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A Kaikoura tītī (Image: DOC)
A Kaikoura tītī (Image: DOC)

ĀteaDecember 24, 2021

A different way of seeing: Decolonising science through mātauranga Māori

A Kaikoura tītī (Image: DOC)
A Kaikoura tītī (Image: DOC)

Mātauranga Māori has had to fight hard to be accepted in many mainstream spaces. Two University of Otago scientists tell Meriana Johnsen how Indigenous systems of knowledge expand and inform their work.

The traditional approach to scientific research is being challenged by mātauranga Māori and calls for greater consideration of Māori cultural values within the scientific community. At the same time there’s a growing interest in the “indigenisation” of science, which establishes new frameworks using scientific methods but with an approach firmly grounded in Māori values. 

Phillip Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa) won’t stand for being the “token beige boy”. He’s not shy in calling out racism within science, and the cultural labour lumped on the shoulders of the few Māori working in different scientific fields. 

This is understood by some of his colleagues – these allies, he says, usually have a high degree of emotional intelligence and empathy. But not all highly accomplished researchers are culturally aware and emotionally intelligent, as the seven University of Auckland professors demonstrated earlier this year in their letter criticising science and mātauranga parity in a kaupapa Māori curriculum. 

“We have to have allies, we can’t do this ourselves because there’s not enough of us at our level,” says Wilcox. 

The University of Otago associate professor specialising in genetics is the most senior Māori academic of the handful working in his field.

Phillip Wilcox, University of Otago associate professor (Image: Supplied)

For the last 20 years, Wilcox has been designing and creating tikanga-based research frameworks. He was part of the team that created Te Mata Ira: Guidelines for Genomic Research with Māori, which lays out how whakapapa, kawa, tikanga, mana, tika and manaakitanga guide how DNA research is conducted with iwi and hapū. 

Among the papers he teaches at the university is one about Māori concepts of hereditary inheritance – whakapapa and pepeha. 

Whereas in Western science genetics is specialised, “pushed off the side” to breeding programmes or for “recreational” purposes like, Wilcox says whakapapa is a central tenet of te ao Māori culture.

However, there are similarities between the two cultural approaches. Pepeha is split between hereditary locators (waka, iwi, hapū) and environment locators (marae, maunga, awa). Wilcox says this is exactly the same as the first equation in quantitative genetics: my phenotype is the sum of my genetics as well as the environment that I live in. 

“So pepeha in some respects is the conceptual equivalent of quantitative genetics, it’s just a different way of looking at it,” says Wilcox. 

To protect the whakapapa of his iwi and hapū research participants, which have included his own whānau of Rongomaiwāhine and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa – “you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them” – he writes up cultural agreements which ensure the data collected belongs to the iwi and hapū, not to the researcher or their employers such as crown research institutes and universities. 

The inclusion of mātauranga Māori in mainstream education comes with risks and challenges. The whare wānanga of the old days operated with strict tikanga to maintain the tapu nature of mātauranga, says Wilcox. Now, mātauranga Māori is being filtered through institutions that consider all knowledge and subject matters to be openly available, without accompanying tikanga such as seeking the necessary permissions from iwi and hapū. 

“Mātauranga hou should be shared when there’s mana-enhancing behaviours going on…for example, a safe and comfortable environment to share and discuss, where there are clear paths to community benefits as well as solid trust-based relationships, and reciprocity happening rather than simply supporting some tauiwi researchers’ career aspirations, as has often been the case,” says Wilcox. 

Consideration of Māori values and upholding the rangatiratanga of iwi and hapū have only in the last few years become a consideration for universities. 

Emeritus professor Henrick Moller (Image: Supplied)

Emeritus professor at the University of Otago Henrik Moller felt the burning sensation of whakamā when an external reviewer asked why there was no inclusion of Treaty relationships in the postdoc diploma in wildlife management curriculum Moller had designed. 

That was in 1992, and he acknowledges it was “a fair cop”. He had no idea what mātauranga Māori and kaitiakitanga looked like and the university had few relationships with mana whenua Ngāi Tahu at the time. 

So Moller began the long process of building a relationship with Ngāi Tahu, starting by making contact with the then-kaupapa atawhai at DOC, Matapura Ellison. This was the kakano which would become Kia Mau Te Tītī Mō Ake Tonu Atu, a 14-year collaborative research project between the University of Otago and Rakiura Māori – a Southern Māori collective of muttonbirders – on traditional tītī harvesting practices

The arrival of a Pākehā scientist at Te Rau Aroha marae in Motupōhue asking questions about mātauranga Māori and kaitiakitanga wasn’t received with aroha by all. Moller said he was viewed as the face of a Pākehā institution which many whānau were sceptical about dealing with. 

He says the most resistance came from rangatahi who felt that after having their land, their language and their economy ripped away, Pākehā were now after their knowledge too. Over the course of several meetings, amounting to 30 hours of whakawhiti kōrero, Moller and his team were grilled on where they were from, why they were interested in the kaupapa and who would control the information. 

“All those things made them the most fierce ethics committee I have ever encountered,” Moller says, who has been an academic for over 40 years. 

“It was, at first, an extremely unnerving and exhausting place for a scientist to stand. But building a relationship and trust is so important and kept us going through thick and thin… the aroha and responsibility to give back to the community through science was very satisfying and we learnt so much from the kaitiaki in return.”

When the scientists wanted to place radio trackers on the manu, mana whenua firmly opposed it as their tikanga of kaitiakitanga is to not disturb the adult tītī. The scientists later tested the trackers on mainland manu and found they disrupted their attendance behaviour at the colony. Moller says it was a good example of how mātauranga Māori can improve science.   

Moller and his team had access to extensive mutton-birder diaries, some dating back to 1927, which they combined with their own scientific modelling. But data on its own is like “white noise”, Moller says, until it can be interpreted and built into a bigger picture of knowledge. The next layer, beyond knowledge, is wisdom – how you use that knowledge, and the ethical implications. 

Moller says this is where “science goes silent” as the scientific method cannot be applied to wisdom. “Science is great at predicting consequences of different interventions, or choosing to do nothing to fix environmental problems. Mātauranga Māori carries on at this holistic level to guide how to use the scientific information,” Moller says. Emphasis on interconnectedness between environment and people is part of “the beauty and strength of mātauranga”.

Debate about giving mātauranga Māori parity with science has positioned the two knowledge systems against each other. Moller wants to move past the binary of science versus mātauranga, and instead see the two bodies of knowledge as complementary, embracing the opportunity to come up with new solutions and opportunities to better care for our whenua and tangata

“The two knowledge systems are wonderful in their own right, they don’t have to justify themselves in terms of the other. The problem is that only science is given legitimacy in mainstream decision-making and investments in Aotearoa New Zealand. If we honoured our Treaty relationship, this would become less of an issue and we would all benefit, and so would our shared environment.

“If only we listened to each other more, we would learn from each other in ways that will enrich our lives and make our lives safer and more sustainable.”

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