Mātauranga Māori: the way of the past and future?

During my time studying at Lincoln University I have noticed that there is a lack of Mātauranga Māori in our research and study methods. This lack of recognition for the value of Māori methods is concerning, although this could be related to the high demand for Māori academics throughout the country.

New Zealand’s culture is unique. Understanding and participating in the Māori culture is a unique experience that is not replicated anywhere else around the world. Incorporating Mātauranga Māori research methods holds the potential to be beneficial for all research projects. There needs to be a clear understanding of Mātauranga Māori and how colonisation has affected Māori connections to their land. Mātauranga Māori is a modern term for the combined knowledge of Polynesian ancestors and the experiences of Māori living in the environment of New Zealand.

Understanding how to incorporate cultural methods into research holds the potential to generate a greater understanding of unique ecosystems in New Zealand. There are many different methods and systems from Māori culture that can be used within research to help describe and understand the data being collected. Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge system that incorporates a Māori philosophical thought, world view and practice. Kaitiakitanga is described as a place-based customary responsibilities and practices of Māori who have a genealogical history that connects them to the land and it embeds a vital link between Māori and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother).

Science knowledge underpins a large part of our day-to-day lives, and it’s questions encourage us to learn about the world we live in. Indigenous cultures have an advantage (to some degree of course) with their understanding of the land they inhabit, as their ancestors have spent centuries gathering information from medicine, food and historic events that directly relate to the land. Unfortunately, due to the dominance of traditional and classic research methods in science, much of this information has been disregarded and suppressed.

Amanda Black from Lincoln University, along with lead author Tara McAllister and others, co-wrote a paper (published in 2020) deciphering Mātauranga Māori in New Zealand ecology. Her article discusses the benefits of understanding and incorporating Māori knowledge and practices in research cases. Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land and marine environments offer deep temporal and spatial insights that can reshape our understanding of biodiversity. Such knowledge can also help us to create new pathways to halt or slow the rate of biodiversity loss.

The use of Mātauranga Māori within research allows us to re-shape our current understanding of the environment and provides improvements to address pressing environmental issues. ‘Two-eyed seeing’ is a metaphor that is used to assist people in conceptualising indigenous and western knowledge systems and to combine them in various ways that provide important insight for research.

Using this system can enhance ecosystem management throughout New Zealand. For example, assigning legal personhood status to a natural ecosystem (such as when the New Zealand Parliament assigned the Whanganui River legal personhood) aligns with how Māori view themselves – an integral part of the ecosystem. Legal personhood provides a framework where activities of exploitation need to be evaluated against the impacts on the ecological health of the system as a whole.

Ecosystems as legal identities could provide a flexible and durable alternative to the current approach of regarding ecosystems and their natural services as ‘free’, which has led to their gradual decline. This is where the Kaitiakitanga system is important. It is the responsibility of everybody residing within New Zealand to understand how the speed and scale of urban and agricultural landscape change disrupts the relationship between people and their lands. The loss of links to nature has the possibility to damage the health and well-being of urban Māori (and all New Zealanders).

The recurrent theme of the paper is the importance of co-development and co-creation of research through effective partnerships with Māori. The paper recognises that there is a lack of interaction with Māori regarding research. It also illustrates the need for scientists to move beyond a research process that involves either no or one-off consultation with Māori to a process that acknowledges Māori as Treaty partners.

Being able to incorporate understandings from multiple knowledge systems is vital for a thorough understanding of the natural world, which is crucial in advancing the science of ecology within New Zealand. Understanding the indigenous knowledge systems/Mātauranga Māori of New Zealand and incorporating it into research priorities will improve the overall findings for researchers as they will have a more informed background of their area of study.

The author Janie Kersten is a postgraduate student in the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science taught at Lincoln University. This article was written as an assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

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