May 13, 2019
Issue 05 2019

Is our history the key?

Ko ahau te taiao, ko te taiao, ko ahau – The ecosystem defines my quality of life


This wonderful whakatauki (Māori proverb) is from a mindset that many aren’t familiar with.

Although there is a simple correlation between our survival and the earth's ability to provide for us, we live in an astoundingly convenient world. Personally I have never had to rely on the seasons, forage, hunt or live off the land. Yet for many indigenous communities, existence is based around these practices, where understanding the balance of ecosystems is vital to all aspects of life.

It’s a pretty foreign concept for most of us - few people outside of indigenous communities can fully understand the deeper spiritual and sometimes cosmological relationships between humans and nature. As much as one might like to think they are ‘in tune with the earth’ because they’ve dabbled in shrooms and own a keep cup, the interactions between indigenous communities and the planet are uncontested.

To illustrate this relationship we can look at the Māori understanding that mankind comes from the earth, that we are not above it but merely a part of it - where nature is a taonga (gift) from our ancestors. This is evident in Māori cropping and cultivation, where soil isn’t just dirt. It instead holds primal and cosmic energies of the universe; and is sometimes considered to be a living and breathing entity. This belief encourages a two way relationship between humans and land where, in order to grow food, there is a large amount of care that goes into utilising the soil - a far cry from the industrial strain modern day systems place onto it.

Recently I have been wondering, why did Māori among many indigenous communities, live within the environment rather than ‘on’ it? And where did this way of life get lost? Can we get it back without compromising our comfort? It can quite easily be put down to colonialism and ‘The Enlightenment’ period that saw indigenous communities robbed of their land and stripped of their practices.

The more I look into my Māori ancestry, the more I understand how Western paradigms have replaced traditional ways and where the relationship between humans and land has been lost. Although Aotearoa no longer has punishments for the use of these practices - and kids don’t have Te Reo literally beaten out of them at school - there is still a suffocating colonial presence regarding how Māori knowledge is handled.

So why is it important to know about this? What can we gain from it? I agree there probably won’t be a time where you will need to cure dysentery by chewing koromiko leaves, nor should you feel guilty for benefiting from modern Western science.

Yet traditional practices across the world have allowed communities to be self reliant, while protecting the land rather than pillaging it. In a time that could easily be considered earth’s final hour, I think perhaps there could be some benefit in looking back and uplifting these communities and their knowledge.

It’s part of a massive debate in science at the moment - how to utilise these practices without following colonial footsteps and exploiting the knowledge of marginalised communities. But for us individuals, it seems even harder to place any value on our actions or even know what to do.


Luckily, I have some recommendations for you!

  • If you hear someone giving a piece of info from their culture - call out those who snigger and roll their eyes. Indigenous communities have held this knowledge for thousands of years - there is a reason this stuff works.
  • Conversations! There isn’t a lot of talk about indigenous knowledge, it generally either gets rejected or exploited, so by encouraging learning about it and supporting it - you’re actually doing a whole lot.
  • This one goes out to the future and current scientists. Question the ‘cultural’ collaborations you may come across. Is there a genuine interest? Or is it a tick the box exercise? Push for more authenticity.

Despite the major technological advances in everyday living, we still depend on healthy ecosystems for survival - the only difference is we are now far more disconnected from it. We live in a unique country, and to embrace, support and access our Māori heritage is a rare opportunity - now is the time to take it.

Toitu te marae a Tane Toitu te marae a Tangaroa Toitu te iwi.
If the land is well and the sea is well the people will thrive.