Brian Ireland in the Auckland Zoo's Te Wao Nui trail (photo: Jane Healy/ Auckland Zoo).

The chance to show 50,000 kids the meaning of mātauranga Māori

For most of his life, Brian Ireland had no idea about his Māori whakapapa, but when he discovered it he found a whole new way to look at the world and to teach about how we look after it. He spoke to Simon Day about bringing mātauranga Māori to the Auckland Zoo.

“Most of this interview should really be on a [psychiatrist’s] couch,” Brian Ireland (Te Āti Awa ki Whakarongotai) said to me as I turned on my voice recorder. He was joking, but it was also an honest recognition of the complicated personal journey that has defined his work educating children about the natural world and the value of indigenous perspectives in understanding it.

When Ireland was born his Pākehā paternal grandfather forced his Māori mother to give him up for adoption. He didn’t realise he was Māori until he was 28-years-old. Light haired and fair skinned, he believed he was Pākehā for most of the first three decades of his life. He didn’t understand the importance of the missing piece of his identity until he found it.


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Rather than a couch, the interview took place as we explored Te Wao Nui, the New Zealand trail at Auckland Zoo. Ireland was my guide on a sunny summer afternoon, the air was filled with the song of cicadas and the crunch of the construction of the zoo’s redevelopment. Ireland, a former education manager for the zoo who now contracts to them, is proud of the trail and hopeful of the way it puts Māori at the centre of the zoo’s communication.

Across its six zones, which represent different natural environments from the wetlands to the mountains, Te Wao Nui traverses New Zealand’s flora and fauna and engages deeply with mātauranga Māori – the Māori understanding and knowledge of the world. The trail puts mātauranga Māori on equal standing with Western knowledge of the natural world. And it is a powerful teaching tool for the zoo and the more than 50,000 kids who visit every year.

“The word ūkaipō is the mother source. For New Zealand, mātauranga Māori is ūkaipō, it’s the source of knowledge of New Zealand. It’s the first knowledge to come here, and it’s the longest knowledge that’s been here,” said Ireland as we stood in the shade of a puriri.

“The Western way is not the only legitimate way of seeing things. Especially in New Zealand. Both forms of knowledge need to be represented on a proper footing and not have one judge the efficacy of the other.”

A ruru/morepork at the Auckland Zoo (photo: supplied).

Discovering his own taha Māori was a powerful tool in Ireland’s understanding of his place and role in the world. While searching the records to find his birth family after he learned he was adopted, he was stunned to see his mother was listed as Māori. But, initially, when he attempted to contact his mother, she didn’t want to see him. So Ireland started a personal exploration of his new identity.

“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know where I was related to, or where my roots were, then the Māori thing just changed everything. I had no way of finding my whānau because I was shut off from that. So I just threw myself in,” he said.

Having worked as a golf course greenkeeper, then a landscape gardener when his first child was born, Ireland studied teaching to understand more about her education. Then he took the role as deputy principal of a kura kaupapa in Wellington. It was through one of his student’s mothers at the school that he was first introduced to his iwi, and his life was changed all over again.

“I remember sitting at my desk one day at 6 o’clock marking and this woman I’d never met before came and sat down at my desk. She’d obviously heard my mihi, or what I knew of it, somewhere, and she said ‘you’re coming away with me this weekend, you’re going to meet some people who brought your mother up’,” he recalled.  

He consented to this demand, (he admits he didn’t really have a choice) and up they went to Waitara in Taranaki, and for the first time Ireland met his Māori whanau.

“I met the aunties who took my mum in and it was mind-blowing. I got my first photo of my grandmother and my mother. It’s still pretty emotional thinking about it. What was important for me was my daughters. I thought they’d never get to see that side,” he says.  

It was years later, when Ireland was in his 40s, that he met his mother properly. The reunion has had a huge influence on both of them, and they’re now close.

“She’d carried a horrible amount of guilt around her whole life about having to give me up, and it really broke her. I saw this horrible guilt come off her shoulders, and to know everything is ok. It sounds like a bit of a Disney movie thing, but it was real, it was amazing,” he said.  

Ireland’s mother has become a hugely important part of his daughters’ lives. At 44 he discovered he had a brother. His eyes grow shiny with tears as he speaks about the effect the discovery of his whakapapa has had on him.

“I thought they’d never get to see that side. I could die happy tomorrow, now that it’s been done, and they know my mother. So they’ve got a grandmother they never had. It’s just opened up their world. It’s changed my life dramatically.”

The discovery of his Māori identity gave him a place to stand in the world. This understanding drew him to the land and a desire to share the unique knowledge Māori have for the protection of our natural environment. He saw an opportunity to reach children through mātauranga Māori, and a chance to instil an understanding of its value in the next generation.

At Te Kura o Otari, which sits on the edge of Otari Native Botanic Garden – the only public botanic garden in New Zealand dedicated solely to native plants – Ireland taught the curriculum in the forest. Later he moved down the road to Zealandia, where he was in charge of the education programme for the students who came through the new groundbreaking urban eco-sanctuary.

Then he had a chance to run the Auckland Zoo’s education programme, and later manage the outreach conservation education programme, where he took students to Rotoroa Island, and now to Tāwharanui Regional Park.

“Fifty thousand kids a year, that’s too good an opportunity to miss. I thought: this place has huge potential to do something from a Māori perspective.”

But, when Ireland first proposed the idea that the Māori world view could be wrapped into the zoo’s presentation of its work, some of his colleagues took some convincing.

“I think there was a perception from some people that if it was Māori it should be part of a museum programme, that it’s a social thing,” he said.

Mātauranga Māori is an understanding of humans’ place in the world that is locked up in nature, a relationship tied to our whakapapa. Everything comes from papa and rangi, humans are the pōtiki, the youngest descendants, and the birds, plants, and trees are all our elders. The zoo’s Te Wao Nui, Ireland insisted, with its range of indigenous flora and fauna, was the perfect place to explore this understanding, and a chance to embrace the huge potential Māori have to offer the conservation space. So he persisted.

“What we have here is the perfect place to do science. Look at the word science: pūtaiao. Pū meaning the root, the base. And taiao is nature. It’s the base of the natural world, that’s what science is for us,” he said.

Now, roughly 20% of the zoo’s visitor footprint is dedicated to indigenous flora and fauna, and many more endemic wildlife are managed off-display as part of breeding recovery programmes. Ireland’s role was to run the staff through workshops and get them on board with the content. Then he had to convince the schools that these species and this story and knowledge were valuable.

“True story, when I started here we had a programme that we’d developed, and schools got to choose between the exotic trail or a native New Zealand trail. Most schools chose monkeys, lions and tigers over our own animals – even though lots of our own species need just as much help in the wild as exotic animals. After just three years it was completely flipped, and now the schools are thinking native stuff is just as cool as the exotic animals at the Zoo.”

As we explored Te Wao Nui we encountered distinct parts of New Zealand’s natural environment as we visited the different nōhanga (habitats). In the Coast habitat, we watched a native seal feeding and penguins hid from the sun under an upturned dinghy. In the Wetlands area, we watched a family enraptured by huge tuna (eels). Night featured kiwi flicking through leaves for food. In the Island nōhanga, rare native skinks and geckos tried to camouflage. The Forest habitat’s birds were as curious as the visitors themselves. The journey provides a tactile immediacy to the diversity of New Zealand’s species and provides places for people from around the country to personally identify with.

“I wanted to be able to include all iwi, so no matter where you’re from if you come here as a Kura or a school, and you say “No hea koe? Where are you from?” You can say let’s go over this side, and you can show them the area relevant to them,” he said.  

As we watched a family and a kākā examine each other Ireland told me the story of the native parrot’s whakapapa. A proto version of the kaka came to New Zealand from Australia over a million years ago. From that one bird, it evolved into three species – the kākā, kākāpō, and kea – that represent the different environments they settled in.

A family meets a keā in the Forest habitat at Auckland Zoo (photo: supplied).

“Now we’ve got three completely different looking birds based on where they grew up and how they had to adapt. They all whakapapa to the same ancestor. That’s a New Zealand story,” said Ireland.

The zoo’s engagement with mātauranga Māori is dedicated to preserving these New Zealand stories at the same time as telling a contemporary story about the role of Māori knowledge in the conservation of our plants and animals. In his time at Auckland Zoo, Ireland has seen huge shifts in the way these roles are valued. He remembers Māori pūrākau (myth, ancient legend) being pejoratively perceived as fanciful stories. Now he uses them as essential teaching tools about our place in the world. He once found Māori historic relationships with the environment reduced to “snares, spears, and despair” focused around stories like the extinction of the moa. Now he sees the zoo engaging with the massive body of knowledge and the intimate personal relationship Māori have with the natural environment.  

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“There’s more ethereal concepts that need to be included in conversations about how we monitor the health of things. We are coming around to that. It’s not simply a western science view of things. We include values, and intrinsic stuff in our conversations and unashamedly,” he said.

“That’s the sort of stuff we are trying to push through this programme, really upping that discourse that there’s another way of looking at this.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Auckland Zoo. Learn more about our partnerships here.


Good Ancestors, a four-part podcast that examines the role of children in our planet’s future and how they’re coming to terms with climate change, is brought to you by the Auckland Zoo.

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