Photo Essay - Te Wa, the traditional canoe of Kiribati
Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org
Anthropologist TONY WHINCUP has spent more than 30 years photographing in Kiribati. In our latest photo essay, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org we present his documentation of the traditional canoe from the vast atoll nation.

I have owned and sailed my own traditional canoe, which has left me with a passion for their beauty and appropriateness that I will never lose. There is neither nail nor screw holding it together. It uses nothing but the wind and grows almost organically from the resources that are naturally and readily available on the atoll.
Nearly everything for the construction of houses and canoes comes from the land and is prepared by the communal effort of the family. The resources of Kiribati are meagre. People maintain a knife-edge existence. The imperative of survival demands the integration of people and place. Something that is made reaches deeply into cultural beliefs, needs, history, resources and self-recognition. The canoe is an expression of this complex interaction and is deeply rooted in social concerns, traditional values and practices.
The canoe is a male domain, it is tied to those qualities which, in Kiribati, are seen as important in a man; strength, stoicism, and the skills of fishing, boat handling and survival at sea. Yet in its construction women play a vital role of making sennit string. After several months of soaking the coconut husk in the lagoon, women tease the fibres from it. Rolling the fine strands on their thighs, skein after skein of string is made. This string is used in every aspect of the canoe's construction. With it the planks of the hull are stitched together, the outrigger is lashed on and all spars are held firmly in place. The women's role literally holds the canoe together.
Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org

Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org

"There is neither nail nor screw holding it together. Is uses nothing but the wind and grows almost organically from the resources that are naturally and readily available on the atoll."

Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org
Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.orgPhotos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org

"Maybe we are reaching towards the significance a canoe must hold for those who, from birth, stare out at the immensity of the Pacific Ocean."

Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org

Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.orgPhotos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org
Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org
Photos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.orgPhotos by anthropologist TONY WHINCUP, courtesy of Pacificfocus.org

The sea dominates life. The nearest island is over the horizon, and a major land mass a thousand miles of endless ocean away. The land, heartbreakingly threatened by ecologically offensive nations, is so narrow, both ocean and lagoon can nearly always be seen. The peaceful and gentle, the deep and strong, the inner and outer are in constant contrast. These tiny low ribbons of coral are the home of the I-Kiribati and their unique sailing canoes.
Maybe we are reaching towards the significance a canoe must hold for those who, from birth, stare out at the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.
This brief photo essay concentrates on the construction of a canoe. This is the birth of a canoe in a tiny hut on the edge of the Tarawa lagoon. There is still much to show of its role in racing, fishing and transport and the ingenious procedures required for sailing.
The nation of Kiribati is spread over 3.5 milllion sq km stretching from north of Vanuatu in the west of the Pacific, above Tuvalu, Wallis and Futuna, Fiji, Tonga, Tokelau, Samoa, American Samoa, Niue, Cook Islands and to Tahiti in the east.



Associate Professor Tony Whincup is Head of the School of Visual & Material Culture at Massey University, New Zealand. For more stunning documentary photo essays go to www.pacificfocus.org