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Published: 06 May 2023

By Andy Ross

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Te Raa - the Maori sail

A Maori waka - canoe - with raised sail. 

Te Raa is a woven sail from Aotearoa, made from plant fibres and created using various techniques, some of which have been lost.

It has been in the British Museum’s collections for a long time and its history is unknown. What is clear, however, is that it is a fine example of a pre-colonial Maori textile. In 2019, a group of Maori women travelled to the British Museum to see Te Raa. This was the start of a three year project to regain the knowledge of how the sail was made, and to distribute that knowledge amongst communities. Since then a team of people have been experimenting to rediscover the techniques that went into making the sail, working to identify the feathers – kaakaa, kereruu, and kaahu – and identifying the plant matter that was used. Over the time that the group has been working, it has become more and more evident what a treasure – a taonga – this piece really is and so plans were set in motion to have it shown in Aotearoa. In July this year, Te Raa will be on display in Otautahi Christchurch at the Art Gallery for three months, then it will travel north to Auckland for a further three before heading back to the British Museum.

Such a rare treasure is valuable in more ways than simply its scarcity value. It embodies the history and culture of an entire people, representing as it does the way life was before colonisation. Its return to Aotearoa is symbolic and precious and many people will make their pilgrimage to see it. We will be travelling across the mountains to pay our respects to the imagination of those who made Te Raa and to the efforts of the people who have worked so hard to bring it back, albeit briefly, for a triumphant homecoming.