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Dr Ocean Mercier (Illustration: MsMeemo)
Dr Ocean Mercier (Illustration: MsMeemo)

ĀteaJune 1, 2022

The place for mātauranga Māori is alongside science

Dr Ocean Mercier (Illustration: MsMeemo)
Dr Ocean Mercier (Illustration: MsMeemo)

Since colonisation, mātauranga Māori has been pushed aside by Western notions of science. Ngā Pae o te Māramataga research lead Dr Ocean Mercier explains how the two can coexist, and why it’s crucial for Aotearoa that they do.

Around 800 years ago, Polynesian voyagers used their rich knowledge of stars, weather, currents, plants and wildlife to navigate across the expanses of Te-Moana-Nui-A-Kiwa to Aotearoa. As they established a society of iwi and hapū groupings across the islands of their new home, Māori developed an intimate place-based system of knowledge or mātauranga. 

But, as has been repeated the world over, colonisation in Aotearoa meant that our indigenous knowledge, mātauranga Māori, was undermined and diminished – jettisoned in place of British ways of doing things. Māori were dislocated from our whenua and our language actively repressed in schools and institutions. In the process, our rich bodies of knowledge were left fractured.

More recently, there’s been a renaissance in these spaces as part of wider efforts to honour the promises made by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Māori academics joined community-based efforts to elevate mātauranga within the sciences. Those efforts have been met with official policy like Vision Mātauranga, put in place in 2005 to encourage the integration of science and mātauranga in research and funding focuses. Kaupapa Māori centre for research excellence, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, was launched in 2002 as a home to develop mātauranga Māori. 

This progress hasn’t happened without challenge. In July last year, a group of University of Auckland academics penned a letter to The Listener magazine titled “In defence of science”. In the letter, the seven academics critiqued attempts to elevate the teaching of mātauranga in the New Zealand school curriculum. In it, they described mātauranga as falling “far short of what we can define as science itself”.

Dr Ocean Mercier (Ngāti Porou) head of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington is at the forefront of the movement to nurture mātauranga. With a background in physics, she has a particular focus on how mātauranga and science connect and relate. Mercier also sits on the Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga research leadership team and is a pou for the centre’s Pae Tawhiti: Living Lightly project.  

She’s currently leading a research program for the Moana Project, a 5-year $11.5 million MBIE Endeavour research initiative that aims to improve understanding of coastal ocean circulation, connectivity and marine heat waves, to provide information that supports a sustainable seafood industry, science research efforts, iwi initiatives and marine management. Centred on mātauranga, it’s a case example of how drawing from these different knowledge bases has practical benefits for contemporary problems. I spoke to Mercier about the intersection of mātauranga Māori and science, and the potential that represents to shape the future of Aotearoa. 

The Spinoff: How did your journey into the world of science begin?

Dr Ocean Mercier: We had a really dedicated teacher who went the extra mile. He set up a physics club and I just really appreciated the fact that he was giving up his lunch hour for us – this amazing teacher who had a wonderful heart for supporting these students at Wellington Girls College to be scientists. He was from Sri Lanka, where they have strong science traditions and strong wāhine science traditions. He could see the lack and the need for more diversity in science. 

The thing I enjoyed about physics is that it gave a sense of solidarity and concreteness about how we understand the world. My journey through sciences through school and university and research was very Western. Science was presented to us in a kind of mechanical way, like, this is how you do science, but not this is where science comes from. There’s quite an amazing history of scientific discoveries unfolding, embedded in the names of science concepts and units and things like that but none of that was ever unpacked for us. 

(Illustration: MsMeemo)

How did that shift to mātauranga?

After I finished my PhD, I decided, now’s the time to learn te reo. Te reo became a window into a new way of thinking. And while I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this will transform how I think about science” at the time, looking back, I can see how influential, being plunged into a different worldview, by seeing the world through te reo Māori was a transition. I’ve been at Māori studies ever since then, for nearly 18 years I’ve been here exploring mātauranga and what Māori science is. I say exploring, because I think we are creating it, where we’re pulling it out from our ancestors, we’re unpacking those taonga tuku iho, but we are in a sense creating the discourse and the discipline in the field right now. There’s some amazing stuff to draw upon, whether it’s written sources or oral sources, but it does still feel like none of us have quite figured out what Māori science is or how that relates to mātauranga Māori. 

How did learning Te Reo Māori open up this new way of looking at knowledge and science for you?

This is a little bit abstract and metaphysical perhaps but as someone with a physics background, I think about the greeting tēnā koe. You could be in the same room as me, and I would say tēnā koe, there you are, in relation to me, because we are connected. Tēnā connects me to you, the person I’m addressing. So whether we’re separated by a few 100 kilometres or you’re in Tāmaki Makaurau and I’m on Mars, it’s still tēnā koe. It doesn’t matter, the distance between us, we’re bridged by that tēnā, which just struck me as being very quantum physical. There is no equivalent in the English language to connect people up in that way. And so it’s just such a revolutionarily different way of thinking about relationships that is so unique. 

Western science is really good at being taken for granted, and it doesn’t often talk about its own history in the way that mātauranga does. How do we make mātauranga more taken for granted?

I think if we get to that stage as a nation, that will be amazing. We learn about the scientific method in secondary school and we’re not questioning the validity of that method, it just is. Your aim, your hypothesis, your method, your results and analysis – all of those things just go completely unquestioned. I look forward to a time when we do those things in school from a mātauranga perspective that we don’t have to question anymore. Like understanding Tangaroa and the gods, it’s about how we’re connecting with our environments and seeing them as unique, whole personalities and systems, as opposed to broken down environments. It does feel like it’s in the future for us as a nation, and I say, as a nation, because I think some of us are there and do take our mātauranga for granted. But for others, and this is where it gets awkward, when we talk about the interface between science and mātauranga, science always wants to question and justify anything that’s sort of inside its camp. 

(Illustration: MsMeemo)

So mātauranga ends up getting scrutinised under that western scientific framework?

Absolutely. And that’s where we have problems because the way it gets scrutinised is not scrutinised. So the science lens that is brought to bear on mātauranga goes unquestioned. And that’s because for a long time, those processes have been unquestioned. As much as science tries to be objective, value free, neutral – and you might say, that’s a worthwhile pursuit for that particular discipline – it sort of forgets that it’s trying to do that through humans who can never be objective, or bias free or neutral or value free or a-cultural or apolitical. We can never disentangle ourselves from the society that we’re in and the way that shapes the way we do things. So there is this invisibility in the sciences around those things, which then when there’s an analysis of mātauranga, it’s coming from a place where as scientists we’ve actually forgotten our own biases. 

Last July, when academics from the University of Auckland wrote a letter to the Listener criticising mātauranga, would you say that’s kind of an expression of those tensions?

Yeah, I definitely think it is. Philosophers of mātauranga and Maori science like Carl Mika and Georgina Stewart have written about the sense that science needs to be defending its territory from ideas that they see as pseudo-scientific. That’s where the tension lies, in the fear that science’s integrity might be compromised by allowing other knowledge systems to come alongside. And I’m not saying that mātauranga should slot inside sciences, because that’s not a safe space for mātauranga, but there’s absolutely potential for working together at a kind of interface. 

The way that mātauranga hasn’t been recognised by official institutions in the same way as western science; how has that been for you working within the university?

I would say there’s a shift happening. So for the last number of years, the university, in line with its treaty statute, has expressed quite an interest in incorporating mātauranga into the curriculum, and has put strategic funding behind the hiring of Māori staff and academics to help in that effort. We’re sort of feeling our way through this, because it’s a difficult thing – you’re dealing with a box and the culture and shape of the box is very Western. So there is a sense from my university that we value mātauranga and we want to support its growth through our teaching, but what we’re running into is the lack of capacity to do that. Because universities are not hiring, retaining and promoting enough Māori academics. There’s not enough people to do this paradigm shifting, revolutionary work. And so what ends up happening is there’s bits and pieces here and there. There’s a signal of inclusivity, but not the resources to support us actually putting flesh on the bones of that.

Who should be doing that resourcing and how best do you think that that knowledge is resourced? 

I’m mindful that the wānanga are the Māori-led, Māori-designed spaces for tertiary education. And so there’s a very strong argument to be made for letting the Western institutions just do their thing, and throwing more support behind wānanga to do what they’re doing really well, which is supporting mātauranga from the communities up. But in saying that, lots of Māori are still coming to mainstream universities and there are lots of us working in them and so as much as we can, we’re trying to make these spaces less Western. That’s got to be a good thing, just to decolonise the university. It’s hugely disappointing that our universities look so European, in some departments. And I’m not just talking about staff, but I am talking about the curriculum, when there’s such a richness of literature, stories, understandings and discoveries in the Pacific that we could be drawing upon. Universities have always been a bit plagued with this problem that they’re sort of tethered to hundreds of years of history. But if it’s not connecting with people who are living in the here and now, in the real world, then something’s got to shift. I think we are seeing a big shift at the moment as we all wake up to the fact that that mātauranga, that is born of this land, is uniquely us. 

Within the research projects that you’re currently working on around the moana, are there any particular examples of how mātauranga and those Western scientific methods are working together?

One of my masters students is working on toheroa – the lovely big shellfish – and ultimately she wants to restore the toheroa populations at Kuku Beach, north of Kāpiti, South Horowhenua coastline. And, so in your traditional scientific methods, you’d have grids to find the shellfish and to find the spat (shellfish larvae) and quadrats that you would lay out on a beach to get numbers and a sense of the population. So she will be doing that, but she’s been guided by local knowledge, by mātauranga that’s been built up over many, many years of occupation by Ngāti Tukorehe in the region, and their observations over time of where the shellfish are. You’ve got to be aware of the context, and you need mātauranga to give you that context. You’re just taking a stab in the dark without that.

When we’re trying to understand the moana and other parts of our environment, why is mātauranga so vital to that?

There are a number of reasons that our taonga tuku iho, our mātauranga that’s been handed down is fragmentary. But, as opposed to a sort of decades long history of observations in science, with mātauranga, we’re sitting on hundreds of years of history and observations. And those are empirical observations, scientific observations. We need to find ways to unpack some of the knowledge that’s hiding in that kōrero, in those purākau, or those whakatauki. They might be wrapped up in a story that looks fantastical and it’s funny as well as outrageous but that’s just to help us remember it and to remember the details. One of my students on the Moana project is Mere Takoko. And she’s identified 200 wind names. Each of these wind names described either a particular direction that the wind was coming from, a particular temperature that it had, a particular force. These names were all remembered and passed down. Those names survive today, and many of them are Pacific names, as opposed to Māori names, so we have to dig really deeply, not just hundreds of years into our history, but thousands of years into our Pacific history. There’s so much there and it’s local to place, so it’s really relevant to where we’re living and the environments and ecosystems that we’re living within and around. Science can probably access some of that, but it’s not ever going to be able to reconnect and reknit the social connections as well, the relationships between people in their environments.

(Illustration: MsMeemo)

It feels like there’s this real emphasis on communicating knowledge back to communities in the work you do. Why is that important, rather than just the discovery or learning aspect of research?

We’re trying to peel back the impacts of colonisation at the same time as well as solve real world problems. We don’t want to take our eyes off climate change or the loss of biodiversity, so we want to set good targets and good goals and work together towards those goals. But everybody needs to be on board and we want to show communities the power and potential they have to respond to those problems by rediscovering their mātauranga. 

For generations colonisers have told us our knowledge is worthless – and that’s had huge impact on how we value our science and traditions and how we see ourselves. We need to unlearn and get rid of those feelings, and at the same time, build up that ancient knowledge and build up an appreciation of it and reconnect communities. Because unless we engage the people we can’t solve these problems we’re researching.  

We’re not just solving climate change here, we’re also decolonizing and building up our people. We need as many tools and as many understandings as we can get for problems, like climate change. Climate change is political, it’s social, it’s not just about the environment, it’s about how we as people, in our societies have impacted on the environment. So we can’t just use a science system that has claimed to divorce itself from politics, values and culture, to tackle climate change, because climate change is not divorced from those things. Humans created climate change, so we can’t possibly hope that a system that’s asocial can fully address climate change. 

In mātauranga, we have this amazing system that has not divorced those things out – everything is still interwoven. 

You mentioned that there’s this growing value being placed on mātauranga by the government and other institutions like universities, and we’re also seeing changes in education, governance and health across the board. Do you feel hopeful about the trajectory that we’re on in terms of the incorporation of Māori knowledge within these institutions? 

I do feel hopeful. We’ve talked about being on a wave, that there’s this paradigm shift ahead. There’s resistance to the shift, but there’s so much going on, across the space. I think there’s a great opportunity here to reform our knowledge and governance systems to better address current issues and future issues. Because currently it is a little bit like using a 30 centimetre ruler to tell you what an elephant looks like. And that’s like just relying on science, to tell us how to solve climate change, we just can’t do that any longer. It does feel like we’re in this shift towards a bringing back of the social, the cultural, the political, the spiritual aspects of issues in the ways that mātauranga never stepped away from. I would like to see mātauranga being a really well resourced part of that system that has a space that it can make its own decisions, and has its own tino rangatiratanga around what it explores and how it does that.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there in recovering our knowledges and bringing them to the fore. So a mātauranga that has equal status to science in this system, so that we’re not always having to have science as the core thing where there’s a little thread of mātauranga, like a pink bow wrapped around the science that gives it the flourish, that gives it the culture, that gives it the sort of Aotearoa flavour. But instead, projects in which mātauranga is the key thing and science comes in to support mātauranga – that’s another really compelling model is that we as Māori are defining the problems and the way that we want to do it, and also defining how the science supports our aspirations and the answering of our questions. So that science becomes a servant to mātauranga rather than at the moment we’ve got the flip side, which is mātauranga serving science. Mātauranga was here well before science, thank you very much!

Keep going!