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Weaving love and reconnection

The death of a mother can be devastating for a child.

It was particularly so for Masterton woman Manaia Carswell, the daughter of a Māori woman and a Pākehā man.

Mother [Christine/Hokimate Cockburn née Henare] kept Manaia’s Māori heritage alive, a connection that died with her in 2016.

Seeking to reconnect, Manaia turned to the ancient Māori art of weaving.

Today, she’s a regular at the Masterton Farmers’ Market, displaying her beautifully detailed art, garments and natural healing and beauty products.

It’s high-end product with prices up to $500 for a kete. She also operates a web page, Muri Aroha [‘Love is at the back of it’]

“When I lost my mum, I felt like I lost my connection to Te Āo Māori. Finding a link to an online course to learn how to tāniko [weave] seemed like a safe way for me to explore that side of myself that I was yearning for,” Manaia [40] a mother of three and with two step-daughters said.

When Māori first arrived in New Zealand, they encountered a much colder climate than their homeland in Hawaiki.

They adapted quickly by using their weaving skills to produce korowai [cloaks] and other practical objects such as kete [baskets] and whāriki [mats].

The most widely used weaving material was [and still is] harakeke – New Zealand flax.

Weaving was traditionally done by women and skilled weavers were prized within their tribes. As the whakataukī [Māori proverb] says, “Aitia te wahine o te pā harakeke”, which means “Marry the woman who is always at the flax bush”, for she is an expert flax worker and a diligent person.

“In 2017, I learned to tāniko with Whaea Veranoa Hetet from The Hetet School of Māori Art and then decided to try another module they offered, ‘learn the basics of raranga’,” Manaia said. “I had the harakeke in my garden, so to be able to look after my plants in a meaningful and tika [culturally correct] way, and utilise the rau [leaves] into useful items seemed perfect.

“Once I wove my first kono [a basket woven out of harakeke and traditionally used by Māori to serve food in], I was completely hooked. Learning the art of raranga opened me up to a world of possibility. That one small kono completed and my life was changed.”

“I wove more and more and learned everything the Hetet School could teach me, becoming the first graduate of their online school when I finished my first korowai ‘Manawanui’. Completed over our first national lockdown in 2020, it filled me with so much gratitude to be able to weave such taonga for my whānau.

“I have since finished three more kākahu. One for my daughter Awatea, named ‘Matāmua’, and two as a koha for my children’s primary school, Fernridge, named ‘Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho’. The boys kākahu is called ‘E Tū tama’ which means ‘stand up boy’, and there is one for the girls called ‘E Tū kōtiro’, meaning ‘stand up girl’. I hope when they are worn they encourage the wearer to stand up, be proud of who they are and be leaders and strong role models. I am currently working away on another korowai which I hope to complete within the next 12 months.

“There is something so versatile about harakeke. I can weave fine kete and wall hangings. I can extract the muka [fibre] and make whenu for a kākahu. I can weave potae. I can weave shopping bags and I can create beautiful jewellery. Through my love of creating with this beautiful resource, I have managed to utilise as much of the plant as I can. From using the bulk of the rau [leaf] for weaving, to utilising the take ends for putiputi bouquets, to transforming the trimmed ends of kete and kākahu into Hei Tāringa.

“I have a pā harakeke and grow and harvest my own whenu for whatever I am weaving. It comforts me to see it growing lush and tall and to know that I can transform the leaves into something that has a kōrero [story].

“Muri Aroha means ‘Love is at the back of it’ and that is how I feel about Toi Māori and the mahi [work] that I do. Love is the underlying factor. Love for mahi raranga, mahi whatu, love for my whakapapa who I feel connected to when I weave and create and love for Te Taiao – the Natural World.

“At Muri Aroha we want to share the beauty of Toi Māori with all others and to tell our stories in a uniquely Māori way.

“We are storytellers. We are Kaitiaki of our environment and champion a more sustainable way of being.”

Manaia’s rediscovery of her Māori heritage is not one-way, however.

Centre stage at her Farmers’ Market display was a special kete, a colourful piece featuring the tartan of the Clan Cockburn, her maiden name.

The circle is complete.

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