The First Te Puke

How Lata built the first voyaging canoe

as told by Paramount Chief Kruso Kaveia for Sailing New Zealand Magazine, July 1999

A man and his wife lived together for a while, and then she became pregnant. They lived on the small island named Tohua. During the wife’s pregnancy she craved to eat freshwater eels, or milo.

So, every day her husband had to go to the river to catch some eels, and bring them home to her. The man went to one river, then another, then another, getting eels until he had gone to every river on Taumako, except for one.

Then his wife asked him, “Did you go to that river?” Her husband replied, “No, I’ve never been to that river because that river has spirits.”

Then his wife said, “But those are the eels that I really want – the only ones that will really satisfy me.” The husband replied, “No! No. I do not want to go kill a spirit!” His wife insisted, “But I want that eel! That is the only eel that can satisfy me.”

Then the husband went to the bush and brought back a vine. He made a noose for a trap from it and hung it on the eel’s doorway – which was the hole that was the opening of the eel’s home.

The eel had ten children of his own. At the time when the man was making the trap the eel had a feeling that someone was coming to visit their house.

The eel told one of his children to go to the door of their home and see if someone was there. When the first eel child met the husband of the woman, the husband asked, “Now you came here, but where is my brother?” The brother that he meant was the father eel.

The husband then told the eel child to tell it’s father to come and they would have a talk.

The father eel then sent his second child to see the man. The second eel child went and the same thing happened, and the third child went to see the man. That kept up until the tenth eel child went and the man also told it to tell it’s father to come to talk. So finally the father eel had to go to talk to the husband of the woman, even though he already thought that the husband wanted to kill him.

When the head of that father eel went through the noose of the trap, the man pulled the vine tight and trapped the eel by his head. While strangling to death the eel said, “I knew you asked for me to come and have a talk with you so you could kill me so your wife could eat me. Tell your wife to begin eating me from my head, going toward my tail. When she gets to my tail, she should cut it off and put it in a bowl so your baby can have a nipple to suck on.” Then the husband took the eel to the woman and the woman ate it following the eel’s instructions by eating from head to tail and cutting off the tail and keeping it in a bowl.

Then after a while the woman gave birth to a baby. When the father and mother went to the bush they left that baby with the tail in the bowl and the baby nursed on the tail.

Then the father and mother died, but the baby did not know that they had died. The baby used the tail and grew in the bowl until it was very big. Eventually the child started to know things, and began to walk around. One day the child saw his father’s tools. he picked up the bow and arrow and said, “Oh, what a surprise! This is a bow and arrow that belongs to Lata.” So the child gave himself a name, “Lata.”

When Lata grew bigger he saw people working. One day, Lata saw men getting their axes and going to cut trees to make te puke. Lata kept watching and then went and got his own ax and his basket for betel nut, etc., and then he followed them.

There was a man walking first in that group of people that Lata followed. This man saw a bird, the legs of which had ropes tied around them. The bird said to the leading man, “Please grandfather would you come here and remove this rope from my leg?” The man said, “No, I think you should ask the second man who is walking behind me.”

Then the second man told the bird, “No, wait for the third man”, and the third man said, “No, wait for the fourth”, until the last man said “No”, and along came Lata.

When Lata came along the bird asked, “Grand, would you please remove this rope from my leg?” and Lata replied, “Why didn’t those people who were walking ahead of me do that for you?” The bird said, “I asked them but they would not help me and they said to ask you”

So Lata took the rope from the birds leg and the bird then asked Lata, “Now would you chew me some betel nut?” After chewing some betel nut the bird asked Lata, “Where are you going?” Lata replied, “I am just following those people who are going to cut a te puke so I can learn how to cut a te puke for myself.

So, the bird said to Lata, “If you want a te puke follow me. If you see me landing on a tree and you hear me crying, that means that that is the tree you should cut for a te puke.” When the bird landed on a tree something surprising happened. Lata said, “te vaka o Lata” – the canoe of Lata.

Lata then chopped down the tree and took the top off the tree and removed the bark. Then Lata went home.

The tree that the bird showed Lata was not located in Lata’s area, It was on somebody elses land. So when that person felt in her body that someone had cut one of her trees she went to see it. When that person saw that the tree had been cut down, she made it stand up again.

After the tree stood up Lata got a feeling that the tree was standing up again. So Lata went back to the site and saw the tree and chopped it down again. While Lata was chopping the tree down a piece of wood flew through his basket, so Lata picked it up and took it home.

When Lata got home the owner of the land, named Hinora, did the same thing again. Hinora went to the tree and asked it if it could stand up again, and it did.

When Lata reached his home, he hung up his basket on the wall on the side of his house. While Lata was having a wash he looked at his house and saw that the basket was twirling around. When Lata returned to his house he looked in the basket and saw that piece of wood flying around. Lata then closed the mouth of the basket and went straight back to where he had cut down the tree.

When Lata got close to the place where the tree he heard it falling down again and said to himself, “I think this is the time I will meet this person who is making a fool of me by making this tree stand up again.”

When Lata reached the bottom of the tree he met that person and they began to argue. Lata claimed that the tree belonged to him. But Hinora said that the tree belonged to her. So they agreed to go to the top of the mountain to look straight down from the tree and see who’s land the tree was on. When they did look they saw that it did belong to Hinora, so Lata said, “You are right. But oh, would you please let me have this tree?” Hinora then said that Lata could have the tree, and Lata said to his own spirit, “You do the work for me to build this te puke.”

Because that tree belonged to Lata, the spirit did all the work for Lata, and later Lata checked that work over. Then Lata told his ghost to work on the front of the te puke. The reason Lata had to make an image of this bird is because the this bird lead him to the tree in the first place and so it would also lead them whereever they go.

After it had been completed Lata said, “It is a very hard for me to move this te puke down to the sea.” So Lata told his spirit to make it rain hard at night so that the te puke would slide down the flooding river into the sea. The river that carried the te puke down into the sea is located across from Tohua Island on the mainland of Taumako.

When the ghost made the te puke they used the traditional type of sennit rope, and when they took it down to the sea they covered it over with laufala so that people looking at Lata’s te puke could not see the real rope underneath the laufala.

So one day Lata asked Hinora to come visit Lata because after traveling in the te puke, Lata needed to pay for it. So Hinora went to Lata and gave him a conch shell to use as a trumpet so that when Lata arrived at a reef he could blow the shell from the te puke to let Hinora know he was there.

When Hinora came to Lata he asked her, “What sort of thing do you want me to pay for this te puke?” Lata wanted to give her a big pig but she didn’t want that. Then Lata offered some custom money and Hinora didn’t want that. Hinora said, “I want your shell trumpet” So Lata gave it to her.

Lata said, “I am going now but someday I will sail back to you and then I will blow on my shell trumpet when I am near your reef, and you can blow on yours to answer me.”

During the day that Lata was traveling, the group of people who had built a te puke also took their te puke out sailing to try it. The laufala leaf lashings they had copied from what they saw on Lata’s te puke quickly fell apart when they got out in the sea currents. These currents tore apart the te puke, and they all ended up swimming in the water.

Then Lata sailed by them and when he saw them in the water, the first one of them asked Lata if he could come on board Lata’s te puke. Lata asked him, “what do you want to do on my te puke?” The man replied, “I just want to eat your rations!” Lata said, “that’s O.K. you can come on board” and Lata picked up everyone who was in the water. Everyone who came on board had a job. One controlled the sail, one did the cooking, one took care of the drinking water, another had to steer, another bailed the seawater from the te puke, etc. The last one asked Lata for permission to board, and Lata asked, “What can you do?” The person replied, “I am a thief. When we arrive somewhere I can steal food for the crew.” “That is good,” replied Lata, “Come on board.”

When they returned to the island, Lata took his shell trumpet and tried to blow it. But when Hinora tried hers, it never worked!

So Hinora became angry and pulled up the coconut trees and threw them across the entrance to the reef pass to block Lata from coming in. Those coconut trees turned to stone and you can still see them there today. When Lata saw that the reef pass was closed he just turned around and sailed away again.

Ever since that happened there have been people behaving badly at Taumako, and the people here have had hard times. We are still hoping and waiting for Lata to return.

The real name for te puke is vaka. But they had to call it te puke after the time that it rains and the floods run – because it was during such a te puke when the vaka was brought down to sea and called ‘te puke.’ It is also called te puke because it is a kind of vaka hull that runs underwater when the canoe is sailing.

Since Lata made the first te puke, whenever people from Nifiloli, for example, need one, then a person will order it, and the one who orders it then waits to hear the trumpet blowing from the arriving te puke. When the person does hear the trumpet, she or he must be ready to pay for that sound right then. After that, there will be a meeting of the one who ordered and the one who delivered the te puke in order to decide on the what the payment for the te puke will be.