Ara Mai He Tetekura: Māori Knowledge Systems That Enable Ecological and Sociolinguistic Survival in Aotearoa

  • Mere SkerrettEmail author
  • Jenny Ritchie
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


This chapter offers an in-depth exploration of Māori systems of knowledge, outlining an ecological literacy grounded in a deep interconnectedness to land, rivers, and other geographical features made available to children through their integral engagement with whenua (land) and whānau (extended family). This ecoliteracy was symbiotically emergent in relation with the cohabitants of these places, generating a mutually beneficial biocultural diversity. This biocultural diversity, that is, the Māori language, their lands, and the biodiversity that previously thrived upon these, has all been threatened by the onslaught of colonization, of which the ultimate result is monocultures of the mind and of the land. The complexity of Māori onto-epistemologies, their belief and knowledge systems, is illustrated with an explanation of how their complex navigation systems enabled their settlement of Aotearoa and ongoing navigation around their own islands, as well as between those of the South Pacific. These knowledges are passed on intergenerationally through children’s participation in biocultural practices such as sustainable mutton-birding. Tribal sayings serve as detailed identity markers and also preserve wisdom that is thus transmitted to young children. Finally, some key Māori values that relate to biocultural sustainability are explained, along with some examples of their application within early childhood care and education settings.


Biocultural sustainability Ecocultural literacy Māori Indigenous Early childhood 



Land of the Long White Cloud


Respectful mindfulness, love


God, deity, supernatural beings






Tribe, people, bones


Guardianship, stewardship, trusteeship


Highly ritualized ceremonies, prayers and incantations

Kaupapa Māori education

A distinctly Māori, philosophically and linguistically enriched, education system

Kōhanga Reo

Māori language nest



Kura Kaupapa Māori

Kaupapa Māori immersion schools


Southern Cross


Prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power


To support, take care of, give hospitality to, protect


Indigenous People of New Zealand


Formal Māori gathering place

Mātauranga Māori

Māori knowledge


Similar to massage/physiotherapy



Moutere Tītī

Muttonbird Islands

Ngāi Tahu

Tribal group, South Island


Non-Māori New Zealanders


Mother Earth


Tribal sayings


Narratives and storytelling


Chieftainship, right to exercise authority, chiefly autonomy, sovereignty, chiefly responsibility


Restricted access, prohibition

Rakiura Māori

Southern tribal grouping




Sky Father


Incantations and rituals involved with healing


Physical remedies derived from trees, leaves, berries, fruits, bark, and moss


Small child




God of the Seas


Powerful creature, chief, powerful leader, something or someone awesome

Tāngata whenua

People of the land


Sacred, prohibited, under protection, restricted

Te ao Māori

Māori worldviews

Te ao Pākehā

Pākehā worldviews

Te Moana Nui a Kiwa

The Ocean of Kiwa or Pacific Ocean

Te reo

The language

Te Waipounamu

South Island


Custom, cultural ways of being and doing

Tino Rangatiratanga

Right to exercise authority, chiefly autonomy, self-determination

Tiriti o Waitangi

Treaty of Waitangi


Sooty shearwater

Titiro, whakarongo, kōrero

Look and listen before you speak


Reader of signs from nature, spiritual expert, and healer










Proverbial saying according to someone


Proverbial saying


Family (including extended)


Relationships, connectedness




Flax mat


Inner heart, core




Māori, the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa (New Zealand), have their own ecological literacies, ecological thinking, and ecological identities, grounded in their own onto-epistemological systems. Connectedness and interrelatedness with their lands, mountains, rivers, lakes, languages, and oceans is at the center of these systems. Genealogically, Māori, as descendants of Papatūānuku and Ranginui, the Earth Mother and Sky Father, are related to these ancestral landmarks, and to the trees and creatures that coinhabit with them, and are required therefore to exercise kaitiakitanga (Māori words are translated on the first appearance and also listed in the glossary section.) and rangatiratanga, that is, guardianship, care, and responsibility in relationship with all manner of beings and things. Indigenous languages are an integral part of the cosmology and onto-epistemology . They bridge the spaces between knowledge/knowing and experiential/physical domains and reflect both cosmological thought and the biocultural diversity of the land. Indigenous languages are embodied languages and grow out of the lands, seas, and skies. They exemplify critical knowledges of global ecological systems and are crucial to their sustainability. Beginning with an explanation of Māori ecological literacies as key to understanding Māori onto-epistemologies, this paper explains traditional applications of these ecological literacies in the realms of navigation and sourcing food sustainably. Key constructs such as rangatiratanga, kaitiakitanga, and rāhui (protective prohibitions) are then explained, followed by some examples of these constructs as they were applied in early childhood care and education settings. In this paper we draw upon our own research in the field of critical early childhood studies and Māori pedagogies.

Reading the World

The term “biocultural diversity” represents the interlinkages between linguistic, cultural, and biological diversity as interrelated components representing life on our planet (Skutnabb-Kangas, Maffi, & Harmon, 2003). Indigenous languages are integral to Indigenous onto-epistemologies, and therefore these must be supported if global biocultural systems are to be sustained (Skutnabb-Kangas et al., 2003). A biocultural perspective recognizes the interdependence of all living organisms, plants, animals, bacteria, and humans, living and flourishing together in networks of complex and delicate relationships. Further, it understands that damage to any part of the network (with or among humans or the ecosystem) will result in unforeseen, perhaps unintended, and likely harmful consequences for the whole system. It is the diversity across the delicate and complex network of the ecosystem, which reflects eons of coevolutionary symbiosis, that continues to provide the potential for further adaptation and diversity (Flannery, 2010). Our human histories are characterized by increasing adaptation and diversification as we settle into new environments, adapting to new landscapes, ecosystems, and climatic conditions. Languages too diversify and adapt as they connect to new lands and the ecosystems therein. Linguistic diversity and biological diversity are, therefore, seen as inseparable. Moreover, in the language of ecology, the strongest ecosystems are those that are the most diverse. That is, diversity directly relates to stability; variety is important for long-term survival. Uniformity endangers species by providing inflexibility and inadaptability (Skutnabb-Kangas et al., 2003). Our success on this planet has been due to an ability to adapt to different kinds of environments (cosmic, atmospheric, and ecological as well as cultural-linguistic) over millennia (Flannery, 2010). Survivability and sustainability are born out of diversity and adaptability. Linguistic and cultural diversity maximizes chances of human success and adaptability; our futures are dependent on it. Creation and innovation are born out of it. Therefore, as Skutnabb-Kangas et al. (2003) assert, the diversity of life goes beyond respecting biodiversity to include cultural and linguistic diversity, which is what is meant by the term “biocultural diversity.”

Māori are the tāngata whenua (Indigenous people of the land) of Aotearoa. Te reo Māori (the Māori language) is the terralingua of Aotearoa, the Indigenous language of this land. It is the first language mapped on to this land, finely tuned to the geography and ecology of this space and place, with a lexicon that was created and adapted to the biodiversity that is Aotearoa. The language and/or the land are intricately interwoven into what can be described as a “tāniko” (detailed weaving) of fine ornamentation, presenting a delicate network of personification, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, and allegory, recording tribal histories, memories, genealogies, narratives, cultural activities, beliefs, and spirituality. The language and land comes together bundled up in symbiotic relationship with, and alongside, seas, skies, and all manner of creatures. McLintock (1949) alluded to this close relationship between Māori and their deeply embedded relationship with Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) when he proclaimed Māori were simply part of the geography “set in motion” and as such indivisible from more-than-human nature. He argues:

In the remote past the physical environment of a society was its dominant factor, and even among primitive people, such as the pre-European Māori, the human being was largely at the mercy of omnipotent nature. Natural phenomena dominated his (sic) thoughts, controlled his life and shaped his religion. In a very real sense, such history could be regarded as merely geography set in motion. (p. 7)

Traditionally, Māori children (mokopuna, tamariki, tuakana, teina) were positioned alongside adults in an inseparable pattern of relationships between the gods, ancestors, elders, and wider family members. Mokopuna (the etymology of which stems from moko meaning facial markings or ancient and puna, a sacred spring) then translates to “the ancient spring, or blueprint, of your ancestors,” in today’s world commonly understood to be grandchildren. Tamariki (translated to mean “the descendents of the Gods”) is commonly understood today to mean “children,” tuakana (elder or senior relations to either brothers, sisters, cousins, and/or distant cousins), or teina (younger or junior relations to either brothers, sisters, cousins, and/or distant cousins). The networks or patterns of relationships were a fine-tuned one. The way these terms were used explained the nature of the relationship, whether close or distant, past or future. The “modern” constructs of childhood, child, and grandchild did not exist traditionally but are often transposed today onto Māori society, as is the construct of the nuclear family for “whānau” which, traditionally, also had a much wider compass, not the confined, self-contained entity of “family” in the English language sense. Traditionally children were born into much more dynamic systems of whakapapa (kinship and genealogical ties) and were positioned as representative of all their whakapapa ties, in all facets of their lives in traditional Māori society. Salmond (2017a) argues that it is the relationship itself and its relationality (not its quality or the parties involved) that is ontologically prior. She recalls one of the very first missionaries, the Reverend Samuel Marsden from the Church Missionary Society, commenting on the role of children in the early 1800s. He said

The Chiefs are in general very sensible men, and wish for information upon all subjects. They are accustomed to public discussions from their infancy. The Chiefs take their Children from their Mothers breast, to all their public Assemblies. They hear all that is said upon Politics, Religion, War &c by the oldest men. Children will frequently ask questions in public Conversation, and are answered by the Chiefs. I have often been surprised, to see the Sons of the Chiefs at the age of 4 or 5 years sitting amongst the Chiefs, and paying such close attention to what was said… There can be no finer children than [those of] the New Zealanders in any part of the world. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear always happy and playful, and very active. (cited at p. 114)

Salmond argues that Marsden “…failed to connect their happiness, however, with the absence of contemporary British child-rearing practices which included harsh physical punishment” (p. 114). The biblical notions of “spare the rod, spoil the child” and “children are meant to be seen, not heard” imposed through British colonialism were foreign concepts to Māori of the 1800s. The imposition of these British values and attitudes had a dire impact on both traditional and contemporary Māori child-rearing practices, colonizing the relationships between adults and children as well as their relationships with nature.

Drawing on reading the world through nature and natural phenomena, the following provides an exploration of the intimate relationships and interconnectedness across the delicate networking of the bioculture, across the sociolinguistic spaces and ecological diversities.

Interconnectivity Across the Bioculture

The concept of natural phenomena dominating Māori thought, life, behavior, and spirituality is inextricably entangled in our expressive Māori language, which reflects this coexistence. The colonization of the province of Otago provides an example of how Indigenous peoples coexisted with Papatūānuku rather than seeking to conquer and control nature. In The History of Otago, McLintock (1949) raises what he considers to be the age-old “historical problem” of dualism of the actions of “Nature on Man” (sic) or “Man on Nature.” Lack of understanding of Māori onto-epistemologies leads McLintock to hypothesize the nature of the relationship as being one of nature dominating human life, rather than coexisting, and thus the invader deciding the necessary reaction to be one of promoting human determination to control and subdue nature. He argues that the colonization of Otago provides the scope for an effective study of these two phenomena, so effective was that colonization process. The Nature on Man environment is argued as being stark and unsympathetic, where the people (Māori), merely part of the geography, must also be living stark and unsympathetic lives. In the colonial mind-set, that arrangement needed to change, to make way for “progress.” McLintock writes:

It is difficult to-day…to envisage the Otago landscape as it appeared to the pioneers, and—perhaps more difficult-to recapture the wonder it must have aroused within their minds. For those who assembled on the decks of the John Wickliffe and the Philip Laing to gaze with anxious eyes upon the land destined to be their home were greeted with a vista of what must have seemed an endless sweep of that sub-tropical rain forest, not the least among New Zealand’s glories. .. Even to land-hungry immigrants, the virgin beauty of the scene must have made a strong appeal until the soon familiar sound of axe and saw shattered the brooding spell of centuries. (p. 15)

Southern Māori had cohabited with Papatūānuku for over a thousand years – had lived according to the principles of “rangatiratanga” and “kaitiakitanga” (responsibility and the protocol of giving and taking only what was needed) and manaakitanga (extreme care). But all too soon Papatūānuku became “it,” an apparatus for western colonialist and capitalist expansion and exploitation, something now distanced from the closely respected inter-relationality of a Māori worldview. The mahinga kai (food gathering places) were commodified, cleared, and drained for farming or polluted by excrement by the invader state politics. Such encroachment led to the corresponding disappearance of the forests and birds;

But the unique experiences [of the settler pioneers] were all too fleeting and soon, very soon, a solitary bird-note became the echo of a once lovelier song. For it was a tragedy, little understood or heeded in those early decades, that the native birds were fated to disappear at a rate corresponding to the destruction of the forest. (McLintock, 1949, p. 22)

Indigenous people either died of introduced diseases, were killed, or forced into a new (hierarchical) modality of life. Lands were carved up; Indigenous peoples lives decimated in terms of the destruction of whānau (extended family), hapū (sub-tribe), and iwi (tribal) structure of Māori. When the invader colonizers arrived, they did not see, understand, respect, or even heed, as McLintock alluded to, the beauty of Aotearoa and her resources. They quickly set about establishing deeds of ownership to turn the majesty of Te Waipounamu (the Greenstone Waters) into Her Majesty’s commodity, essentially farms. As the native birds were fated to disappear at the rate of the destruction of their native habitats, so too were the languages and knowledges which were the voices of those habitats fated to disappear.

Māori Ecological Literacy: Navigation

Drawing on the navigation tradition of Māori people provides a closer example of reading the world through nature and natural phenomena. Prior to discovering the southernmost Pacific Islands that they were to name “Aotearoa,” the ancestors of Māori already knew there was a large southern land mass because of the migratory pathways of varieties of birds, whales, and other marine life. They navigated by the signs of Tangaroa (God of the Seas) and Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) and Ranginui (the Sky Father) including stars, clouds, land, and sea swells. The migratory pathways of birds around the entire Pacific Rim provide many signposts.

The tītī (sooty shearwater) is one such bird. The flight of the tītī is spectacular, powerful, and direct, with wingspans giving the impression of an albatross, yet enabling them to plunge the oceans to depths of 16 m and to swim to depths of over 60 m. During migration, tītī travel on average a remarkable 74,000 km around the Pacific Ocean, which is the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically (Moller, Charleton, Knight, & Lyver, 2009). The flight takes them as far across the Pacific as Chile, Alaska, the coast of California, across to Japan, and back to the nesting grounds in the deep south of New Zealand, known to Rakiura Māori (the Southern tribal grouping) as the Moutere Tītī (Muttonbird Islands). Tītī survive and depend on the natural balance and harmony that nature provides while at sea and on land and are an integral part of the ecosystem in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Any disruption to this natural balance such as pollution, the annihilation of fish stock such as the krill, illegal commercial fishing, and the disasters like the deepwater horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown disaster have profound repercussions for our wildlife in the South. The saying “He manawa tītī” refers to the fortitude and sheer power of flight possessed by the tītī, and so a person who is resilient and of strong spirit may be described as a possessing a “manawa tītī,” the heart and substance of the tītī.

Māori Ecological Literacy: Food Gathering – Rapu Tītī (Mutton-Birding)

Every year some Rakiura Māori families migrate south with the birds to the Muttonbird Islands to gather a bioculturally controlled harvest. Ecological signs guide the migration and provide clues as to the nature of the breeding season that is coming. For several months before heading south, the moon is studied intensely, along with the flowering of the harakeke (flax) plants around Christmas and the feeding patterns of native birds in summer. The way the adult tītī birds sit in the water provides a sign, as well as the color of the ocean plentiful with krill. Māori traditional ecological knowledge of natural systems over time adds valuable ecological data to more conventional scientific studies, which are more of a snapshot at a particular point in time (Wehi, Whaanga, & Roa, 2009). It has been shown that the traditional “take” has little to no impact on total tītī population, but its significance for those families in terms of the intergenerational transmission of knowledge is invaluable to Rakiura Māori, to Ngāi Tahu (wider tribal group of the South Island). It is a time to gather, rekindle whakapapa (genealogical links), practice tikanga (specific Rakiura Māori ways of doing things), remember those who have passed on, share stories, forge new relationships, renew old relationships, and participate in, and adapt, a tradition that has been fine-tuned over a thousand years. However, this tradition is currently threatened by dangerous “consumer-driven” wasteful and polluting lifestyles.

A recent study provides an example of how our western consumerism is having long-term devastating impacts on wildlife (Wilcox, Van Sebille, & Hardesty, 2015). It reports that plastics could taint 99% of seabird species by 2050 and that the impact of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystems has unknown consequences. Seabirds have ingested bottle caps, children’s toys, and other debris that they mistake for food. Then they die of starvation – if they do not succumb to the toxicity of the plastics first (Wilcox et al., 2015). Rakiura Māori are deeply concerned as a tribe and have been involved in ongoing scientific studies incorporating Māori traditional ecological knowledge based on a collective base of understanding our Earth Mother ancestor, Papatūānuku, and her descendants. The collective base is founded on how the people and environment live together in complete awareness of each other and diversify together through time.

Ancient Māori navigators also followed the whales and other marine life whose rate of travel is slow and easily within the cruising speed of Māori double-hulled canoes or “waka hourua.” Ngāi Tahu Māori descend from Kahutia-te-rangi (also known as Paikea), who came ashore to Aotearoa on a whale. The time that the whales migrate south coincides with the appearance of the stars and planets most useful for navigating – particularly Māhutonga (the Southern Cross). The night sky was a map, and the sea was also a source of vast information, especially in terms of the relationship between lands and seas as navigation indicators. Changes in cloud color, sea color, fish species, ocean currents, and night skies are all important markers. There was no need for lighthouses or radar, so intimate was the relationship between people and the environment.

In Hawaii they say “Nana i ke Kumu” (Look to the Source), a saying often used by Hawaiian ancestors as a means of educating young people to seek answers from the elderly people. It also meant that one must study nature itself with all its wisdom in the forest and streams, the oceans and the skies, with all their life forms and the air that keeps them alive. In Ngāi Tahu we say “Mō ka uri e whai ake nei,” emphasizing the importance of bringing the relationship between our ancestral knowledges and future generations together. But when the relationships are disrupted, so too is the delicate network between the people and the environment and their ability to read one another. They all begin to suffer. Wehi et al. (2009) argue that oral traditions offer a wealth of information that is frequently overlooked, in part because of the language shift that occurs with colonization. This shift gives rise to the lack of knowledge of the language, which in the context of Aotearoa is the Māori language. The relationships between what happens to the lands then have a close impact on the languages of those lands and the way those languages are transmitted to following generations.

Learning from Elders

Māori, having navigated their way down across Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Ocean of Kiwa or Pacific Ocean) to settle on the islands of Aotearoa, were faced with a very different, temperate climate along with a different set of flora and fauna. Many of the plants they had brought with them from their tropical homelands failed to thrive in the colder climates of Aotearoa. However, through their attunement with forests, wetlands, oceans, and rivers, Māori were able to develop an extensive, in-depth understanding of how to sustain their well-being in their new lands. Integral to Māori well-being were spiritual beliefs and practices that linked them on a regular daily basis with the Atua (departmental Gods) from whom they sought guidance. Māori children were thus inculcated into a range of well-being modalities which included the use of “ritenga and karakia (incantations and rituals involved with healing), rongoā (physical remedies derived from trees, leaves, berries, fruits, bark and moss), mirimiri (similar to massage/physiotherapy), [and] wai (use of water to heal)” (Ahuriri-Driscoll et al., 2008, p. 15). The particular practices were integrally related to the specific places in which each tribe (iwi), sub-tribe (hapū), and extended family (whānau) cohabited with local flora and fauna and imbued with spiritual interconnectedness (wairua) (Penetito, 2009). Whaea Rangimārie Rose Pere, who was born in the early 1930s, describes her childhood raised in the traditional way by her grandparents in the remote Urewera forest region:

When the children of the Urewera got involved with aspects of mahi [work] alongside the adults on their daily pursuits they learnt the disciplines associated with each task they were expected to perform. The gathering of berries and vegetation such as pikopiko shoots, within a selected location, involved ritual and consideration for the patupaiarehe (supernatural folk) and other supernatural influences. The children quickly became accustomed to and respectful towards the bush and its inhabitants. The learnt how to lure or trap birds and could imitate their calls and sound patterns to perfection…. It was obvious from the expertise that Te Au [Whaea Rose’s great-grandmother] and others of her generation had in regard to bush-lore, that Tuhoe-Potiki [her tribe] had a thorough practical training course for their young. There is no doubt that the way for children to learn is through first hand experiences involving the sense, alongside knowledgable, skilful people. (Pere, 1983, pp. 58–59)

As has been shown, Māori had a particular affinity with the many birds of their forests, wetlands, foreshores, and islands (Keane, 2010). Much tribal wisdom was encapsulated within tribal sayings, which reflected the respect for and knowledge gleaned from close observation of indigenous birds and their ecologies. The intergenerational disruption of those tribal sayings being handed on to successive generations through colonization meant not only were the sayings lost, but the tribal wisdom and knowledges that those sayings reflected were also lost.

Tribal Sayings

Māori, like other Indigenous peoples, many of whom had resided in their lands for thousands of years, had developed not only extensive pharmacological knowledge systems but also had proactively developed sustainable plant production systems and protection protocols for local fauna (Wehi & Lord, 2017). Long periods of cohabitation enabled coevolutionary reciprocity that sustained biocultural well-being in which the Indigenous people positioned themselves in service to their cohabitants, their more-than-human kin which include the land, rivers, mountains, oceans, and all creatures residing in these spaces. Indigenous knowledge systems are, therefore, of the land and interdependent with it. Māori metaphorical understandings and wisdom are transmitted in whakataukī (proverbial sayings), such as “He pā tīkapu e takahia e au, he pā harakeke e kore e takahia, he tapu, he tapu, he tapu.” This is translated by Pou Temara as: “A flax [Phormium] cultivation is sacred and not to be treated as if it were a grove of tī trees” (as cited in Wehi, 2009, p. 270). According to Māori elders such encapsulated statements of wisdom “provide a blueprint for human behavior, thus emphasizing the older–younger sibling relationship of plants and humans that is accepted in Māori philosophy” (Wehi, 2009, p. 269).

Our ecological spaces continue to be destroyed by settler-colonial exploitation of lands, rivers, forests, and fisheries, in breach of the 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi, which is now considered to be New Zealand’s founding document and which had explicitly protected these. Not only is the unique biodiversity increasingly severely endangered (Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, 2017), but Māori face the challenge of maintaining the language specificities and cultural knowledges that emanate from those powerful connections and long histories of cohabitant reciprocity (Wehi & Lord, 2017). Elders today may likewise struggle to pass on their knowledges to their mokopuna (grandchildren) as children are often no longer in their care; in urban settings Māori families lack access to traditional ecosystems (Wehi & Wehi, 2010).

Embodied (Land and Language) Knowledge

Māori knowledge melded Māori ancestors to the lands in Aotearoa and the surrounding oceans for over a thousand years (Walker, 2004). Elders embodied knowledge and a strong desire to perpetuate certain forms of knowledge through their close relationships with young children, the mokopuna (Best, 1924). It has been argued that Māori knowledge is also inscribed on the landscape and language-scape in a variety of forms: through naming people, places, phenomena and things, waiata (songs), karakia (highly ritualized ceremonies, prayers, and incantations), whakapapa (genealogy), pūrākau (narratives and storytelling), through tikanga (cultural ways of being and doing), spirituality, and beliefs, passed on by the elders. According to Jackson (2011), Māori knowledge systems allow us to know who we are, our environment, and all aspects of the ecosystem and thus enable us to face challenges through broadening thinking, providing pathways into the future. Metge (2015) discusses the two sides of Māori knowledge systems, the sacred aspects (those that are “tapu”) that are not always readily available to everyone and the knowledge that is available to all (the “noa”) that is needed for daily living and well-being. These knowledge systems related correspondingly to each other. So too does the notion of “ako,” teaching and learning. Māori language (intimately related to the environment) both forms the fundamental basis of “ako,” which in turn shapes thinking and Māori worldviews. Māori patterns of thinking and relating which shape Māori worldviews and identity are bound up with one’s mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, marae (formal gathering places), and other landmarks. When Māori meet and introduce themselves, it is generally prefaced by words which may follow the format of the pepeha (statement of identity) outlined here:
  • Ko Te Arawa te waka – Arawa is the tribal canoe.

  • Ko Matawhaura te maunga – Matawhaura is the mountain.

  • Ko Te Rotoiti te Moana – Rotoiti is the lake.

  • Ko Taurua Pā te Marae – Taurua Pā is the gathering place.

  • Ko Ngāti Pikiao te Iwi – Pikiao is the tribal grouping.

  • Ko Ngāti Te Rangiunuora te Hapū – Ngāti Te Rangiunuora is the sub-tribe.

These cosmological and biocultural identity shapers and markers not only demarcate the tribal landmarks, waterways, ancestral groupings but weave and entangle people, places, and practices in an intricate network of relationships. Such biocultural identity markers are embedded in the lands, elements, creatures, and bodies that inhabit those lands and waterways. They are also the focus of young children’s learning in early childhood centers dedicated to Māori language and tikanga (cosmo-biocultural practices) regeneration. This gives children a secure tūrangawaewae (a place to stand, sense of belonging) or connection with those identity markers enabling them to remain profoundly linked to their histories, their genealogical roots, their language, and their ontologies in important and enduring ways.

Karakia (Māori ancient traditional spiritual rituals) also play an important role in the intergenerational transmission of language and knowledge. Karakia serve as a guide in the present and into the future. The following karakia was recited daily in our Kōhanga Reo (Māori language nest) and is an example of contemporary Kōhanga Reo pedagogy:

Tēnei au, tēnei au, ko te hōkai nei o taku tapuwae

Ko te hōkai nuku, ko te hōkai rangi, ko te hōkai o tōku tīpuna a Tānenuiārangi

I pikitia ai ki ngā rangitūhāhā ki te tiho o Manono

I rokohina atu rā, ko Io-Matua-Kore anake

I riri iho ai ngā kete o te wānanga, ko te kete Tuauri, ko te kete Tuatea, ko te kete Aronui.

Ka tiritiria, ka poupoua, ki a Papatūānuku. Ka puta te ira tangata ki te wheiao, ko te ao marama.

Haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!

This karakia is about a journey:

It is I who is here, on a sacred journey, the range and breadth of which is vast, spanning the earth and the heavens; in the way that my ancestor Tānenuiārangi journeyed into the beyond; to the limits of the outermost layers of Manono, to come upon a pure parentless source; there to acquire the baskets of knowledge known as Tūāuri, Tūātea and Aronui; the baskets of sacred knowledge, ancient knowledge, knowledge pertaining to all life. These were then cultivated and nourished by Papatūānuku, our Earth Mother, to unfold the essence of all human beings into the realm of light and enlightenment. So let us unite and progress the reason why we are here. So be it!

The karakia not only provides the impetus for the pursuit of knowledge but it speaks to the interconnectedness of all things ancient and new, past, present, and future. It provides the blueprint for respecting the sacred, seeking the ancient understandings to help us to understand the present and to provide the unity and purpose in working together, across boundaries, for our common well-being and human enlightenment. The means by which Tanenuiārangi ascended through the outer layers, into the heavens, was by way of a vine called “Te Aka Matua.” The ancient and the present are interconnected in the same way that the ecosystems and terralinguistics are entwined. Harm to any aspect of the bioculture is harmful to the whole system. Everything and everyone needs to be valued and treated with the utmost respect.

Ontological Values: Rangatiratanga

The Māori word “Rangatira” means something (or someone) of high rank, of high esteem, and to be revered. The suffix “tanga” at the end is a noun-forming suffix so that rangatiratanga is often translated to mean sovereignty, or something which stands in high esteem, in its own right, that is, self-determining. The 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi explicitly protected the rangatiratanga of the sovereign chiefs and all their lands, rivers, forests, fisheries, and “taonga” (all things treasured) from exploitation (Orange, 1987).

It is interesting to note that the prelude to Te Tiriti o Waitangi was a Declaration of Independence called He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni, A Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand, drafted in 1835, with signatures being collected up until the time of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840 (Walker, 2004). The first clause of the Declaration of Independence designated Nū Tireni (New Zealand) to be an independent country, and the United Tribes (Te Wakaminenga) also declared that the lands were indeed “he Wenua Rangatira,” or lands to be revered, chiefly lands. There has, however, been a long-standing historical struggle between Māori and Pākehā (non-Māori) over the Māori concept of rangatiratanga (rights to sovereignty), exacerbated in the proclamation by Judge Prendergast in 1877 that the Treaty was a “simple nullity” (King, 2003, p. 325). While both documents guaranteed Māori their rangatiratanga (sovereignty), Prendergast contested it. There has been a struggle over whether Māori were a sovereign people, and what exactly was ceded, ever since. Smith (2012) argues that notions of struggle “in the margins” is that, when attached to a political idea such as rangatiratanga, not just the margins but all space in New Zealand can be regarded as Māori space. Rangatiratanga then is akin to a call for the sovereignty of space (with all lands, resources, and chiefs being sovereign). Both the Declaration of the Independence (1835) and Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840) were signed by Māori chiefs with that in mind.

A rangatiratanga theoretical frame can be considered to be political and to address issues of sociopolitical and biocultural subjugation. In education, it contests the positioning of Māori knowledge, language, and Māori children as subservient to assimilatory interests, and it challenges the notion of masterful teachers in control of young children’s lives. It also resists the idea of linguicism, rejecting the construct of linguistic hierarchies. All languages are powerful. All children have the right to move beyond the master/servant relationships of colonization. “Te rangatiratanga o te whenua” (translated here as the sovereignty of land) then is not just about resistance to injustice and the inversion of colonial rule but the assertion of Māori sovereignty over Māori lands and language in “our place,” all of it and everywhere. It is the right to assert Indigenous worldviews over Indigenous lands through Indigenous languages and power by breaking the illogic and harm of coloniality. From that view, rangatiratanga is a metaphor for Indigenous rights, as made explicit in the United Nations’ (2007) Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Te Awa Tupua: Landmarks Are Ancestors

Māori identify strongly with their traditional tribal landmarks, viewing these as ancestors deserving of great respect and protection. These ancestral landmarks are frequently cited in pepeha, identity statements of tribal and land affiliation. As mentioned previously, water is key to many Māori healing rituals. They have understandably been extremely distressed by settler-colonial practices, which continue to this day, of dumping sewerage and other waste into rivers. The irony of the New Zealand government’s tourism promotion of our country as “100% pure” has recently been challenged by both Dame Anne Salmond, a prominent New Zealand anthropologist and public scholar, and a recent newspaper editorial by the Christchurch Press (Christchurch Press, 2017; Salmond, 2017b). The reality is in fact far from this with not only sewerage but farm and forestry runoff contributing to a very dire situation for the country’s rivers (Joy, 2015).

The people of the Whanganui River, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, have a pepeha:

E rere kau mai te awa nui nei

Mai te kahui maunga ki Tangaroa

Ko au te Awa

Ko te Awa ko au

The river flows from the mountain to the sea

I am the river

The river is me. (Waitangi Tribunal, 1999, p. 79)

During the hearing for the claim made by the Atihaunui about government breaches of the Tiriti o Waitangi in relation to their river, an elder made the statement: “If I am the river and the river is me - then emphatically, I am dying” (as cited in Salmond, 2016). Iwi (tribes), such as Atihaunui and Waikato, have sought to regain the right to exercise kaitiakitanga (active guardianship) over their rivers, given the despoliation that has occurred under settler/colonial governance. After very many years of struggle, in 2017 the New Zealand Parliament passed legislation that affirms the ancestral status of the Whanganui River, Te Awa Tupua (New Zealand Parliament, 2017). It is to be hoped that the reaffirmation of ancestral relationships and knowledge, occurring through the succession of settlements of historical grievances that have been achieved by long-standing Māori commitment struggle and sacrifice, will enable current and future generations of children to be deeply connected via their whakapapa (genealogy) to their ancestral lands, rivers, forests, wetlands, foreshores, islands, and oceans and the knowledges these uphold.

Tribal Rāhui

The function of “rāhui” or prohibition is to place a sanction on something, either a resource, a place, or a thing. It is form of “tapu” which means the place of the rāhui, for the duration of the rāhui, is sacred or absolutely restricted. Any breach of the rāhui, especially if placed by a chief or tōhunga (reader of signs from nature, spiritual expert, and healer), could have dire implications, even death. Quite often a rāhui would be placed in an area where there had been a significant event, for example, a lake where there had been a drowning. A rāhui would be put in place so that there would be no activity in that place until the body had been recovered and for a significant period of time after the drowning. Other forms of rāhui would establish a certain place, for example, a lake, the bush, or rivers, to be off-limits for fishing or the harvesting of food, to allow those places to be restored. This would enable the resources to be protected. A modern-day example of the way rāhui is exercised at the tribal level is through the establishment of the Mātaitai reserves which are areas in which the local tribal members manage all noncommercial fishing by making bylaws. These bylaws apply equally to all individuals, not just the tāngata whenua (people of that place). These are effective restrictions to prevent the overfishing of marine reserves.

Rāhui in and Early Childhood Care and Education Setting

An example of rāhui being applied in an early childhood center occurred in a research project focussed on “caring for ourselves, others and the environment” (Ritchie, Duhn, Rau, & Craw, 2010). At Richard Hudson Kindergarten in Dunedin, the teachers determined their teaching and research focus to seek answers to their research question: “By learning about Rakinui/Ranginui [Sky Father] and Papatūānuku [Earth Mother] can we inspire our children and whānau to consider making ecologically sustainable choices?”

After researching the concept, the teachers added “rāhui” to their focus on caring for the environment through “Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling.” One of these teachers wrote this description of the problem to be addressed through application of a rāhui:

We have some flower troughs on the entrance steps at kindergarten. They are blooming beautifully with pansies at present – and that’s the problem. Some of the children have been picking the flowers. When other children notice, they pick them too. That is why a rāhui has been placed on the picking of these flowers. It has afforded an opportunity for us to introduce the concept of conservation through rāhui. If everyone picked a pansy or two today, there would be none left for tomorrow. So we are admiring them without picking them.

The teachers integrated Māori knowledges alongside western ones, engendering respect for Tāne Mahuta, the Atua (Spiritual Guardian) of forests, birds, and insects, and for Ranginui and Papatūānuku, the original parents of all beings. They described how:

These concepts have been reinforced through teaching about the food chain, photosynthesis, growing bean seeds, planting a lemon tree that was given to us, conservation through rāhui and respect for Tāne’s children, and references to Papatūānuku and Rakinui/Ranginui.


The meanings underpinning the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga are also deep and enduring, reflecting relationships across time and space. Tiaki means to look after, to conserve, or to protect. Combined with the prefix “kai” and the noun-forming suffix “tanga,” it reflects people valuing or having a deep respect for and guardianship of Papatūānuku. The New Zealand early childhood care and education curriculum, Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa early childhood curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2017), discusses the notions of kaitiakitanga: “Kaiako [teachers] support mokopuna [children] to engage respectfully with and to have aroha (respectful mindfulness, love) for Papatūānuku. They encourage an understanding of kaitiakitanga and the responsibilities of being a kaitiaki by, for example, caring for rivers, native forest and birds” (p. 33). They do this “…by providing children with regular opportunities to connect with the wider natural environment and materials drawn from nature” (p. 35) and that kaitiakitanga is integral to children expressing “…their respect for the natural world in terms of respect for Papatūānuku, Ranginui and atua Māori” (p. 46).

Kaitiakitanga in Early Childhood Care and Education Setting

In the same project, the teachers from another kindergarten chose to focus on the notion of kaitiakitanga as the focus for their teaching and research. Prior to participating in the project, the kindergarten had already had a strong focus on education for sustainability. Their engagement with the project enabled them to bring te ao Māori conceptualizations into their philosophy and practice. This was particularly relevant since the kindergarten is located in a small, rural, predominately Māori community. The teachers wrote that:

We began to think about how Maori values, practices and culture tie in with the principles we wanted to promote. The concept of kaitiakitanga (being guardians over the well-being of the environment and the creatures in it – including us) gives a holistic view of what we are doing.

As with Richard Hudson Kindergarten, the Koromiko teachers began introducing the concept of kaitiakitanga along with the Māori cosmology of Ranginui and Papatūānuku and of Tāne Mahuta and the other Atua:

Talking about the Earth as an entity (Papatūānuku – the Earth Mother) and the Gods who are guardians of various areas, such as the forest and sea – Tāne and Tangaroa – gives the children a concrete focus for caring for the environment and all living things in it. We can read books about this, see pictures of the living things in the forest or the sea and begin to see that we have a part in caring for them too. The things that the Earth provides, whether shells and driftwood at the beach or any other items, especially living things, are gifts from Papatūānuku and, therefore, need to be treated with respect.

The teachers reported how the mother of one of the kindergarten children described her son’s practices of kaitiakitanga:

T. enjoys whitebaiting with his Dad. Last time they only caught a few. When it was time to go, and they didn’t have enough whitebait for a meal, he decided to put the ones he had caught back into the water. He didn’t want them to die without being eaten. He also said that he might catch them again and a few more next time so that he had enough to eat.

T., on numerous occasions, will walk past rubbish left at the beach or on the footpath and pick it up to put into the rubbish bin. He talks about ‘these naughty people leaving their rubbish on the ground’ and ‘why don’t they just put in into the rubbish bin?’ I have never seen T. litter himself – he always puts things in bins or, if he can’t see one, he asks me to hold it or asks where he can put it.

Children’s empathy for Papatūānuku and Ranginui, the Atua, and for the creatures who are the offspring of the Atua was featured strongly in the data gathered in this project. It is such dispositions that will engender concern and respect for our planet in the future. They offer a different positioning from the exploitative paradigm of colonization and current capitalism that dominates many societies.

Concluding Thoughts

This chapter argues that the whole ecosystem including humans live and flourish together in networks of complex and delicate relationships. It is the diversity across those complex and delicate networks that provide the potential for adaptation and further diversity. That is, diversity maintains diversity. Diversity also maintains robust ecosystems and strong biocultures and increases the chances of long-term planetary survival. Our future on this planet relies on the bioculture’s ability to preserve and continue its diversity. Human beings, and the languages we speak, are an integral part of the complex and delicate networking. Linguistic diversity and ecological diversity are inseparable. They come together in what has been termed as biocultural diversity (Skutnabb-Kangas et al., 2003). However, it has been argued that Māori face the challenge of maintaining the language specificities and cultural knowledges that emanate from the deeply embedded interconnectivity and long histories of cohabitant reciprocity (Wehi & Lord, 2017).

In this chapter examples have been provided through an Indigenous lens of the intimate relationships and interconnectedness across the delicate networking of the bioculture, for millenia. But with colonization, Indigenous people either died, were killed, or forced into a new (hierarchical) modality of life. Lands were carved up; Indigenous people’s lives decimated in terms of the destruction of whānau, hapū, and iwi structure of Māori. Drawing on Indigenous onto-epistemological lives, Māori ecological literacies of mutton-birding, learning from the elders, tribal sayings, and the nature of Māori knowledges being embodied in both the lands and languages, and being interwoven, have been examined. Some of the values that underpinned those onto-epistemologies included rangatiratanga which provides a theoretical frame to address issues of sociopolitical and biocultural subjugation. That frame is transferred into an educational context to signify children as agents of their own thinking, learning, and lives. It also resists the idea of linguistic hierarchies based on racist philosophical frames in which Indigenous languages are regarded as having no value. The reverse is promulgated – te rangatiratanga o te reo (or the sovereignty of language) along with te rangatiratanga o te whenua (the sovereignty of Papatūānuku).

Drawing on recent political events, the people of the Whanganui River exercised their rangatiratanga in their claim made about government breaches of the Tiriti o Waitangi in relation to their ancestral river. They sought to regain their right to exercise kaitiakitanga (active guardianship) over their river and have recently won the battle to affirm the river with the ancestral status of a person. This right presents a challenge for many New Zealanders who fail to understand the interconnectedness of Indigenous peoples to the bioculture. However, it is argued here that a pedagogy of hope (Freire, 1994) can be infused throughout early childhood care and education to enable current and future generations of children to be deeply connected via their whakapapa (genealogy) to their ancestral lands, rivers, forests, wetlands, foreshores, islands, and oceans, through their Indigenous languages and the knowledges that these uphold. It is also hoped that the values of rāhui and kaitiakitanga, as shown in the research in early childhood settings, will continue to cultivate the dispositions that will stimulate concern and respect for our planet in the future for all children present. They offer a different positioning from the exploitative paradigm of colonization and current neoliberalism that permeates western capitalism and its institutions. Our long-term survival is dependent on it.

E kore au e ngaro; he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea.

This whakatauki [proverb] refers to the original seed from Rangiatea, the spiritual homeland for Māori, stating that this seed will not be lost. It thus asserts both continuity and resilience and implies that for Māori, their language and culture are the sustenance of this resilience (Grace & Grace, 2003, p. 29).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Victoria University of Wellington/Te Whare Wānanga o te Ūpoko o te IkaWellingtonNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marianne Logan
    • 1
  • Helen Widdop Quinton
    • 2
  1. 1.Southern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.Victoria UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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