Alternative wisdom

Where high-tech science sometimes struggles, Māori knowledge can offer answers, find Tina Makereti and Dave Hansford.

At the day's close, Te Arawa people like to treat their guests to a feast of traditional kai, like kōura, kākahi, or other freshwater kai gathered from Te Arawa Lakes. In this way, the tribe extends its manaakitanga, serving delicacies that will be relished and recalled long after. Each iwi has a signature dish – a culinary badge of identity and pride – but pollution is threatening that customary fare. In some places – such as Te Arawa's own harvesting grounds – some traditional kai has become scarce, suspect, or both.

That decline saw iwi and NIWA team up to track the fortunes of critical food species, and they're employing techniques that some had long forgotten. Mātauranga Māori, or Māori knowledge systems, have helped solve problems that 'conventional' science was struggling with.

Tau kōura, for instance, is an ancestral harvesting method, but it was recently resurrected as the only successful way to keep tabs on kōura populations.

Of Tūwharetoa/Te Arawa descent himself, environmental consultant Ian Kusabs has more than just a professional interest in kōura. "They're the most important customary fisheries resource up here." Canaries in the freshwater coalmine, their fortunes reflect the overall health of the entire ecosystem. To Māori, they're a taonga – the relationship goes far beyond harvest and consumption, embracing values like custodianship, pride and identity. At first, Kusabs tried all the conventional sampling methods to monitor kōura: underwater video cameras, gee-minnow and fish traps, scuba diving. None of them worked. "You run into problems with those visual methods when you get into dirty or discoloured water," he says.

Working with local customary fishers, Kusabs was reminded of a traditional method, the tau kōura. Ngāti Pikiao kaumatua Willie Emery was one of just a handful still running kōura lines. "It was a dying practice," observes Kusabs. They've been working together to revitalise it since. Bundles of bracken fern are tied to ropes, then dangled on the lake bed for a few weeks, offering prime real estate to the little crustaceans. Unlike modern traps, they snare a representative sample of the kōura population, from the very smallest to the largest, they're non-invasive and they work in winter.

Chief Executive Officer of Te Arawa Lakes Trust, Roku Mihinui, found there were two compelling results: "One: a method of catching food and providing a safe space for the kōura was internationally recognised as being a scientific tool, and two: mātauranga was finally recognised as being actual and relevant knowledge related to the environment, that could be accepted as scientific as well."

A subsequent collaboration saw tau kōura employed again, when the Trust and NIWA measured contaminants in traditional kai. The project, says Executive Officer of the Trust, Hera Smith, also became about "sharing stories about how the environment has changed, and what might have caused that change." Everyone learned from storytelling that chronicled the fate of food sources over the years. 

A dynamic discipline

Mātauranga Māori had shown – or more correctly, reasserted – its value. Any description of the concept must accommodate a wealth of meanings and perspectives. It's sometimes described as Māori science, but this is misleading. Mātauranga Māori, says NIWA scientist Darren King, instead represents: "a range of different forms and expressions, based on different tribal histories, different geographies, different practices, different values. Mātauranga Māori incorporates both traditional and nontraditional knowledge, so it's dynamic, constantly evolving."

Nevertheless, mātauranga Māori and science can find agreement at points along parallel lines of scientific enquiry. For starters, both are informed by observation and patterns in natural systems. "Our people have always asked questions," says NIWA's Māori Development Manager, Apanui Skipper. "A lot of our knowledge is based around longitudinal observation over 1000 years or more, pondering the past and the future without the need for certainty or absolute solution." Such objective scrutiny offers science a perspective other contemporary methods lack. "Mātauranga Māori can help detect subtle changes in environments, based on detailed observations of natural phenomena over a lifetime," says King.

Conventional science field observations are based on assumptions and the development of measurement methodologies, and the same can be said for mātauranga Māori. It also uses systems to organise information, just as mainstream science does, but the principles can be very different. For example, Māori hold an extensive whakapapa of flora and fauna – an abundant, fertile family tree that connects all living things according to their relationships and functions in the natural world. In science, this whakapapa might be called taxonomy.

"There are many different levels of mātauranga Māori," says King. "It can be specific, or empirical and practical, and I think that's the knowledge most people are attracted to." But, he says, "mātauranga Māori also incorporates elemental, abstract, metaphysical and instinctual knowledge and understanding. These forms of mātauranga Māori are underpinned by whakapapa and tīkanga – that is, the values that define human relationships between themselves, and with nature."

About here, mātauranga Māori becomes more esoteric, and best left in the hands of those qualified to understand the concepts from within a Māori world view. That hasn't deterred iwi and scientists, though, from working together more often, using that empirical knowledge. Wendy Henwood of Te Roopū Taiao o Utakura takes a pragmatic view: "We don't actually separate out what's western and what's Māori. We only know what we know, and we're happy to look at all

Alternative wisdom

knowledge and see what works for us. We don't say: 'right, today we're going to do western science, tomorrow we're going to do Māori science.' We look at blending kaitiakitanga practices with mana whenua knowledge and kaupapa Māori principles, instead of over-analysing and separating them out."

Insight restored

Lake Ōmāpere drains to the sea – eventually – first through the flailing shallows of the Utakura River, into the headwaters of the Hokianga Harbour. Like the Te Arawa Lakes, these far-northern reaches run heavy with agricultural runoff, but NIWA's been working with Te Roopū Taiao o Utakura to clear up Ōmāpere's waters. Restoring the lake's riparian strip may well help, but first the group needs a way to monitor the lake's health, to help track the success of improvements they make.

To that end, NIWA scientists Erica Williams, Wakaiti Dalton and Jacques Boubée worked with Te Roopū Taiao o Utakura to monitor tuna, another taonga and indicator species, as well as water quality assessment tools. "The relationship we've had with them has just been amazing," enthuses Henwood. "They're really willing to share knowledge and expertise with us in a way that's actually building our capacity. They'll come and show us how to do stuff, and then work alongside us to do our own thing, so they're well respected in the community."

The feeling is mutual. "Te Roopū Taiao Utakura has one of the best models," says Williams. "They can do their own monitoring programmes, and their own outreach for the local schools and wider community, teaching them how to age eels, and monitor the stream invertebrates." It would be difficult for a top-down approach to work in the long term for Lake Ōmāpere and the Utakura, she says, "because a lot of the restoration and co-management is going to have to be driven by local communities ... the guys that live and eat and breathe from these rivers and lakes over generations." For Māori, projects like Lake Ōmāpere are not only helping to restore mauri: they revive traditional practices – among young and old – around caring for the environment and learning new, science-based skills. 

Mātauranga Māori brings many benefits to science, as does science to mātauranga Māori. But the whole, says Dr Charlotte Severne, is greater even than the sum of the parts: "It doesn't stop at complementarity – there's a depth that comes from these knowledge systems talking to each other." 

"The integration of these knowledge systems adds depth and richness to observations, data and analysis."

But King says we've yet to reach the full collaborative potential: "More needs to be done in terms of realising how these two systems can complement each other." He's investigating how pūrākau, or Māori oral histories and narratives, can contribute to scientific understanding of tsunami risk. "By ignoring Māori experience and traditions, valuable insights are being missed out on." Collective memory can reinforce and confirm existing knowledge, he says, "but it also gives us an opportunity to question whether or not we've quite got it right."

Then there's protocol. Hera Smith points out the critical importance of tribal consent, and subsequent acknowledgement, "because that's where the mātauranga is derived from." Tau kōura struck early problems when a scientist presented information to an international conference. "We hadn't yet presented it back to our own people," says Mihinui, "in the first instance, for them to be happy that it had been captured appropriately, and secondly so the use of that information could be qualified. That experience ... almost put us off continuing in other areas we were discussing with NIWA at the time."

It was, according to Kusabs, a lesson widely learnt. "Basically, it was a conflict between Māori society and western science, because in western science, if you come up with something, you try and ... get it out there as quickly as possible, whereas in the Māori world, you have to take your time and bring everybody along with you, and make sure you get that mandate."

For NIWA, mātauranga Māori extends a guiding hand from out of the past, and into the future: a rekindled flame illuminating the intimate connection between the environment and humanity. Says King: "It's at society's peril that we ignore the value and insights and expertise that lie within the knowledge-practice-belief complex that is mātauranga Māori."


Pou Whakarae - Te Hiringa Taiao
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Regional Manager - Nelson