Indigenous | Investitures

Paddling pioneer who made waka ama popular honoured

Referred to by many as the godfather of Waka Ama, Matahi Brightwell (Te Arawa, Tūwharetoa) has been made an officer of the NZ Order of Merit for his services to one of the most popular sports in the country among Māori.

Talking to from his home in Tai Rāwhiti, Brightwell says he began his journey in 1987 in Pawerenga, in Hokianga, finishing his "crusade" north of Dunedin in 2005, "establishing community waka ama with hapū and iwi".

“That’s been my greatest achievement, getting grassroots Māori involved in waka ama.”

“When I first came, I saw young Māori carrying beer crates and bottles along the streets of Gisborne in 1986. Today, I see more young Māori walking and carrying their paddles.

“That is something inside that sparks me, that inspires me, to see young intermediate, secondary, preschool children paddling on the river.”

With Matariki approaching, Brightwell says he has something in mind to show Tai Rāwhiti when the Māori New Year arrives.

“This is Maui, he is five metres tall and four metres wide. I sculpted him in Tahiti in 1982, and I’m due to exhibit him in Wairoa [for] Matariki, and in London Street in Gisborne.

“I’m taking our atua to all our Māori who don’t have much connection to their roots.”