A ‘waka huia’ is a traditional Māori container for taonga. They are often carved boxes, and store a person’s most precious taonga.
History and tradition of waka huia
Huia birds’ feathers were commonly used to adorn the hair and were prized by both Māori and Pākehā. When the huia became extinct in the early 1900s, its feathers were treasured even more. Waka huia were made to store them safely.
Waka huia were highly prized and carefully treasured as they were passed between generations as heirlooms. They were often gifted between hapū, whānau and individuals to acknowledge friendships, relationships and other significant social events.
Although a traditional Māori economy was generally about survival, waka huia were obviously valued, because the time and resources to produce them would have been significant.
Examples of waka huia
The online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Te Ara(external link), has some interesting information about who traditional waka huia were gifted to, what they held and what the carvings on them depicted. Waka huia are shown hung from the rafters of houses.
The intricacy of the carving also showed how important the boxes were. Some examples of the images carved on the lids of the waka hui depicted figures engaged in sexual intercourse – both opposite and same-sex couples. Sexual symbolism was often incorporated into Māori decorative art, and sexual union was celebrated rather than seen as sinful.
Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington, has a waka huia that Captain James Cook collected during his voyage to Aotearoa in 1776. It is made from wood, pāua shell and harakeke, and before being given to Cook it would have contained treasured possessions such as hei tiki (pendants) or huia feathers.