University of Otago students learning water safety and waka traditions at the same time (Photo: Takiwai Russell-Sullivan)

Teaching water safety the Māori way

Māori are continually over-represented in Aotearoa’s drowning statistics. Simon Day spoke to University of Otago’s Dr Anne-Marie Jackson about using traditional techniques to help teach water safety and reconnect Māori with their awa.

In te ao Māori water is considered the source of all life. We are descended from the water, and it provides a connection to the past and the future. Water is full of resources and a source of food, but it is also dangerous and can take life away. Tangaroa, the god of the sea, has many faces: he can be calm and gentle one day, and full of anger and vengeance the next.

As the giver of life for Māori, water is also the source of tragedy. Despite forming 15% of the population, Māori consistently represent between 20% and 25% of New Zealand’s drownings. The victims are mainly young men.

Anne-Marie Jackson, University of Otago senior lecturer in Māori physical education and health, and co-director of Māori research platform Te Koronga, is using traditional Māori understandings of the water to help understand and treat this statistical outlier. Her approach is also an opportunity to reconnect a generation of Māori with their waterways, whether moana, awa or roto, and a chance for them to learn about who they are through their unique relationship with the water.

Through karakia, which she calls the Māori life jacket, she and her team are teaching young people about the respect and care they must pay the sea, while reconnecting them to te reo Māori and traditional ritual. By using waka as a tool for teaching water safety and the navigation traditions of their ancestors, Jackson believes young Māori gain a better understanding of the temperaments of Tangaroa in a real environment.

“The broader kaupapa of what we do is strengthening that whakapapa relationship, so they can enjoy it, so they can ‘te ao Māori-ize’, so they can ‘be Māori’ in the water, because that is a very natural part of who we are. A lot of what we do is about strengthening that connection,” Jackson says.  

She’s one member of a broader team of Māori water experts, students and researchers, who have created a community on Facebook, Tangaroa Ara Rau, all about how to stay safe in the water. It provides tips on how to check the depth before you do a manu this summer, guides on how to collect kaimoana safely, and celebrations of our relationship with the water. 

In 2017 there 88 preventable drownings in New Zealand, ten more than in 2016. Jackson wants to expose young people to water in real environments earlier. She wants all New Zealand kids to learn about the reality of swimming in our rivers and lakes, and in the surf and currents at our beaches, and understand the different moods of Tangaroa.

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson senior lecturer in Māori physical education and health at the University of Otago (Photos: supplied).

Why are Māori over-represented in drowning statistics?

That’s the big question that we are trying to find out the answers for. At the moment there is a big gap in the data. In our current stats we are over-represented: on average over the last five years 20-25% of all drownings are Māori, and we are only around 15% of the population. We are usually around 16-20 people who drown, per year. But what we don’t know is how many Māori are actually going to the water, and where we are going, and what activities we are doing. The question should be are we over-represented in terms of incidence or not?

Some of the whakaaro is that it’s due to our changing relationship with the water. For example historically how we engaged with the water was on a more frequent basis; our rituals were more intact than they are today. That is the impact of colonisation, that rapid movement from rural into urban areas. That is what some of the literature is saying and certainly some of the interviews we are undertaking highlights that. But the important thing, despite this changing relationship, is that we still have our strong connection to the water.

There are those fundamental questions that all Māori want to know: ko wai koe? (who are you). The literal translation is “what waters are you?” The second question: nō wai koe? Where are you from, or translated as “which waters is it that you descend from”. Culturally those understandings and connections are really important. What we’ve seen is that it’s changed.

What does that change look like?

In terms of population, more Māori are living in an urban context. So living in cities that impacts on what we are doing in the water. Even then there are still gaps in the data. We know where Māori are drowning, but we don’t know what their whakapapa connection to that place is.

Is it a gender issue? You’ll see in the stats big differences between Māori men, our young men and a growing older population too, compared to women. We have one of our young researchers looking at that take. Or is it an issue with socioeconomic status and whether we can afford swimming lessons? Is it because we are going to the water to swim, or to get kai? As my mum says, “you don’t go to the beach to swim, you go to get a feed”. Can you safe-proof yourself by knowing how to swim when collecting kai? We have some crew looking at that.

One of the most important things our group does is working alongside a number of Māori community groups. We are looking at a Māori way of promoting water safety. A lot of the mainstream stuff it is about fear: “You have to be safe in the water because the water can be scary, it’s treacherous”. Whereas for Māori, our relationship is very lived and real. You have this love of the water.

At the same time Tangaroa can be full of anger. And that made me think about education, which is another unfortunate statistic where Māori are over-represented – in lower education outcomes. When you have the chance to return to your moana, if you don’t have that education and experience, how can that affect your relationship and confidence with the water?

That is part of the name of Tangaroa Ara Rau (which is the name of our wide team of whānau who are working in this space), to understand the many faces of Tangaroa. Often that initial education is in formal environments – [usually] through schools. But you can be a strong swimmer in the pool, which is primarily where schools teach their swimming lessons, but it is quite different when you are in the environment. The majority of our drownings don’t occur in the pool, they occur in the outdoor environment.

What I mean by a changing relationship with the water is that observation of the outdoors, of our moana, or our awa and our roto, is quite different; you can’t learn that in the pool. You can learn the basic skills in the pool, but it’s quite a different thing when you are in the environment. That’s why the work we do with community groups who are getting their whānau back into their rivers, and into their moana, to strengthen their knowledge and practice and educating them that way. What we do is try to support those communities.

I think of the Tira Hoe that has just finished in Whanganui (the 30th anniversary of the waka journey which traces the Iwi’s connection from the mountain to the sea), the Ngāti Apa Ngā Wairiki awa hīkoi, we have Te Tai Timu Trust, our kaupapa which is in the Hawkes Bay, the whānau of Te Toki Voyaging Trust, Hauteruruku ki Puketeraki, and the Waka Ama Nationals of course. All these pockets of awesome things that are happening that are educating in various ways around water safety. What we try and do is connect all the groups up and offer support where we can. Ultimately each community, whānau, hapū, marae – they each know their body of water better than any outsider. 

Then there is the mahi that Rob Hewitt is doing with Kura Kaupapa and Wharekura as well as running day skippers and boat master courses, and in a very Māori way of going about it.

What does it mean to do something in a “very Māori way”?

What Rob does is interweave all of our traditional knowledge alongside learning about life jacket safety, for example. He will bring in our whakapapa relationships, he will talk about the many faces of Tangaroa, and a strong focus on tikanga. Depending on where you are he will share the different tikanga of those places. We are running these programmes with our students. The idea is we are educating the educators. We run 200 students through our water safety programme, and that’s 200 communities in the future that will have people who understand the water. Rob comes down and supports what we are doing with that focus on that tikanga.

One of the tikanga we talk about is having your ‘Māori life jacket’ on – your karakia. And secondly is having those other forms of safety too. Understanding how to put on a life jacket, why you need it and when you need it, and when you might need a wetsuit. And when you’re in the water, giving some practical tips.

I think of all my cousins who are in the water all summer, as a lot of Māori are, out doing their manus. So what are some practical things you can do to stay safe and still enjoy the water, checking your depth, making sure there are no strainers, having people that are on shore who are watching for if anyone gets in trouble.

Is the Māori life jacket – the karakia – also a way to teach young Māori about the place their water has in their world?

You have the issue with young ones of whether they have a fluency in te reo or not, and around engaging and being comfortable in karakia. A lot of karakia is ritual. If we can influence young ones now, when they are thinking about going out on the water they will have a wee thought in their mind, and they will be putting on their Māori life jacket. And whether that is just “Tangaroa look after me”, or the longer karakia we teach our young ones too, they can form that lived relationship with Tangaroa and our other deities, such as Hinemoana, Kiwa for example (depending on where you are). This is very much the kaupapa that Te Taitimu Trust CEO Zack Makoare talks about too.

A big part is about fun, and being safe at the same time, and by safe I don’t mean in a scared way. Because sometimes health and safety can feel quite restrictive and scary. But what we try to encourage is having that enjoyment when you are in the water, and if you can do it in a safe way that makes it more fun and enjoyable.

Why are waka such an important part of your programme to enhance that safety and enjoyment?

Obviously waka are on water. We all love sailing and paddling. It is such an important way for how our ancestors travelled but also how we connect with the water. Waka are many things. They are a symbol of our Māori identity, they are a vessel for our mātauranga – our traditional knowledge – and they also connect us more broadly across the Pacific. We have one of our researchers working with Waka Ama New Zealand to see what their aspirations are around water safety. They have 3500 youth paddlers over the week. Our crew has information there to support those clubs and how they may want to incorporate basic things in the water to make it more enjoyable and safe. We support leaders such as Papa Hoturoa Kerr in Te Toki Voyaging Trust and down here the Hauteruruku ki Puketeraki whānau.

As a water safety tool, how is the waka the antithesis of learning to swim in the confines of a pool?

Learning to swim in the pool is good – we live in the far south and being able to swim in our waterways all year round is not practical. You’re getting down to 11, 12 degrees in the water. What the pool does is provide you with a controlled environment. You can do a lot of prep work, especially with young ones or people who are not confident in the water. In the pool the environment is a lot more controlled. So I’m definitely not anti-pool; the pool provides the trainer the wheels.

But there is a difference between learning to swim and learning to survive. It’s about getting the balance of both. It’s about taking the good parts of what we can learn in the pool and adding it to the outdoor environment. 

Depending on the waka you are in, you learn different things, and I’m just a pēpi in the waka world. If you are on an ocean-going canoe you are learning about the currents, and navigation and the winds. Down here [in Dunedin] with the temperature you understand what hypothermia is, and also what time of year to go sailing and swimming.  You are learning stuff about maramataka, so what times of year are the best. And if you are into Waka Ama, whether you are into Waka Ama for the sports side of it, or the cultural side. You can learn about building waka and what that means.

Over time you learn to have a good feel for all the various elements of the water, of our knowledge and understanding of water, and of waka.

You’re taking a distinctly Māori approach to water safety, which means it’s so much more. How important are these multiple outcomes for you and looking at water safety through te ao Māori?

It is so important for us, it is a kaupapa beyond what I do in my work. It is a distinctly Māori way of going about it. We also think it has a lot of things to offer non-Māori. That is certainly what we see in our programmes here in the Physical Education School, but also in the community kaupapa that we support too.

We are only scratching the surface, especially when you start getting into things like our project  on the mātauranga of the water, and the mātauranga of the marine environment. That’s what we get to share with our young ones. We get to retell our stories, whether it’s our Maui stories, our Tangaroa stories, our navigation kōrero, and just say how awesome we are as Māori. That really gets to uplift them too. That’s who the kaupapa is for.


This content is brought to you by the University of Otago – a vibrant contributor to Māori development and the realisation of Māori aspirations, through our Māori Strategic Framework and world-class researchers and teachers.

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