By Dr. Simon Teave Salopuka of the Vaka Taumako Project Solomon Islands and Vaka Valo Association.
We, the people of Taumako, continue and innovate our ancestors’ traditional seafaring methods. Taumako is a Polynesian outlier island of the Santa Cruz group in the Solomon Islands. In the past, our ancestors built and voyaged on the Tepuke, using traditional navigational methods for inter-island trading around the Santa Cruz Islands.
Taumakoans used to trade for the Santa Cruz Temahau (red feather money), pigs, and food, including dried nuts and Nambo (dried bread fruit). Red feather money would be used to pay for the bride price, and food would be distributed among the community. Teahalou (men’s house association) leaders would gain respect and prestige among the community for redistributing their wealth. The Tepuke and other traditional voyaging canoes were therefore essential assets of the owners and leaders of the men’s house that brought economic prosperity to their tribe and clan called Kaenga and Mata, respectively.
Colonialism and globalisation erased and downplayed the value of Tepuke building as cultural entrepreneurship on Taumako. Inter-island voyaging declined over the years in the Santa Cruz Group, with the last trip reported in 1963. The renowned navigator Basil Tavake was one such elder who retained these skills and was the initial person sought by the Polynesian Voyaging Society to teach them traditional navigation before finding Pius “Mau” Pialung of Satawal in the Caroline Islands. However, by that time, they had been too late as Tavake was in his very old age, and he had farewelled all his family and friends on the island to give himself a traditional sea burial. Even so, Polynesian knowledge of wayfinding persisted over the years outside of the Polynesian triangle and was little known to the rest of the Pacific and the world.
Taumakoans build authentic traditional canoes called Tepuke, Tealolili or Tealoholau, and Tealo Uwa Uwa using local materials and ancient tools. We voyage using ancient traditional methods of the Te Noho Anga Tematangi (wind positioning system) and reading the environment, like waves, stars, currents, birds, Te Lapa (a flashing light in the ocean), sun position, and special clouds that hover over the land.
In the past, work was delegated according to people’s affiliation through their Mata, forming a ward association through descent, connected to the men’s house association called Teaholau, which was headed by traditional leaders. Kaenga and Hapapa are used interchangeably to refer to a tribal group residing on ancestral land. Their genealogical connection can be traced to one common ancestor of origin, while Mata refers to a clan and includes a genealogical link to the maternal side. Teaholau is also a spot where single men are segregated from women, where young people would sleep, share stories, learn about culture and tradition, and a place of food redistribution during feasting and making plans to construct a Tepuke. While men remain important decision-makers in the process, with the popular belief that voyaging is relegated to solely men, the Taumako voyaging culture and building of traditional canoes require the men, women, and children’s help.
To accomplish building a Tepuke for voyaging, there are specific tasks that are assigned according to gender. By explaining the steps of building a Tepuke, I do not fully describe the actual process of construction as specific information is confidential to the practitioner and holder of such voyaging knowledge. For the purposes of this article however, what is shared is sufficient.
These traditions continue to be revived through the Vaka Taumako Project Solomon Island and Vaka Valo Association.
We are raising funds to help our non-profit organization to build another Tepuke voyaging canoe to safe guard and perpetuate voyaging knowledge to the next generation. The construction of the Tepuke that this article documents was built in 2016 and sailed to Northern Islands of Vanuatu via Vanikoro Island in 2018. The Te Palapu wind was not coming in early November and the Tepuke is now rotten on Usili village in the island of Vanikoro. We also need funds to build another Tepuke and to repair the Tepuke at Vanikoro and sail it back as it is forbidden in our culture to allow it to rot there.
To support voyaging education programs and keep this ancient legacy alive, please join the TAUMAKO PEOPLE, ACTIVITIES, SITES AND CULTURE Facebook group or send me an email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org about how to donate to or support our cause.
Steps on how to build a Tepuke:
1. Planting gardens and raising pigs.
Men, women, and children would plant gardens and raise many pigs to feed the workers before a Tepuke is proposed for construction. Feasting occurs throughout different stages of the construction. It can take 1 to 2 years to raise the pigs, and depending on the type of root crops, it may take 6 to 12 months before the garden is ready for harvest.
2. Feasting to announce a Tepuke’s building.
When the gardens are ready and pigs are big enough, the men’s house association’s leader would host a feast and distribute food to each village household. The feast’s purpose is to announce to the community that a particular tribe or ward association’s people are proposing to build a Tepuke, and the leaders’ expertise is required. Usually, labor is not paid for, but the distributed food, betel nuts, and its ingredients (Vakhamu) would compensate for the workers’ labor.
Feeding the workers may last from 3 to 6 months or even a year, so the women and men must know when to plant and harvest the gardens and how many are needed to have enough food for the workers. Women would usually bakepudding, fish and roasted pork to feed the workers. The women know that when they go and feed the men at the working site, they must also feed the other men just sitting around watching the men working so that their spirit would make the workers’ adzes sharp to cut the Tepuke so work can be done faster. Women would make masi (fermented breadfruit) for long voyages that could last up to two weeks. The elders thought that the fermented masi kept them warm while at sea and satisfied their hunger for a long time. Women also used a special net called Kuhi or would throw fishing lines to catch fish to feed the workers and occasionally used poisonous leaves to kill the fish.
3. Making Kaha (sennit cordage).
When one wants to build a Tepuke, Kaha (sennit cordage) is made and stored. The sennit cordage is used to lash the different parts of the Tepuke canoe. They are made from coconut fibres. The boys would climb the variety of coconut with a long sharp end called Niu kaha and husk them. The coconut husks would be buried in the sand at sea during low tide for one to three months.
The children know the husks are ready when the white sand appears black, or they would observe and feel if the husks buried in the sand are soft. Afterwards, the children would remove them from the sand when the tide is low. The husk’s inner part would be pounded, cleaned with salt water then dried in sunlight.
The women, men, and children would separate the strands and twist them to make several different cord sizes to make the sinnet cordage. The weave pattern is the same pattern Te Ube told Lata to copy from the tail of the moko’uli (black lizard), guardian of the tree and would be selected for the main hull.
4. Felling the tree.
The men would search the forest for the right Tamanu (Callophyllum) tree. In the story of our ancestor Lata, the Te Ube (pigeon) showed Lata Hinora’s Tamanu tree. An elder man would perform a traditional anointed blessing called Halalaka to ask the spirits of the forest who owns the Tamanu tree to allow them to cut the tree for their Tepuke. The tree would be chopped with Te Kila (steel blade axes).
5. Rough cutting the canoe’s hull and hallowing the log.
Men, women, and children would turn the log to the appropriate side to make the hull. To rough cut a Tepuke, the log’s top is flattened with aloko (adzes) made from a traditional tridacna clam shell blade, now improvised with a steel blade. Then, the heartwood is dug out with another thick blade adze called Tupa also made from tridacna. Though sharp like the steel blade, it dulls faster. The hull’s sides would be about 5 to 6 inches thick, and the bottom would be about 7 to 8 inches. Holes are made on each end to tie the hauling rope. It may take two to four weeks to rough cut the hull, depending on the number of workers.
On every working day, the children would assist the women in bringing food and water to feed the men working on the Tepuke in the forest. When there are not enough people to turn the log, a traditional chain block system call Plokia is used to turn it.
6. Making the hauling rope.
Before the rough cut hull is pulled to sea, men, women, and children would collect the haumalu‘s (mallow tree) bark in the forest, remove the inner slippery sheath, tear them into sizable strips, season them in seawater for about five to seven days, dry the strips, twist them into three ropes, then braid them into a long, strong rope of about one-inch diameter.
In the braiding process, the men, women, and children would stand in a long line holding the ropes and simultaneously twisting them clockwise to form the braided pattern of the Laubeka (traditional tobacco roll). The Tahua artificial island’s length is about 200 yards, so the rope must be as long as Tahua.
7. Building the shed house.
The men would build the shed using local materials and cover the roof with coconut palm so that they can work under it. The shed is ready before the Tepuke hull is hauled from the forest to the shore.
8. Pulling the rough cut hull to sea.
Men, children, and women would go up the forest. First, they insert the rope for hauling into the holes made at each end of the hull and tie them firmly. The tying skills must be learned so only the expert would tie the pulling rope not to loosen and to avoid any accidents. The elder would invoke another anointed traditional blessing called “Halalaka” by sprinkling water from an open young coconut, using a bunch of leaves over the log, calling the spirits of the forest to allow them to pull the rough cut hull to the sea without causing any harm to them and the log. Then, one person would strike a stick on the hull like beating a drum and sing “Toku vaka e ea ke poi ake”. Everyone would join in to the lyrical and hauling chants of Lata. The workers’ joyful exuberance and gut-wrenching efforts were coordinated and soothed by the chanting.
Roughly an equal number of men, women, and children alternately would pull or restrain the Tepuke using four different lengths of rope tied to it, belayed around convenient trees, and extended out through the forest to the haulers. Some hand-planted sticks would guide the bow around obstacles and keep it from capsizing. Still, in some critical turns in steep sections, a few “cowboy” pointmen would ride the bow down, kicking and planting their legs on one side or the other of the bow to steer the careening log. The lines of haulers in the forest often cannot see each other or even the hull itself as they work. The chant would keep them working together. There are different lyrics of traditional chants sung depending on where the hull is being pulled—up a hill, flat place, or down the hill to the shore. Laughter and tears would be constant. When the hull would reach the sea, refreshments of food and betel nut would be shared with everyone as compensation for their labour and puling the hull from the steep mountainside and through miles of ravines and crests without causing injury to the hull and pullers.
9. Thinning the hull.
Expert men would smoothen the hull’s outer and inner sides with adze and Tupa while the women feed them, and children assist the men in turning the hull or tending to certain tasks. This process may take two to four weeks, depending on the number of men doing the adzing. Thinning and smoothing the hull’s base is required to demarcate where the riser box would be erected.
10. Weaving the laula (mat panel for the sail).
The women would collect the panadanus, take them home and remove the thorny edges on the two sides and the middle part. A thread from a young or dried coconut husk would be tied to the left little finger while the right hand holds the half split panadanus. Then, the pandanus would be split longitudinally into sizeable quarters with the thread on the left little finger.
The split panadanus would be left over the sun for drying. Afterwards, each dried panadanus would be rolled over on a quarter piece of coconut shell, and both surfaces smoothened. Finally, the panadanus would be ready for weaving into pairs of panels of mats.
Depending on the length of the Tepuke, an appropriate number of pairs of panels of mats would be weaved. If the Tepuke measured 7 fathoms, there would be seven pairs of panels of mats, named fathom one, two, three, etc. (loha tai, lua, tolu, fa’a, lima, ono, and fitu), and a single panel for the sail’s middle part.
11. Preparing seaweed.
Children would collect seaweed called Limu from the reef and pound them in a large tridacna. The soft calcium paste-like seaweed would be used to paint the hull and other parts of the Tepuke to prevent rotting and keep fungus and insects out.
12. Collecting Tepuke parts.
Men would collect the different parts for the Tepuke from the forest’s different varieties of trees and thin the major parts of the Tepuke for the riser box (Taupua, Lakauhalava, Papa alova, Matai, Tau), including working on other parts with adzes. Ideally, these parts are left to dry before lashing them. The thinning of the riser box’s parts includes the insertion of the Niho-ono (Barracuda shape teeth), a hole and kalava, the demarcation of the pole lakau and pole uluika on the cross beam, the insertion of the tukupotu on the Matai and Papa alova, and kauae and pito on the two Taupua.
13. Turning the hull.
The hull is tilted to an ideal position before the Hanono process (assembling the riser box). The process of tilting the hull to the side would ensure that the Teama (primary floater) and the connectives are inserted and lashed at an appropriate angle so that the Tepuke floats upright when at sea. Experts would supervise and ensure that the ideal angulation is positioned.
14. The Hanonoho process.
The Hanonoho process is the assemblage of the riser box with the Tepuke parts of Te Taupua, Papa Matai, Papa alova, and Lakauhalava. The riser box is made up of the Lakau halava (cross beam) top structure. The two Taupuaare at the front and rear of the hull, and on the two sides of the riser box are the Papa Matai, on the leeward side, and Papa alova, on the windward side. Holes are made on the structures that make up the riser box, and the position is aligned for the easy lashing of the structures to hold each part firmly together.
Prior to the Hanonoho process, traditional food is distributed to the households and the Tea Holau (men’s house),where the Te Aliki (leader) of the Kaenga (Tribe) would redistribute the food to the tribe members. It is a notice of invitation where the next stage of the Tepuke construction would commence, and voluntary participation of workers is required without labour payment.
15. Lashing of the riser box structures.
There are different patterns and names of lashing to the parts of the riser box. The Fau fola (flat tying) pattern is the initial lashing that holds the Taupua, Matai and Papa alova together. The Fau loimata (tears tying) pattern holds the Taupua and Lakau halava (cross beam) together. A zigzag pattern between the holes created on the Taupua and Matai on one side and Taupua and Papa alova on the other side of the riser box would create an initial pattern called Fau Manga. The repetitive zigzagging pattern would create a Te Umu pattern in the shape of the fish called Pakumu, indicating that the lashing technique is accurate.
16. Constructing the Teama (windward) side platform.
The sticks called koukouwi are laid onto the crossbeam and lashed with the X crossed Fau Manga pattern of lashing. The quarter split lavihi (betel nut palm) are laid onto the koukowi, forming the platform where the semi-house structure is lashed onto the sticks called Pono koukowi, traversing in the opposite direction of the koukouwi sticks. The Teama (windward platform) accommodates the semi-house semi-house Haihale. It accommodates the captain, guests, cargo, and women crew to distribute betel nuts and food to the crew during the voyage.
17. Assembling the primary floater and connectives.
The process of lashing the primary floater and connectives to the cross beam and aligning with the riser box is called Tapaia Te Mdepi. The two primary connectives called Pou are inserted into the hole of the Lakau halava end called the pole uluika and hammered firmly into the holes. The other connectives, Hakatu Tu and Hakatu Takoro, are positioned onto the primary and secondary floater and lashed onto the cross beam. This is an essential process that ensures adequate buoyancy and balance of the Tepuke while at sea.
18. Constructing and lashing of the lou.
The lou is the part of the Tepuke that stabilizes the Teama onto the Tepuke windward platform. It is lashed on each side of the koukowi.
19. Constructing the Utongi (secondary floater) and secondary connectives.
There are two Utongi (secondary floaters), the outer Utongi Tua Teama and inner Utongi Lohi Teama. The outer and inner secondary floaters are tied onto the primary floater via the connectives on the primary floater using rattan.
20. Lashing of the Lakau Haleha (supporting stick).
Its function is to support the sticks lying under the crossbeam and stabilize the primary floater to the hull when lashed to the lou part of the Tepuke.
21. Lashing of the Yamahu.
The Yamahu is a long flexible stick that is curved. One end is lashed onto the connective on the primary floater called Mdai, and the other is lashed onto the koukowi sticks on the leeward platform. It stabilizes the floaters to the Tepuke’s main hull.
22. Lashing of the Kilkha part.
The Kilkha stick is tied onto all the connectives halfway between the primary floater and the leeward platform. It’s used for squatting while defecating, hence the name Sikonga.
23. Thinning and lashing of the Te Alunga.
The Te Alunga is the pillow or head where the three Wa’a and the two Li’i are rested to form the leeward karea platform base. Strips of quarter split betel nut palm are lashed onto the sticks below. This platform is where the steerer man stands to steer the Tepuke.
24. The windlasses and the Li’i (tourniquet stick).
The men would collect the rattan and split them into quarters. They would tie the split rattan around the Hakalaoa and over the crossbeam and hole on the Taupua and tourniquet stick in a zigzag pattern to hold them together. The process is called tying the Hatlakepa. Essentially, its function is to hold the riser box firmly to the Tepuke’s hull.
25. Assembling the cover board.
The cover board usually consists of three pairs on each side of the hull. It is tied with split quarter rattan to hold it firmly on a hakalaoa (stick) traversing the hull’s gunnel.
26. Lashing of the Teube bird.
The Teube bird signifies Lata’s guiding presence during the voyage. It’s tied onto the outer end of the cover board. This is where the sail’s boom is steeped on.
27. Caulking the cover board and applying sealant.
The cover board side under the hull is caulked with dried, pounded coconut husk and sealed with crashed and pounded bark mixed with breadfruit sap.
28. Constructing the mast.
The mast is adjusted with the right measurement. A hole is made at the upper part of the mast to insert a bolt of ropes to raise the mast and sail. A part of the mast called Teke is tied on the upper end of the mast to leverage the sail when raised.
29. Constructing the paddle and its handle.
There are two paddle types to steer the Tepuke called Foe Vaka and Foe Manu. They are made from the buttress of a tree called Na’a in Taumako. The paddle is thin, and a long handle is lashed to it to reach the leeward platform where the steer man would stand.
30. Constructing the Haihale (semi-house).
The house’s base and roof are lashed together using a type of tree called Milo which is light and flexible. The walls and roof are covered with thatched sago palm leaves. The walls are locked from the outside with strips of split betel nut palm tied firmly to the post inside the house. The house is very light to carry and can withstand strong wind. It is lashed firmly onto the windward platform.
31. Sewing the mat panel and sail.
The men would stitch the mat panel into a curved bolt of rope to form the sail’s shape. Each sail panel is stitched together to form the sail. The Vaka Vei are tied at the sail’s edge to connect them to the two booms known as Langovaka.
32: Assembling the sail’s boom.
The sail’s boom is made from a flexible tree. It is located where the flexible ukui at the tip of the sail is lashed.
33. Applying the pounded Limu (seaweed).
The pounded Limu (seaweed) is applied to the Tepuke hull and other parts to keep away insects and prevent rotting.
34. Hauling the Tepuke to sea for the first time.
When the Tepuke parts are lashed, it would be hauled to sea to assess its buoyancy and balance.
35. The Tepuke’s first sail trial.
The Tepuke’s owner would make a first sail trial into a passage of big waves and rough seas around Taumako. This test trial would ensure that the Tepuke’s parts are properly lashed and strong enough to withstand rough seas and weather during a long voyage.
36. Launching and blessing of the new Tepuke.
When the new Tepuke canoe owner is satisfied that the Tepuke is properly constructed, he would prepare food and distribute them to the workers and households in the village, thanking them for assisting in the Tepuke’s construction. This is a celebration ceremony for the new Vaka. The new Tepuke is also blessed and anointed by a pastor and Bishop from the Church.
37. Preparing food for a voyage.
The women would baked food in an Umu (earth oven) the night before the journey. Fetch water and bottle it for the voyage. Weave the different types of baskets from coconut leaves before the scheduled day of the voyage. The different baskets are called Tanga, Bekima, Kere, Plapola, Pukuha and Hangora. Each type of basket has variouspurposes and uses. Bekima is used to put kamu (betel nuts and their byproducts) to present to guests and visitors on arrival. Kere is used for storing cooked or uncooked food and betel nuts and their byproducts. Plapola for storing sticks to calm the wind or change the wind and leaves for Halalaka, performing a ritual and prayer of a peaceful journey to the spirits. Women who joined the crew for the voyage usually slept and spent most of their time on the haihale. Their work on the journey would be to distribute food, betel nuts, and water to the crew and chew betel nuts for the toothless elders.
38. Arrival protocol on another island.
On the Tepuke’s arrival on another island, a crew member would blow a conch shell to alert the community that a Tepuke has arrived. The person who would purchase the Tepuke would also reply by blowing his conch shell, alerting the Tepuke owner that he and his tribe would buy the Tepuke. When the Tepuke would land at the beach, the person who would buy the Tepuke would present red feather money to the arriving crew’s leader, a sign of friendship that the crew are welcome to the island and can disembark. The women on the Tepuke would distribute betel nuts and their byproducts to the people who come to welcome the Tepuke’s crew.
Note: The author has been involved with the voyaging culture of Taumako since 2005. He spent four years on Taumako observing the construction of the Tepuke and associated protocols and traditions of the Taumako voyaging culture. The author is not familiar with the names of the Tepuke’s parts in English, thus describing them in the Taumako dialect.
Dr. Simon Teave Salopuka is the lead director of the Vaka Taumako Project Solomon Islands and Vaka Valo Association. Born and raised on Taumako, he left for boarding school at 14 years old. He was the first Taumakoan to go to university, and the first to earn an advanced degree (Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and MA at the University of Papua New Guinea). Salopuka temporarily puts aside his career in medicine and public health to learn how to return home to learn how to build and sail Te Puke. He led Vaka Valo Project for the last 7 years, coordinated with the Solomon Islands Office of Education, assisted in film and archival translations, facilitated logistics, and served as medical officer during voyages.
Simon Salopuka then founded the Vaka Taumako Project Solomon Islands and Vaka Valo Association. In 2014 he formally registered it as a charitable organisation, a non-profitable organisation. In 2018 Salopuka moved to Honiara where his older children attend secondary schools. He is again working as a physician and is also one of the Honiara-based directors of Vaka Valo Association who move back and forth to Taumako.
In June and July 2021 Simon Salopuka and other members visited communities in Makira, Baro Village, Nelo Dancers of Nemba village, Santa Cruz, Islands of Veakau, Matema and Nifiloli and Tikopia and Anuta, Vanikoro and Utupua leaders and voyagers on a “Heihei Lavoi mission” a traditional concept of building relationship and friendship with other community and islands in Solomon Islands so that they can establish connection and share their voyaging knowledge to safeguard it for future generation. An initial process of restoring the Tepuke voyaging canoe that got rotten at Usili village of Vanikoro Island in Temotu Province of SE Solomon Islands.
Edited by Talei Luscia Mangioni.