Conserving language diversity helps conserving biodiversity

“Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori” The language is the core of our Māori culture and mana

(Sir James Henare 1989).

Conservation. Kaitiakitanga. Restoration. Whakapapa. Language. Mātauranga. Culture. Humans seem to have an affinity for needing to label and name objects, actions or concepts as a way of understanding and categorizing them, being able to identify each individually. These words can make something stand alone, bring things together, show processes or give something its proper place in the order of things.

Timahanga Station: Look after the land and it will look after you- Image: Jean-Louise Roberts

It can be easy to forget the power that we give names, phrases and words. Sayings or whakatauki are present in all cultures, often passed down through generations. One saying I’ve heard many times is that you never fully appreciate something until you’ve lost it. In the context of language, conservation and culture, it is a concept which feels highly relevant.

It was the concerns surrounding this issue put forward by a kaumatua (elder) of Ngāi Tūhoe that highlighted the importance of language in relation to conservation. This wouldn’t be an obvious link to many of us, myself included. Western science is a classic example of how people just love naming things, with taxonomic classifications and names assigned to every organism that has been discovered.

The Māori world view takes this concept one step further, with the names of birds, plants, animals, places and people providing information or history. Loss of words therefore equates to a loss of knowledge, a concept which is the focus of the study ‘ Empowering the Indigenous voice in a graphical representation of Aotearoa’s biocultural heritage (flora and fauna)’ (Aitken, Shadbolt, Doherty, Mark-Shadbolt, Marzano & Ataria 2021). This study recognised the importance of conserving both nature and culture alongside each other in order for both to fully thrive. This is at the very core of the Māori world view. The quote above by Sir James Henare states how fundamental te reo Māori is for protecting and preserving the culture and by extension, the abundant natural resources that New Zealand has to offer.

Pīwakawaka or fantail, one of the many species that form the biological heritage of this country- Image: Jean-Louise Roberts

Look after the land and it will look after you.

My grandparents are farmers so this particular saying is one I heard a lot growing up. The link between the health of the environment and the health of the people (both physical and mental) is often underestimated, and this link is put under pressure by many human activities.

In New Zealand, this intrinsic link between the environment and the people it supports and nurtures is even more prominent, with Māori culture always returning to this relationship. This goes as deep as tracing whakapapa (lineage or genealogy) back to the mountains that form the backbone of our country. Buried within the language is traditional knowledge (mātauranga Māori) passed down through generations. Due to the many forms it comes in, having knowledge of the language and the Māori world view is essential to interpret this information, but it is a form of knowledge that can’t be ignored if our natural environment is to be protected.

Waiata (song), korero (stories, myths, speech) and karakia (prayer) are some of the ways this knowledge is passed through generations. Māori traditionally were an oral rather than written society. Nature is a prevalent theme throughout traditional myths and legends. Activities were carried out according to the moon phases by the maramataka calendar and mountains and rivers take on personhood within the culture. So why is information and knowledge from people who have such a deep connection to this land being overlooked when trying to protect and manage our ecosystems?

The study by Aitken and colleagues (2021) draws attention to the fact that local dialects that are specific to particular iwi (tribes) are slowly being lost as te reo becomes standardised throughout the country due to the effort to increase the number of te reo speakers. Local words, phrases and stories for different species of flora and fauna, and the associated mātauranga, are slowly being lost as older generations pass away and younger generations aren’t being exposed to this information.

This loss includes a wealth of knowledge that is currently being underutilised when caring for our environment. such as the regulating of resource populations through rāhui (restrictions) or understanding of how the different components of an ecosystem influence each other. Knowledge and practice of traditional healing and medicine (rongoā) all relies on resources provided by the natural world, a wealth that could provide for people and environment alike. For Māori, the preservation of the natural environment is key for the preservation of the culture as the two are so intertwined. Preserving this knowledge is of both ecological and cultural importance for protecting the biological heritage of this country.

Educating the next generation so as to preserve this information was a key focus of the study undertaken at the behest of Ngaī Tūhoe. The resulting visual educational resource depicted species endemic and common to their area alongside the Tūhoe names (examples given were kohai as opposed to the commonly known kowhai and the Tūhoe name for marble leaf, kaiweta) and was created with the aim of being accessible and comprehensible for children. The passing on of knowledge and instilling in the younger generations a sense of the importance of our environment, will ensure that conservation, restoration and protection of these areas will continue into the future. Culture is interwoven within conservation through the deep connection between Māori people and the land.

The finished artwork (without names) (Aitken et al 2021)

With this being such a recent publication, the impact of this research in cultural and ecological spheres is yet to be seen. However, preservation of the natural resources requires the involvement of all New Zealanders. As such, the welcoming of knowledge from traditional sources is imperative to aid this task. The call for wider recognition of the knowledge held within Māori culture and te reo needs to be recognised to give our land the best care it deserves. Then, the land will look after us as well.

This article was prepared by postgraduate student Jean-Louise Roberts as part of the ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

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