicated to preserving Māori arts and heritage, the link to the past is literally carved into the walls.

Together, Te Puia and its sister organization the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) form a unique two-pronged model featuring culture and commerce sides. Te Puia, the commercial arm, generates revenue in offering ticketed entrance to 70 hectares (173 acres) of geothermal springs and geysers, a state-of-the-art kiwi bird conservation exhibit, and live Māori cultural performances. That largely funds the other side of the entity, committed to preventing Māori traditions and identity from being lost forever.

"Transferring of knowledge is something that is natural in our MĀori Culture."

A key part of such preservation efforts is NZMACI, home of the national schools of wood carving, stone and bone carving, and weaving, where tuition costs for students are covered in full through the tourism proceeds. Guests can walk through the school, whose campus is nestled within the Te Puia visitors park, learn about a range of revered Māori arts and crafts, and even buy student work in the gift shop to take home with them.   The most impressive display of these crafts is the meeting house itself, at the literal and metaphorical center of Te Puia. Built by trainee and graduate carvers under the direction of the school’s Master Carver Hōne Te Kāuru Taiapa, the structure took 14 years to complete, from 1967 to 1981.

Situated on the grounds of Te Puia, Te Aronui-a-Rua is one of the few, fully carved meeting houses in New Zealand open to everyone.

“Because of the suppression act, our leaders realized there were literally less than a handful of carvers left,” says Sean Marsh, Te Puia General Manager. “Now, if you lose the carvers, you lose the ability to maintain and build wharanui. Then you lose the center of the community and the actual physical thing that brings everybody together. And that’s what was at stake.” 

It stands as a visible testament to the success story of Te Puia, and to a concept so intrinsic to both the organization’s and the Māori world view: the exchange of tribal knowledge, passed from one generation to the next. Since its inception, Te Puia has operated under an intergenerational structure that draws from the Māori culture and serves as a model for how to stem the rapid loss of indigenous practices.

“The transferring of knowledge is something that is natural in our Māori culture,” says Te Puia General Manager Eraia Kiel, 45. He explains that early Māori culture was based around oral lore, with certain people chosen and trained to be knowledge experts, or repositories of tribal information. They would in turn train the future experts.    

Wood carving is particularly representative of this system, with master craftsmen passing down not only the skill of fashioning objects from wood, but also important tribal lore encoded within the carvings themselves. The intricate carved panels in the Te Puia meeting house and similar structures all over New Zealand are visual showcases of important folktales and whakapapa, or genealogy, of an iwi, or tribe.  

The wharenui in Te Puia is distinctive, however, in that it is a symbolic representation of all iwi, not just the local ones; Kiel’s own affiliation, Te Arawa, a confederation of iwi based in the Rotorua area, has historically shouldered a huge burden in keeping the culture alive for Māori people across the country.  

Since the eighteenth century, colonization by European settlers, subsequent decades of forced assimilation, and laws like the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act which kept tohunga, or keepers of knowledge, from practicing their crafts, wreaked havoc on Māori culture.  

“Because of the suppression act, our leaders realized there were literally less than a handful of carvers left,” says Sean Marsh, Te Puia General Manager, Sales and Marketing. “Now, if you lose the carvers, you lose the ability to maintain and build wharanui. Then you lose the center of the community and the actual physical thing that brings everybody together. And that’s what was at stake.”

An array of tools sits on a table in the workshop at Te Wānanga Whakairo Rākau o Aotearoa (The National Wood Carving School).

Soaring rafters at the entrance to the wharanui (meeting house), which were carved by NZMACI students and teachers between 1967 and 1981.

The exterior of the school, which has been located in Te Whakarewarewa Valley since 1967.

“The culture has been gifted to us. We are just passing it down to future generations.” - Grace hiini, te puia and NZMACI

With the passage of the Māori Arts and Crafts Act of 1926 and the support of prominent Māori statesman Sir Āpirana Ngata, who had a vision of establishing centers of learning to maintain and preserve traditional practices, the first carving school opened in Rotorua in 1927. This school was eventually reestablished during the 1960s as the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute and eventually became Te Puia-NZMACI, the national tourism and cultural arts institution that exists to this day.

Today, the school offers courses in carving, weaving, weaponry, waka (canoe) making, and bronze casting. Across all programs, tutors and masters of their respective crafts work alongside young students. The wood carving school is currently teaching its forty-sixth intake, or class. The weaving school was founded in 1969 and the stone and bone carving school opened in 2009, both with two-year study programs.

One side of the wood carving workshop at NZMACI is lined with piles of raw timber and planks waiting to be transformed. Students and teachers, all dressed head to toe in black, are hunched over work tables spaced throughout the high-ceilinged room. A couple are chiseling the decorative details on their versions of a taiaha, a traditional pointed fighting staff. Another is focused intently on shaping a large tekoteko, a freestanding statue of a human figure.

Students are assigned a tutor, typically a graduate of the program who has been hired by the school to stay on in a teaching capacity. The wood carving school offers a full-time, three-year program, open to a maximum of five students of Māori descent each year who are selected from locations across New Zealand. Because carving was traditionally considered a tapu, or sacred, artform that was the domain of men, only male students are allowed to enroll in the program. The weaving program is open to both men and women.    

The first intake of students at NZMACI in the wood carving school in 1967 studied under Master Carver Hōne Te Kāuru Taiapa. Master Carver Clive Fugill (third from left) was a member of this original class and has spent more than five decades at the school passing down his knowledge.

The school currently has two master carvers who serve as the overseers of the prestigious program, including one, Clive Fugill, 73, who was part of the school’s original intake of students in 1967. The other is Albert Te Pou, 63, from the class of 1979; he has been carving for more than four decades and has no plans to slow down for at least another 10 to 15 years. 

“I like the idea that this place is available for students to learn the art and knowing that I have this skill to be able to teach them, that part fulfills me,” says Te Pou.     

Second year student Towharau Mohi, 22, appreciates Te Pou’s soft spoken way. “He has a small amount of words, but a lot of meanings.” Mohi describes how Te Pou can expertly redirect students without overexplaining. Each of the teachers has their own technique and teaching style and they are available to give guidance to any of the students. “It’s an open floor,” says Mohi, who defines the process as a wananga, or an open forum in which information and knowledge is shared. 

Mohi’s own father and older brother were also graduates of the wood carving school, so for him mastering these skills feels even more like a destiny fulfilled. Like the rest of his fellow students, he is learning all aspects of the craft, from the historical and spiritual significance of wood carving practices to the technical aspects of carving various taonga, or treasures.

Master Carver Albert Te Pou, 63, with students and tutors in the NZMACI workshop.

Towharau Mohi, 22, a student in the The National Wood Carving School, carves a taiaha (pointed staff).

Many Māori designs utilize inlays of iridescent paua (abalone) shells.

Master Carver Albert Pou, 63, stands in front of examples of student work.

“The new generation is quite phenomenal. It’s very reassuring for my generation, who’s a little older than them, and for my parents, and some of my grandparents who are still alive, that our culture is in safe hands.”  

Eraia Kiel, General Manager, Te Puia and NZMACI

Students are schooled in the eight defined tribal styles associated with the different regions of the country, with the rationale that students can then find work in any one of those regions. The end goal is that they will become practicing wood carvers, carrying their trade to the far corners of New Zealand, or tutors, continuing the age-old tradition of sharing their experience with new groups of students.

“It’s definitely a responsibility of ours, of mine, to give back and make sure this art, our traditional life and our traditional thinking, will survive,” says Mohi.

When walking the grounds of Te Puia, it is the young people, like Mohi, who bring a sense of optimism about the future of the Māori people. In the courtyard, a group of middle schoolers lead a tour while speaking fluent te reo Māori. In the park, teenagers sing traditional songs and talk at great length about the history of their iwi and customs. In the classrooms, young students take up carving and weaving, learning at the feet of the tohunga, or masters. All of them have a confidence beyond their years in their roles as stewards of culture. Following decades of cultural suppression, Te Puia itself is a reassuring symbol of steadfastness and survival.  

“It’s hugely gratifying to see the next generation coming through. One day they will take our place,” says Eraia Kiel. He shares a whakataukī, or Māori proverb, that sums up his feelings perfectly: Ka ngaro he tētēkura, ka whakaete mai he tētēkura, which essentially means, as one fern frond dies, one rises from the ground to take its place.

“That’s the cycle of life, I guess. It’s extremely humbling and I’m proud to be part of the legacy here.”