Ātea editor Leonie Hayden responds to a misinformed shambles of an opinion column published in numerous newspapers this week.
On October 2, Fairfax published an opinion piece across a number of their regional newspapers by an ancient and mysterious figure named Bob Brockie.
Described in his Wikipedia page as a ‘cartoonist’ and ‘scientist’ (who did his PhD on hedgehog ecology), Bob opined from his crypt, presumably using a quill dipped in bat blood, that a contract awarded to Massey University to integrate Māori landscape classification into environmental data is “preposterous: a bad joke.”
The project in question, ‘He Tātai Whenua: A Te Ao Māori landscape classification’, has received $2.7 million in funding from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund.
It will use the money to translate Māori environmental expertise so it can be added to existing systems. Known as geographic information systems, they allow scientists to understand our physical environment by combining geographic data such as land type, soil type, elevation, and other vital data like waterways, roads and developments.
Bob, a real human man whose opinion has been published by major New Zealand newspapers, completely dismissed the idea that matauranga Māori has anything to contribute to science.
“Māori relations are rooted in the supernatural. Our mountains are personified as gods and a spiritual life force (mauri) supposedly enlivens all lakes, rivers, the ocean, plants, animals and people,” he writes. “Science long ago dismissed the supernatural and the life force as pure fiction, making Western science and the religion of Stone Age vitalism incompatible.” Strong words from a man who once wrote this:This argument seems like what we in the business call ‘racist’, grasping at tenuous comparisons and half-heard, barely understood ‘facts’ to discredit Māori. Sure we could give him a ‘racist uncle’ pass – his bio reveals he was born in 1932 and maybe his opinions are considered as typical of a certain bygone era.
But to let these attitudes go unchecked would be a disservice to the scientists and researchers who value indigenous knowledge.
Jacinta Ruru (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Maniapoto), co-director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, says luckily, Bob is in the minority in assuming that matauranga Māori has nothing to offer science. “It just doesn’t fly in this time. It’s not representative of where research is at. This Massey research sits amongst incredible research across our universities and institutions over the last few decades.
“This is not seen as ticking a box for the Treaty of Waitangi, it’s much deeper than that. There’s a real appreciation by scientists across the country that there is real knowledge here that we would be crazy as a nation to ignore.
“What is he threatened by?”
Aside from the sweeping generalisation about science dismissing the concept of ‘life force’ (citation needed, Bob), the danger in using the Western term ‘religion’ to describe the system by which land and resources are given the attributes of deities or ancestors is that it ignores the very real lessons those stories contain (and is also completely the wrong word, Bob).
While stars may have been imbued with the names and characteristics of ngā atua, the gods, the knowledge and research that Māori and their ancient ancestors used to navigate from point A to point B was very real. Were it not, I literally would not be here right now.
Traditionally, pūrākau and pakiwaitara about gods or adventurous ancestors, even those with magical abilities, contained a lesson or a warning. The English translations ‘myths and legends’ are imperfect because they imply untruth. The knowledge contained within Māori stories is very real, therefore it is a variety of true story, even if you don’t believe a man can transform into a woodpigeon.
How so? Pūrākau about the gods and their roles within the environment informed us of what foods to eat and when. The stories of taniwha who live in the bends of ancestral rivers, each the kaitiaki of the hapū that live nearby, also describe the history of that place and the hazards or the resources that can be found there.
Nearly 1000 years of navigating via the stars, reading geography, tides and weather patterns for safe fishing and hunting practices, studying the migration patterns of birds and whales, and adapting agricultural practices to suit New Zealand’s unique climate – all of it categorically, uncompromisingly, uses scientific methodology.
Bob goes on to point out that in fact, Māori claims to kaitiakitanga are disingenuous because of the introduction of the Pacific rat and the extinction of the moa. To think that those are comparable to mass pollution and habitat destruction as a result of colonialism and industrialisation would be hilarious if it wasn’t so disturbing. It goes without saying Māori have employed countless methods to protect species and natural resources as best they can, including rahui – hunting and gathering bans, placed on species during breeding seasons or when resources became scarce. Rongoā Māori medicine alone contains hundreds of rules about regenerating resources and giving back anything you take from the natural environment.
In many cases Western science has simply proven what indigenous cultures knew all along. It took until 1927 to give a name to the ‘food chain’ and the idea that our existence is inextricably intertwined with other flora and fauna – it’s an idea that informs almost all indigenous cultures, a philosophy so ancient it’s as laughable as Europeans ‘discovering’ lands already occupied by thousands of people.
What is he threatened by? It’s a good question, that can be asked of anyone hell bent on resisting the incorporation of Māori culture, knowledge or language into contemporary society. We all stand to gain.
A true scientist would recognise the potential of a 1000 year old well of untapped information.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.