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(Illustration: Munro Te Whata)
(Illustration: Munro Te Whata)

ĀteaDecember 4, 2023

The Māori pathway being carved in Aotearoa’s academic institutes

(Illustration: Munro Te Whata)
(Illustration: Munro Te Whata)

Among the traditionally western halls of academia, a network of Indigenous scholars is giving Māori students the opportunity to decolonise their academic journeys.

Academia is often perceived as a Western institution. This is mostly due to its historical evolution in Europe, colonial influences, the dominance of English in publishing, and Western philosophical foundations, amongst other things. However, in the vast academic realm of Aotearoa, a beacon of hope, support, and empowerment shines brightly for Māori doctoral students: Te Kupenga o MAI (MAI). A flagship initiative of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, MAI is more than just a support network – it’s a movement. The stories of its members paint a vivid picture of MAI’s transformative impact.

Before the dawn of Te Kupenga o MAI, the Māori academic landscape was filled with challenges. Māori students often found themselves stranded in a system predominantly influenced by Western pedagogies, leaving little room for Indigenous ways of knowing. Many found themselves facing not only academic struggles but also an identity crisis. The lack of representation, coupled with limited resources in Te Reo Māori, created a significant gap in the Māori academic journey.

The foundations of MAI can be traced back to the early 2000s at the University of Auckland, “during a period of increased global demand to establish Indigenous doctoral networks,” says Dr. Hinekura Smith, the inspirational director of Ngā Wai a Te Tūī Māori and Indigenous Research Centre, and national facilitator for the MAI strategy with Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga.

The initial goal was ambitious: 500 Māori graduates with PhDs within a decade. Remarkably, this milestone was not only achieved but surpassed well ahead of schedule. While the numbers are impressive, the scholars’ personal journeys underscore MAI’s true value.

“Te Kupenga o MAI is not just a support programme; it’s a professional network of Māori and Indigenous scholars. Its core is to offer spaces for Indigenous doctoral students to connect both through their research and as Indigenous individuals, fostering collaboration both interdisciplinarily and internationally,” says Dr. Smith.

True to its name – which means “the net” – Te Kupenga o MAI fosters not just academic discourse but also a deep sense of community. Wānanga are core to the network, bringing together academics from around the country to support one another and find ways to collaborate and strengthen the Māori network of doctoral students.

Finley Johnson (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu), a third-year PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington and a clinical psychology student, recalls the transformative impact of connecting with MAI. “For me, what’s been just absolutely critical is having that network, the supports in place to keep me safe in my research and the community.”

“I’ve been really privileged to constantly have a network, a whānau, of the Māori PhD students to help support each other,” says Johnson.

(Image: Archi Banal)

The sentiment is echoed by Kahurangi Tipene (Waikato, Hāmoa, Pākehā), who has almost completed her thesis on a ground-breaking study concerning a mutation causing stomach cancer among Māori whānau. 

“Te Kupenga o MAI has been instrumental in providing a sense of grounding during my isolated PhD journey, allowing me to connect with renowned academics and like-minded students,” says Tipene.

The benefits of MAI extend beyond academic support. For many, it’s about rediscovering roots and identity. Johnson emphasises that “cultural reconnection here has also helped us look at that cultural reconnection over in India as well, and examine the decolonising that has to be done on that side of our whānau too.”

Such reflections highlight the intrinsic value of cultural reconnection in the academic sphere, allowing scholars to approach their research with a deeper understanding of indigenous values and perspectives. 

Another central aspect of MAI’s success is the mentor-mentee relationship. Senior Māori scholars play an irreplaceable role in guiding and nurturing the younger generation. Their experiences, insights, and wisdom are invaluable, ensuring that younger scholars don’t just succeed academically but also stay connected to their Māori roots.

“Embracing one’s whakapapa, or genealogy, is crucial. Recognising our ancestral lineage not only offers a sense of identity but also can be life-saving, as seen with this particular mutation,” says Tipene.

While MAI has seen monumental successes, challenges continue to persist. Māori scholars often grapple with institutional biases, a curriculum that sometimes feels detached from Māori perspectives, and a dire need for resources in te reo Māori. Dr. Smith also points out the financial dynamics: “while there’s a significant financial incentive for universities when a Māori PhD student graduates… the universities aren’t necessarily reinvesting that money directly into supporting Māori PhD students.” Such issues highlight the need for a more collaborative and supportive ecosystem for Māori scholars.

Waipapa Marae, University of Auckland (Photo: supplied).

But in the face of challenges, the strength and collaborative nature of MAI’s network shines through. Translating the intricacies of scientific language into te reo Māori can be a complex challenge, says Tipene, but “through collaboration and discussions with fellow scholars, I’ve found meaningful ways to interpret it”. This ability to leverage the scholars’ collective wisdom to overcome hurdles is one of the programme’s biggest strengths.

Beyond academic pursuits, MAI lays the foundation for a legacy. Dr. Smith poignantly notes that “many of the scholars from Te Kupenga o MAI were the first in their families to achieve advanced degrees. Now, the next generation grows up knowing their parents as scholars.” Such transformations not only elevate the academic landscape but also inspire future generations.

The impact of MAI in Aotearoa has ripples in Indigenous communities globally. From collaborations with Native American scholars in the US to Aboriginal academics in Australia, MAI is at the forefront of a global Indigenous academic renaissance.

“Te Kupenga o MAI emphasises the importance of international connections for Māori scholars,” says Dr. Smith. “By linking with scholars worldwide, it underscores that Māori scholars are part of a broader international Indigenous movement.”

The journey for MAI is ever-evolving. With plans for further expansion, a stronger global presence, and new programmes that cater to the changing academic landscape, the future looks promising. One key focus is integrating technology with mātauranga Māori, ensuring that as the world progresses, Māori scholarship doesn’t just keep pace but leads the way.

“Being a part of Te Kupenga o MAI has been enriching, not just academically but also in building lifelong relationships,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s about fostering a legacy of Māori scholarship, building layers upon layers for generations to come.”

Te Kupenga o MAI is more than just a network; it’s a testament to the unyielding spirit of Māori, the thirst for knowledge, and the unwavering dedication to preserving and elevating a rich cultural heritage. It is about community coming together to uplift its members, reclaim narratives, and carve a lasting legacy for generations to come. As the scholars continue to make strides in their respective fields, the beacon of MAI shines brighter than ever, guiding the way forward for Māori academics in Aotearoa.

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