issue 03: body of water
in search of ureiaashleigh taupaki
I’ve said this to two ta moko artists this year, and both times have been met with hesitation and the “uhh” of cogs winding and grinding to make sense of my request. I feel ignorant in these moments. Maybe taniwha aren’t meant to be tattooed onto the body. In my Google searches of “taniwha ta moko,” “taniwha māori tattoo,” and “taniwha tattoo,” I’ve found concept designs, but no actual tattoos. Google even recommended other searches of selkies, dragons, and manaia, all of which had amazingly intricate tattoos proudly displayed on the meatiest of body parts, covering whole backs, thighs, and shoulders.
I had originally wanted a taniwha from the middle of the side of my stomach past my hip and down to my mid-thigh, but in my failed attempts at finding anyone to go ahead with it, I am now getting kawakawa and other Māori medicinal plants in that space. I was almost at the point of asking a Pākehā artist to tattoo the taniwha, but it is a lifelong commitment—a sentiment that extends far beyond my personal present. I don’t want to look in the mirror every single day of my life thereafter feeling that I betrayed and bastardised the mana of Ureia, the taniwha who once called my rivers home.
︎My people are Ngāti Hako, regarded as the first peoples of the Hauraki region. We came here by whale. The rivers we whakapapa to are Te Waitangi-o-Hinemuri (Ohinemuri River) and Wai Kahou Rounga (Waihou River). Ohinemuri extends from beyond Waihi all the way to Paeroa, cutting through Karangahake Gorge. Broad and forceful, Waihou flows from the Māmaku mountain ranges down to the Firth of Thames, spanning long and wide across the whenua. These rivers are our kete kai, our ancestors, and our vitality.
Ureia frequented these rivers, travelling alongside Ngāti Hako as they expanded across Hauraki. One account suggests that early in Ngāti Hako settlement, our people visited Waikato peoples to the west, where Ureia lived as their companion taniwha. Taking a liking to him, Ngāti Hako took him as their own, and he became renowned as the Hauraki taniwha. Another account states that Ureia led our people into the waters of Tākapa after a long journey across the Pacific, which suggests that he is our waka, the whale.
In both narratives, Ureia is a guardian. Whether he followed our people across lands to nurture relationships or led our people across vast and unfamiliar oceans, Ureia was an integral aspect of the history and ancestral makeup of Ngāti Hako.
My favourite story of Ureia, and probably the one that got me hooked, is the story of the Ohinemuri River. Te Waitangi-o-Hinemuri—the extended name—translates to “The Weeping Tears of Hinemuri,” Hinemuri being the name of a high-born woman who lived with her people along the river. One day, when Hinemuri was foraging in the nearby forests, her peoples were raided by a neighbouring iwi, who drove them out. Upon her return, she quickly realised that her village had been overrun.
Running to the river, Hinemuri lamented the loss of her people and home, catching the attention of a taniwha who lived there. Hearing her cries, the taniwha took her into his care, bringing her back to his home—a large, immovable rock from which the river water flowed. Over time, the two fell in love, finding happiness in each other’s company. It is assumed that this taniwha was Ureia. The rock is located at Turner’s Hill—a former mining area along the river.
My understanding is that Ureia is the mythological representation of the river and its processes, but it’s more beautiful to think that maybe I can visit this boulder and imagine what might’ve been. The cave feeds the river with the tears of its inhabitants: two lovers locked in an embrace, simultaneously lamenting over loss and holding to a slow wait for the return of people long gone.
I’ve visited these rivers hundreds of times. On the way to see my nana in Whangamatā, there are two routes. The shorter way takes us over the Waihou by bridge. In my childhood, it was a one-lane bridge, meaning that we’d wait for hours in line just to cross over. Now the bridge is wide and accommodating, as if a reflection of the river itself. The other route takes us through the winding roads of Karangahake Gorge, which has been shaped by the flow of the Ohinemuri. This is considered the scenic route. Fair. The road is almost always parallel to the river, and the cliffs are high and green.
Recently, I’ve visited the rivers for “research purposes,” but mostly because I want to connect and reflect. I’ve told people before that I feel most creative when standing in moving water, and it’s true; I get most of my inspiration looking into water, like a Disney princess. However, I think it’s more than some individual gain where I use these rivers to create work and offer nothing but my presence in return. I think of myself within these processes. My ancestors frequented these rivers, as did my great-grandparents, my nana, my dad, and now myself. And Ureia is the manifestation of these processes.
I like to think of these things as I stand in the water. And, as dorky and unrealistic as it sounds, I always hope to see a taniwha.
Now, taniwha aren’t necessarily the scaly monstrous creatures that they were made out to be in popular culture. Rather, they come in the form of unusual occurrences. In the case of Ureia, he often came in the form of a whale in the Firth of Thames, or swam as a school of fish going against the river, or manifested as a large kauri log whose appearance has spanned generations. I look for these signs.
Usually I only see leaves and the hairs of algae clinging to rocks. Once, I saw a dragonfly. My hope leaves me feeling like I missed something, and I always wonder why. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up there. Maybe I don’t have the authority or knowledge to see these things. Or maybe Ureia doesn’t deem me worthy. Whatever it is, there has always been doubt, but this doubt comes from more than failing at my search for taniwha.
The displacement that has occurred over years and years of movement, tribal warfare, colonisation, job opportunities in big cities, migration, and suburban dwelling, has resulted in me living in West Auckland, about three hours from my rivers. Although seemingly small, those three hours are significant. Rather than being situated by the river, able to seek convenient solace and advice, I live through imagined memories and photographs taken during my sparse visits.
In one sense, the distance has motivated me to find out more. I yearn for my rivers. I want to feel a connection because there is no immediate access. And I miss my waters always. In another sense, the separation makes me feel inferior. I am aware that other Māori live far away from their rivers, and I wonder if they feel the same, as if constant contact and close proximity equates to a more meaningful connection to these places, which is what I fear I lack. I worry I don’t have the capacity to overcome the physical separation and can’t find grounding within these circumstances.
The separation incentivised my passion for my waters and their narratives, and in an attempt to make up for the distance, I search. I search online, in the recounts from several Hauraki iwi. I search by talking to my nana and aunties, hoping they will have some insight that I am yet to figure out. I search in libraries, finding Ma¯ori retellings and academic texts of the river histories. And I search in the rivers themselves, documenting movements and moods in video, photography, and drawing.
Am I compensating? Am I contributing to the wider voice of my people? Am I enabling the rivers as living entities? I am never sure, and maybe I never will be.
Recently, I gained some confidence in my connections to my people and waters, opting to get ta moko on my calves to reflect my connections to Waihou and Ohinemuri. My ta moko artist was Lance Ngata, who listened to my story and sketched my taonga. I talked about my aspirations as an artist, my interests in uplifting my people and the landforms that I connect to, and particularly the rivers that I am so fond of and the mythologies that come along with them. I mentioned wanting a taniwha, and was met with hesitance. I understood that the taniwha is a part of the river, a representation of the river, and I understood that it would be interpreted as such. But deep down, I want a depiction of my ancestor taniwha.
I received beautiful twin ta moko on both calves. They mirror each other, shaped to the musculature and curve of my legs. The patterns are of Hauraki origins, scaled and layered to reflect the coasts that are so prominent to the east. The twin designs signify my two rivers, and a depiction of myself sits within this. I am a set of swirling koru, reminiscent of a heart, surrounded by river movement and lined patterns. It is beautiful. And I feel worthy to have them on my body. I carry my rivers with me, always and forever.
One day I will get my taniwha, but for now, my rivers are with me and for that, I am grateful.