Uncloaking mysteries

New forensic techniques and ancestral knowledge are uniting in a breakthrough research project that aims to reconnect taonga with the people and places they came from

Waitangi marae, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Waitangi marae, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).


As the clock strikes midnight, five Te Kanawa children are sleeping to the sound of morepork and the westerly wind rustling through the trees.

To master weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa, these are familiar noises at a sacred, distraction-free time of day.

Seated comfortably under lounge room light, her hands are busy at the frame. She is making a kākahu (traditional Māori cloak) for a loved one.

She is three months into a year-long manufacturing process where everything is done by hand, using only what can be found in and around her community.

She has harvested nearby harakeke (flax), extracting the muka (a pliable fibre) by scraping it with a mussel shell, just as her mother did before her.

To blacken fibres, she has soaked them in a hīnau tannin and left them overnight in an iron-rich mud called paru, using a tried-and-true recipe perfected by her Ngāti Maniapoto elders.

Finally, to weave the garment, she has tapped into traditional Māori knowledge handed down through the generations.

Channelling the guiding voices of her mother, nanny and aunties, she has conjured up the design – and is executing the complex maths and geometry it requires – unconsciously, as if breathing it in through the cool Waikato air.

This is the image Rangi Te Kanawa has of her mother, a Māori tohunga raranga, who before her death in 2009, aged 89, was considered New Zealand’s most renowned living weaver.

“We kids grew up with the smell of harakeke boiling on the stove – and having to move Mum’s weaving off the furniture when visitors came over,” says Rangi.

“My grandmother, Rangimārie Hetet, was a nationally lauded master weaver too. I come from a long line of weaving royalty – it was a constant thing in our lives. There was always a kākahu on the go.

“Probably Mum’s most productive time of day was after about eight o’clock when we kids were in bed. She’d just get into this rhythm and weave until the wee hours. I think it was part therapy, part ritual. She’d go for hours, seduced by the tempo of stitching.”

Today, Rangi’s mother’s practice, and the practice of many other Māori weavers of past generations, is the subject of The Whakapapa of Paru, a collaborative project that Rangi is undertaking with GNS Science forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers.

The pair has teamed up to identify the provenance of hundreds of Māori cloaks filed away in Te Papa’s archives by combining their specialist knowledge and skills.

Te Papa textile conservator and researcher Rangi Te Kanawa, Te Papa archives (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Te Papa textile conservator and researcher Rangi Te Kanawa, Te Papa archives (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Rangi comes to the project with a deep personal knowledge of indigenous cloak making and nearly 30 years of conserving Māori textiles for Te Papa. Karyne, on the other hand, is a specialist in forensic geochemistry.

They estimate that up to 95 percent of Te Papa’s collection of ancient woven cloaks cannot be traced back to either their makers or their places of origin.

“People whose ancestors may have made these incredible textiles simply don’t know they are here. These taonga have effectively been lost to them. We hope to change that,” says Rangi.

Over the next three years, she and Karyne will trial and apply a new research methodology to an initial selection of five kākahu from Te Papa’s national collection.

Firstly, Rangi and Karyne will take samples of raw weaving material, preferably the black dye or paru, from sites across the country known for Māori textile weaving. Then they will identify the geochemical composition of each sample using an analytical approach known as geochemical fingerprinting, before entering their findings into a national database.

To finish, they will compare their findings with what they know about the geochemical composition of the five existing cloaks, hoping for a match.

Te Papa kakahu (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Te Papa kakahu (image by Jacqui Gibson).

According to Karyne the new approach is able to achieve what past forensic techniques could not.

“Traditional forensic methods like DNA sampling haven’t been able to reveal anything about the geography or location of the muds or textiles we collect for comparative analysis. New and more sensitive geochemical techniques can and that’s the breakthrough difference.

“Historical records suggest that as many as 1,000 marae would have had their own flax plantations and paru sites for the manufacture of clothing and other textiles such as baskets or kete back in the day.

“Our goal is to help identify the unique characteristics of each paru site – or at least start the process – to reveal the relationship between those individual paru sites and the heritage textiles we have housed here at Te Papa.”

To date, Rangi has visited six North Island sites in Ahipara, Gisborne, Ruatōria, Taranaki, Te Kuiti and Wairarapa to collect paru and flax samples.

Her goal is to make contact with hapū and iwi throughout the country and take samples from up to 50 sites in the North and South Islands.

“Usually I catch up with someone for a cup of tea and a chat and we go from there. I tell them about the project and we start talking about what they know of their nanny’s or aunty’s weaving practices. Often it’s a case of slowly recalling the facts and remembering what was done a generation or two back.

“In some cases they may still be weaving themselves, but no longer using the traditional paru pit of their old people. It’s no surprise, really. It’s much more convenient these days to pick up a synthetic dye from the shop,” says Rangi. “If that’s the case, they have to do their own research to identify the natural dye materials that were used and where the dyeing was done.

“Sometimes it’s helped to revisit the old paru pits. It’s been lovely to do that. It’s been like a reawakening for some people; a reconnection to those old sites and practices.”

GNS Science forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers and Te Papa textile conservator and researcher Rangi Te Kanawa, Te Papa archives (image by Jacqui Gibson).

GNS Science forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers and Te Papa textile conservator and researcher Rangi Te Kanawa, Te Papa archives (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Rangi says that’s exactly what happened during her recent visit to Brancepeth Station, a Category 1 Heritage New Zealand-listed homestead and gardens in Wairarapa.

“It took a bit of detective work to identify the old paru pit, but we got there by piecing together the stories and finding clues in old photos and Māori place-names,” says Rangi.

Pākehā owner Edward Beetham, whose forebears acquired the property for farming in 1856 and built the homestead, kick-started the information-gathering process. Rangi met twice with Edward. On both occasions he shared records of local Māori having come to Brancepeth last century, specifically to use their ancestral paru pit.

“He was also able to pass on valuable information such as place-names. One area that we’ve identified as the work or preparation area he remembered was called Ngā Waiwai. It’s a reference to the tannins used there.

“And while Edward wasn’t sure where on the property the pit was located, he gave me a starting point for engaging with local iwi, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, to see what they could remember.”

On site, walking the property with iwi, Rangi was eventually able to identify the likely paru site and take samples.

“Every paru site needs water and mud handy. We found a waterfall and plenty of black mud. Every paru site also needs an ideal working or preparation area. We found a flat area nearby under an ancient kahikatea tree.”

She says helping iwi to rediscover their paru pits and understand more about their tribes’ unique dyeing and weaving processes has been an added outcome of the Marsden Fund project.

“I’ve started documenting the location of each site, as well as assessing its overall health. To do that I’ve come up with a rating system – a cultural health index. To rate a paru site, I look at the health of its water source. Is an adjacent wetland, for example, in good condition? I also assess how much people know about the site to understand its cultural value.

“My goal is to give this information back to iwi so they can determine whether or not it’s a site worth preserving or protecting in any way,” says Rangi.

So, what would Diggeress Te Kanawa think of the project if she were alive today?

“She was a very practical woman,” says Rangi. “But she also cared deeply about Māori tikanga. I think she would see the value in reconnecting these old kākahu to the people who made them.

“Perhaps even more than that I think she would appreciate reminding people just how much weaving connects you to your people, to the natural world and to the land. After all, to wear a traditionally made kākahu is to literally cloak yourself in the signature soil of your ancestral lands. The clues are right there in the dyes and the fabric.”

This story was first published in Heritage New Zealand magazine.

The Whakapapa of Paru: Join the Project

Te Papa textile conservator and researcher Rangi Te Kanawa and GNS Science forensic geochemist Karyne Rogers welcome involvement in their project from all interested iwi. For more information, contact Rangi Te Kanawa at rangitk@clear.net.nz or Karyne Rogers at k.rogers@gns.cri.nz.