Out over the bridge of time, pulling free from the mist which has enshrouded it, comes a mighty waka.
It comes to us from the past, down through the oceans of time, riding the mighty currents from its homeland in the Pacific, down to the nation of Aotearoa.
It is a waka of dreams.
This waka is a book of ancient, sacred knowledge to be released in New Zealand for the first time this September. It contains the histories of this land, stories kept hidden for hundreds of years to protect traditions considered too sacred to be shared … up until now.
The signal to share the information came after Waitaha elders saw stars aligned in a special way in the sky and knew that, at last, the time had come to speak.
Christchurch author, historian and archaeologist Barry Brailsford was chosen by the elders to weave and craft this extraordinary story.
Initially, Barry expected this to be a normal writing assignment. Today the book, called Song of Waitaha, has changed the very fabric of his life.
The peaceful people
The Waitaha were the first people of Aotearoa, a peaceful, loving people. For hundreds of years, since the decimation of their nation, the story of their very existence has been hidden.
“This is a book that adds a thousand years of documented history to our past and puts in place the story of people who came from 200 different iwi, who joined together, in peace, to form a nation,” says Barry.
“It is an amazing story – that anywhere on this planet a gathering of over 200 iwi or tribes managed to live in peace without weapons for over a thousand years. It is a story of healing, because the Waitaha were gardeners who believed that everyone of us had to be tended and nurtured and brought into fullness.
“The Waitaha gardened the children, they gardened the sea, the land, the lakes and rivers, knowing that whatever you garden increases. That is Waitaha, that mutual trust and understanding of people and that wonderful relationship with the land.
“This is an old story,” says Barry, “but a story that we need today, perhaps more than anything else in the world. It sees the soul of things again.”
‘If we are not gentle with life the garden within us dies’
When the Waitaha nation was broken by warriors who came from the Pacific, the elders decided to protect their ancestors from the violence and warfare. They did that the only way they knew how. Whole generations of their genealogy were erased so that no one might link directly back into their lineage.
Their knowledge and learning was hidden; the very fact of their existence was shrouded in secrecy to protect their sacred truths.
Says Barry: “It was like taking stepping stones out from across a stream, so no one could step back across the rivers of time and touch into the ancestors or the truths.”
For centuries afterwards the Waitaha passed their knowledge on secretly in song; a tiny number of people each generation were given the responsibility of learning the history and passing them on to the next generation.
As a result of the editing of the lineage, the history of this land has been foreshortened.
Says Barry: “At present we can go back to Kupe in some 40 generations. But if we slide the blocks of seven generations back in their rightful place that were removed by the Waitaha elders, we go back 76 generations and still come back to Kupe. So there is a whole thousand years going back into the history of our nation which takes us to around the time of Christ.”
In the beginning the Waitaha came from their homelands elsewhere in the Pacific. The location of that place is being kept secret until the Waitaha elders lift the tapu. These people made regular forays to Aotearoa for over 200 years, leaving small groups of people behind on each journey to settle the land.
Equal numbers of men and women were aboard each waka, there were no children and no passengers. Everyone was crew. There was one commander, who could have been either a man or woman.
Incredible ocean voyages
“There are enormous ocean currents, great rivers in the sea that carry you across the ocean and if you know where to get on and off these you can go wondrous distances.
“They were incredible voyages and are described in Song of Waitaha.
“When the Waitaha were ready, they sent the founding waka from their homelands, carrying 175 people who had the mana and the whakapapa and the wairua, the spirit, to make a nation – to create this nation of the Waitaha. And it was a nation of many people.”
There were three peoples aboard the founding waka. “One was called the Urukehu, the people whose skin was so white it was freckled. They had blonde hair and red hair and their eyes were blue or hazel. They were a small people. They were the Starwalkers, the navigators, and they had amazing skills in understanding the geometry of the stars. They could read the patterns in the stars to lead them to this land.
“Alongside them were the tall, dark people who were giants. They were over six foot and we know they existed because their bones are still here in special places. They were supreme gardeners. In this land they harvested the kumara 1000 kilometres further south than it was grown, even in its homeland in South America. They had developed sophisticated gardening skills. These were the Moriori.
“And the third people were called the Stone People, the Kirita. They were the stonewalkers, or stonecarriers, or stoneshapers. They were the people of the snows. People ask how they carried the pounamu over the mountains passes, how they coped with the snow and cold. They revelled in it, because that was their home. They came from the land of snow and cold.”
Depicted in marae carvings
“They had dark hair and a double fold over the eyelid at the top and that was a special mark. Sometimes you see them depicted in the carvings in the marae where all the ancestors are being shown. They had a mid-coloured skin, not exceedingly dark and not exceedingly pale.
“They all brought their diverse skills and were bound by one thing; the reverence for life. They revered the spirit of all things, be it a rock or tree, water or the stars or rain, whatever had spirit in it.
“That was their anchor; their whole spiritual journey was bound within themselves, because you can only carry the tool of peace within your heart. They believed that you must live your belief. You must live in peace and reverence. That is the Waitaha way, that was the foundation of this nation. A freedom to walk with gentleness with each other and with the land.
“Everything came together here with such elegance initially,” says Barry. “Even some 400 years ago, when the nation was being broken, the elders spoke that the time would come when the stars would form a very special pattern in the sky and the sacred knowledge would be shared with all. The people of peace, gentle and caring, giving and nurturing, would stand and walk tall again.”
Significant star alignment
“The stars came into that particular conjunction in 1990. The elders saw it coming in 1988 and the words given to me then were `We have taken the taonga from the past, the greatest inspiration we have left to give to our young people that they might find the courage and the understanding and the wairua to step forward into the future’. This is Song of Waitaha.”
This knowledge is for all the people of today.
“For you see, we are all tangata whenua,” says Barry, “the white ones with their freckles and blue eyes and blonde hair, the dark ones who go to the garden, the snow people from the Asian lands. We are all part of this land. This is our story.”
Barry’s journey to bring this book to the public had been an incredible one. One of his first tasks was to lead a sacred journey over the old greenstone trails of the South Island’s southern alps. These trails were once walked annually by the Waitaha people, but were closed long ago when blood was spilled in anger on them by the gold seekers.
Barry’s journey with Song of Waitaha has also taken him to North America. The first journey involved his lighting a trail fire in the desert and offering up prayers. He travelled with six sacred red stones given into his care by the elders and performed rituals that link people together.
Wallace Black Elk
Eight months later, Wallace Black Elk of the Lakota (Sioux) people turned up unannounced at the house of Barry’s kaumatua in Christchurch. He said he had come for the six red stones and the fire stone (pounamu). “So that once again we may have the pipe of peace we had over 2000 years ago.”
He stayed for two days. There had been no phone calls, no letters, no conversations of any kind prior to his arrival. He simply came to the right man at the right place. He said he had heard the prayer Barry had made in the desert of North America and responded to the call as his sacred duty.
Greenstone was taken to make two pipes of peace; one for the Lakota people and the other for Waitaha.
Journey to America
A year later Barry made a return journey to North America – this time to take pounamu to the 12 Indian nations and put in place a sacred circle of stone some 8000 miles in circumference. “So the old trails are being rewalked in these times,” he says. “It is an ongoing story, much of it bound in tapu until the release of the book.”
The crux of this book and story, besides relating the wonder of those times, is to tell how this proud nation came to end.
“This is something that the old ones feel we are now strong enough to walk through,” says Barry.
“People from the Pacific came and the Waitaha nation was broken from the outside, as we see in microcosm in the end of the Moriori people in the Chathams. They were Waitaha, one of the 200 iwi. When the warriors came in the sailing ship in 1830s (the Waitaha) didn’t take up weapons because they had never used weapons. For them, to take another’s life was the ultimate destruction of oneself.
“When there were only a certain number of the thousands left they met and decided it was far more important how you lived than how you died. We know what happened to them.
“What happened in the Chathams is a picture of what happened in the mainland, over several hundred years prior to this. The nation was broken.”
Time of healing
“So now Song of Waitaha will bring a time of healing for all of us,” says Barry.
At times, Barry says, he has become lost in the journey. The author has become the trailmaker, the storyteller and many other things.
“I am the author, but this is not my story,” he says. “It has been my task to write the histories for this time, to take things that have never been written down ever before and put them there for everyone to read. So that has been opening a huge trail – an immense thing to be part of that.
“I think if I sat and thought about what it was when I was doing the writing, I would have frozen. The old ones said to me `Walk with fun and laughter because you have to carry the heavy thing lightly’.” He was told, too, that the only thing to guide him was his heart. And it has been a task for a strong heart.
Writing the book
The information for the book was only given to Barry in response to his questions. “So that is one of the most humbling things about the book, it can only reach as far as my mind was capable of stretching, as my heart is capable of reaching or my spirit.
“I believe there has been a lot of guidance. I have been purposefully subjected to a lot of pain and a lot of joy; the whole kaleidoscope of human experience so that I can be open to whatever is needed to be able to go with the story, to be able to reach out to people.”
This is not the end of his journey. He knows there are still other journeys that will take him further back. “There is still a wonderful story waiting to be told and I believe that is going to take us into Europe, into North America, into Egypt, South America and all kinds of places.
“In a way I feel I may have written the second book first. But we need the Waitaha wisdom in our lives now. The rest will come in its own time.”
Later this year a copy of the book will be sent to every high school in New Zealand. It probably will not appear in bookshops until next year; instead sales have been made directly to people. Information flyers on Song of Waitaha have been passed hand-to-hand among people in New Zealand over the past year; sales have been immense.
Within weeks of the flyers being printed, orders were coming in from Canada, the US, England and Australia. Barry says the book will go directly from the storehouse and be couriered out to people’s homes. The Waitaha people do not want their ancestors waiting in bookshop bookshelves for people to come to them.
Slate wiped clean
1988 was a crucial year for Barry, whose previous works include Greenstone Trails and The Tattooed Land. His mother had recently died; he questioned many of his own philosophies and felt the slate of his life was being wiped clean.
Then he was approached by the kaumatua to do the book.
Barry, awarded an MBE for his services to Maori scholarship and education, has spent 20 years lecturing at teacher’s college. Work on his book The Tattooed Land involved over 23,000 hours mapping and putting in place all the Maori earthworks of the South Island. “Basically it was following the warrior people because they left deep marks on the land, they really tattooed it.
“The Waitaha were so gentle on the land that there was very little evidence of them and that is where the confusion comes in. In some parts of the North Island you can find 300 pas in a matter of travelling 50 miles, but you just can’t see the Waitaha like that.”
Later Barry wrote Greenstone Trails, which took him further back in time. And now Song of Waitaha goes back to the beginnings.
He is one of a team of five who have worked on the book. A council of elders “people who walk tall in this land” were also involved at each stage to ensure authenticity.
Song of Waitaha can be read on many levels – as an amazing myth, or as a journey of the spirit, that will “be telling you things about yourself”.
Barry says the Waitaha people have no desire to push a particular point of view or political position. “They are not in the business of proselytising or promoting, they are in the business of moving with gentleness”.
School of learning
UNTIL Barry was commissioned to write down the histories, these songs were passed on in the School of Learning. These were patterns and systems of learning, a sophisticated way of remembering that has origins in the traditions of North and South America and Tibet.
“Only very special people over all the centuries had what was needed to hold that knowledge. They had to be people who had not just this very special mind for remembering and coping with systems of learning, but also people who walked with gentleness, people who walked without being overcome with the tides of anger and people who walked in trust without ever using the knowledge for their own advantage, for this was incredible knowledge. These were servants of the people.
“One of our very greatest moments came earlier this year when Dame Whina Cooper of the Waitaha, (for everything she said was Waitaha) wished that she could hold this book before she died,” says Barry.
It was presented to her on the final morning of her life and the last prayer in the book was laid down around the time of her death on that very same day.
Story: Kimberley Paterson