Te Ika a Maui

Hey, did you guys see Disney’s Moana trailer?

And did you see the teaser, where Maui recounts his exploits, including pulling islands out of the sea?


I live on that island!

The official name of the North Island of New Zealand is te Ika a Maui – the fish of Maui. It’s a whai, actually – a stingray. See?


Don’t see it yet?

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The South Island is Maui’s waka. Actually, not his waka. His brothers’ waka. Maui’s five brothers didn’t like him, and they wouldn’t take him fishing with them. “You’re too little, and you bring bad luck,” they sneered (they thought Maui was coddled: typical older sibling issues). So Maui stowed himself away under some gear and didn’t come out until the waka was far out at sea, too far for his brothers to take him home.

Man, they were so pissed at him. They refused to give him any bait, so he punched himself in the nose and smeared the blood over his fish hook – the one made from the jawbone of his grandmother.

Fun fact: the jawbone fish hook? Based in truth. All Pacific peoples are descended from the Lapita people, from South-East Asia.

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Lapita pottery ca. 1000 BC.






The Lapita people buried their dead, then, after the flesh was gone, they dug up the skulls and carried the heads of their ancestors with them as they migrated from one island to the next, spreading out across the Pacific.

Lapita pot, just the right shape and size for a skull.


Owning your grandmother’s jawbone was an act of great reverence. As the youngest grandson, Maui was clearly special if he was the one who had care of it.

Maui’s nana’s jawbone is cooler than your nana’s jawbone

Look! Lapita pot with a chicken’s head it in in the trailer. Blink and you’ll miss it. Kind of disrespectful, but also a great in-joke for anthropologists and archaeologists.

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So, anyway, Maui smeared the fishook with his blood and cast it into the water. His brothers caught many fish, but Maui caught nothing, and they teased and jeered at him. Finally, with a canoe full of fish, the brothers raised the anchor stone to set off for home. But just as Maui was pulling his line in, an enormous fish took his hook, and took off. The fish dragged the waka far out across the ocean, way beyond their normal fishing grounds, further south than anyone had gone before. Maui stood on the bow, playing the fish with skill, and saying a karakia to Tangaroa – the god of the sea – so he wouldn’t let Maui’s line break.

Maui’s brothers clung for their lives to the sides of the waka.”Cut the line! Cut the line!” they begged, but Maui refused.  It took many days, but finally Maui fought the fish to the surface. It was an enormous stingray, larger than their home, Hawaiki. He had hooked the fish through one wing, and the tip of this wing was the first part to be pulled out of the water. Finally Maui pulled in the huge ray, and it died.

Maui left his brothers to guard the fish, and went back to Hawaiki to bring everyone to see his huge catch. But while Maui was away his brothers argued about who would have the best parts. They slashed and beat at the stingray, staking their claims. When Maui returned his brothers had carved the smooth surface of the stingray into gorges and steep hills, which we can still see in the rugged terrain of the North Island.

The waka is the South Island, and the anchor stone is Stewart Island. The place where Maui had hooked the ray is Gisborne, still the first place in (mainland) New Zealand to see the sun each day.


te aurere.jpg
This is Te Aurere, a reproduction of a traditional waka, the life work of Hekenukamai Busby of Te Tokerau. It’s traveled between Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand.

Maori sailors – like all Polynesian peoples- were excellent navigators, and had a good understanding of the shape of the New Zealand landmass to be able to deduce it was the shape of a stingray and a long straight waka. Polynesian sailors even made it to the subantarctic in the 13th century, spending at least one summer living off seals and seabirds.

stingray hollow.jpg
A hollow where the eagle rays lie to bask in the sun and hide from orca at my local beach. Luckily, smaller than Maui’s stingray. Still, never wade in the shallows. Much safer to swim.

If you visit New Zealand you will be hard pressed to leave without a hei matau – a bone carving of a fish hook. They’re everywhere. Most are made in China. Of beef bones.

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See how the barb goes the wrong way? Don’t buy this.

Seeing the Moana trailer is a bit like the moment I first played Far Cry 3 and heard the Kiwi accents and the cry of the ruru. It’s so tough growing up knowing that everywhere real – everywhere that matters – is someplace else. It’s amazing to see Pasifika mythos reflected on the big screen. I don’t care it’s a kids’ film: I’m going.

Bonus trivia  1: Kakamora [1] warrior from trailer, and Kiribas puffer fish helmet, early 2oth century. There’s one of these in the Auckland museum and I still go see it every time I visit because it’s so cool.


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Bonus trivia 2: Moana’s rooster is called Heihei. Heihei means chicken in Maori. Her chicken is called chicken :/ Until recently, chicken bones found in Chile and dated to 1302-1424 were thought to prove that Pacific peoples voyaged to South America long before Europeans did. Sadly, this might not be the case. There’s still the sweet potato, though.


[1] I won’t lie, I admit I’m slightly worried about the “coconuts” issue. This epithet still gets thrown around a lot in New Zealand regarding Pasifika people. We have a big problem with racial prejudice.





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