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Indigenous ways of knowing

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

Since approximately 1980, there has been a revival and a revitalisation of a body of knowledge called ‘mātauranga Māori’, or traditional Māori knowledge. The story of this body of knowledge is similar to that of the many indigenous knowledges found throughout the world—diminished, oppressed and suppressed through colonisation, abandoned by indigenous peoples themselves and revived through late twentieth century revitalisation.

In the period 1980 to 2000, the revitalisation of mātauranga Māori was largely driven by quests for social justice and the desire for cultural revitalisation. In my own iwi setting, our efforts to revitalise this body of knowledge were inspired by a mix of ‘speaking back’ to colonisation—reasserting our identity for example— and the subsequent desire to regain fluency with our culture, our language, our histories and more.

Since 2000 (the dates are very approximate), a new theme has been coming to conscious articulation. I call this the ‘creative potential’ paradigm. Here indigenous knowledge, of which mātauranga Māori is a part, is explored and considered on its own merits and not merely as a tool for ‘resistance’ or ‘speaking back’ to colonisation. My personal interest is to explore the ‘creative potential’ of mātauranga Māori and indigenous knowledge generally and how it may contribute to our world today.

Working in a Whare Wānanga: 1996–2002

My teaching and research experience in our whare wānanga illustrates the change and transition that has been taking place. In 1996, I was offered the role of Kaihautū (convenor) of a Masters programme in mātauranga Māori. This graduate programme supplemented and extended an undergraduate programme in the same field.

From the outset, one of our tasks was to show how a study of mātauranga Māori in a whare wānanga context is fundamentally different from ‘Māori Studies’, a field of study conducted within New Zealand universities since the 1950s. It was interesting to note how many people struggled to see the difference between the two despite obvious differences.

In New Zealand, ‘Māori Studies’ grew out of anthropology and represents the anthropological study of Māori people, culture, histories, language and so on. Hence, the field creates graduates who are able to conduct studies of the Māori world and participate in the worldwide activity called anthropology. Whether this contributed positively or not to the lives and experiences of Māori people and culture was not the preoccupation of this field of study. Rather, the purpose of the study was to contribute to the pool of anthropological knowledge.

Given this anthropological origin of Māori Studies, we can note, however, that many working in Māori Studies are not preoccupied with anthropology. In some quarters, anthropology is rejected outright. In my view, ‘Māori Development’ might be a better title for some working in Māori Studies for most are interested to bring about some kind of benefit for Māori people through their research and teaching activities. Further, some Māori Studies academics would be better described as working in mātauranga Māori. This lack of specific emphasis in Māori Studies upon positive contributions to Māori people and culture led, I suggest, to the advent of an initiative entitled ‘Kaupapa Māori’ which, among other things, was designed to ‘create space’ for Māori language, culture and knowledge within ‘the academy’ (i.e. the universities).

Mātauranga Māori, on the other hand, has a different life and quality altogether. Firstly, it was and is conducted in the general milieu of the ‘development’ of Māori peoples, culture, language and so on. It was first articulated and has been advanced by Māori people ourselves as a way of revitalising our knowledge and culture. As mentioned, we were inspired by the desire for cultural revitalisation and the quest for social justice. Hence, from the outset, mātauranga Māori has always retained this view – that it should somehow contribute to the ‘development’ of Māori people and that our efforts should create some kind of non-academic benefit in the world at large.

Interestingly, though, the second and critical feature is that mātauranga Māori is not solely concerned with ‘the Māori world’ in quite the same way that Māori Studies is primarily concerned with Māori people and culture. Rather mātauranga Māori represents a response to all life according to certain indigenous principles (see below). The critical difference, therefore, between Māori Studies and mātauranga Māori (as I have defined it) is that one concerns the study of the ‘Māori world’ (usually defined by the presence of Māori people) and the other concerns a response to all life, not just the so-called ‘Māori world’. This distinction was noted by the Waitangi Tribunal in their 1998 report: ‘Maori studies focuses on studying Maori society from a Pakeha perspective, while matauranga Maori is about studying the universe from a Maori perspective’.1

These critical differences are helpful in understanding the drive behind the establishment of our whare wānanga. From the outset, these institutions were driven to create benefits for the communities that established them. Secondly, there was and is a determination to create a ‘space of integrity’ for mātauranga Māori so that it might be explored and understood in its own terms and not analysed and therefore judged by pre-existing frames of reference such as those prevalent in the university.

Of course, it takes time to initiate and establish new fields of inquiry. I think the most significant achievement of this period was to confirm the existence of a body of knowledge called ‘mātauranga Māori’ and, furthermore, confirm our resolve to utilise it to establish ways of knowing, explaining and understanding life.

The Move to Creativity

As mentioned, the early period of my time at our whare wānanga was dominated by ideas of social justice and cultural revitalisation. We were emboldened in our task and the sense of ‘righting a wrong’ flowed through our activities. However, as time passed and as I moved deeper and deeper into mātauranga Māori, my thinking about this body of knowledge changed.

More and more I began to think about this body of knowledge on its own merits, outside of our urgencies concerning the so-called decolonisation of Māori people. I can recall the moment when I asked myself, ‘what really beats at the heart of mātauranga Māori anyway and why is this valuable?’ This was an important moment and it resonated with a comment I had read in the work of Vine Deloria. He writes that American Indian philosophy must proceed on a ‘deeply held belief that there is something of value in any tribal tradition that transcends mere belief and ethnic pride.'2

The comment challenged me to interact with mātauranga Māori not merely as a tool by which to struggle against and ‘resist’ colonisation but rather as way of thinking, experiencing and understanding life. More and more I began to think about it on its own terms and I found assistance in the work of indigenous thinkers such as Manulani Meyer of Hawai’i and Gregory Cajete of New Mexico. The work of the Yupiaq scholar Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley was also important. This was a liberating experience and a key feature, I now assert, of the new ‘creative potential’ paradigm, the desire to look at the entire continuum of this body of knowledge and assess it on its own terms.

Coinciding with this emerging thinking was my experience with the re- establishment of an institution called the whare tapere. These were traditional village ‘houses’ of storytelling, dance, music, games and more. My doctoral study concerned these traditional ways of performing which, unfortunately, fell into disuse in the nineteenth century. The research rested on two simple questions— what do we know about these pre-European ways of performing (these ‘houses’ of performance) and is it possible to create a modern version today?

Hence, these projects—my personal research, leading a Masters programme in mātauranga Māori and establishing a new whare tapere—led me to a more creative position with respect to mātauranga Māori. I found that if one finds one’s creative centre, then we need not feel so anxious about our cultural knowledge and identity. We can supplement our understandable desire to preserve our pre-existing traditional knowledge with a new creativity which utilises that pre- existing knowledge as a starting point. This growth can be symbolised as a move from a preoccupation with mātauranga (knowledge) to being inspired by wānanga (creativity) for knowledge is exhaustible, creativity is inexhaustible. In our cultural context, our creativity (our wānanga) is likened to the ‘springs of Rangiātea, the springs that never run dry’.3

In the period 2003-2010, I completed an overview of mātauranga Māori which is now being published in a number of research reports.4 This research enabled me to summarise mātauranga Māori and, more importantly, identify a number of principles which underpin this body of knowledge. These principles might be utilised, albeit in a new form, to underpin and inform a new creativity and I find myself now directing my research in this direction. Having completed a large amount of research concerning pre-existing mātauranga Māori, the question for me now concerns whether we are able to use this knowledge, fragmentary and incomplete as it is, as the basis of a new creativity.

Contiguous with the completion of this research was my recent appointment to Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, a centre of research excellence hosted at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The focus of our research concerns harnessing and unleashing the ‘creative potential’ of Māori communities through research. Our work is summarised in the phrase ‘indigenous transformation through research excellence’.

We argue that the true potential of Māori communities lies beyond mere participation in a range of pre-existing activities in our nation. Rather, we assert that the depth and breadth of this potential can be understood by considering our traditional knowledge, worldviews, experiences, histories and identities and how this may be used to contribute to our nation and the world.

To this end, we are interested in a range of distinctive projects such as indigenous approaches to economic development, to environmental sustainability, to education, to the arts, science and humanities and more. This is an exciting and creative field which proceeds on the view, firmly held, that Māori people represent a net opportunity for New Zealand rather than a national burden.

As an indigenous research centre, one of our key challenges is to explore and formulate indigenous approaches and methodologies of knowledge creation and application. This is an exciting and creative challenge. Our goal is not merely to utilise our fragmentary indigenous knowledge within pre-existing and conventional methods of knowledge creation (science, for example) but also to invent ways of creating knowledge that ultimately serve certain indigenous ends—so that the process of the creation of new knowledge can be considered indigenous knowledge too. The last section of this essay presents some ideas about what that process, method or approach might be. We are at the very beginning of our experiments so that the ideas presented below are tentative.

Kinship–Based Participation in the Living Universe

Where might one begin? We ought to begin with the foundational idea, belief or view deeply held within all formal indigenous cultures and worldviews—that is of a kinship based, creative and dynamic participation in the living universe. Formal indigenous cultures place mother earth at the centre of their concerns and regard humankind as a child of the earth alongside all other living beings and creatures. The 1992 Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu states:

Our parents tell us: ‘Children, the earth is the mother of man, because she gives him food’ [. . .] So we think of the earth as the mother of man, and our parents teach us to respect the earth. We must only harm the earth when we are in need. This is why, before we sow, we have to ask the earth’s permission.5

In this worldview, humans are not superior to the natural world but rather are fully participant in ‘the woven universe’.6 This foundational idea and belief has been cited and described in numerous texts published throughout world on indigenous worldviews. We need not exhaustively repeat this point except to note, however, that these themes are beginning to find expression and interest in a range of non-indigenous scholars too. Here is a quote from the American philosopher and historian Richard Tarnas. After delivering a virtuoso rendition of the history of western knowledge, Tarnas discusses the paradigm for a worldview to come. He discusses a ‘participatory epistemology’ in which the human mind achieves a ‘radical kinship with the cosmos’. Tarnas is searching for a new paradigm which seeks to overcome critical anxieties and tensions in post-modern western life. One such difficulty is the relationship between the human mind and the natural world and his writing edges toward a view which reflects the human mind’s pivotal role as vehicle of the universe’s unfolding meaning.

He continues with the following statement which feels deeply ‘indigenous’ in atmosphere and style:

The human spirit does not merely prescribe nature’s phenomenal order; rather, the spirit of nature brings its own order through the human mind when that mind is employing its full complement of faculties—intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginative, aesthetic, epiphanic. In such knowledge, the human mind ‘lives into’ the creative activity of nature. Then the world speaks its meaning through human consciousness. Then human language itself can be recognized as rooted in deeper reality, as reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning. Through human intellect, in all its personal individuality, contingency, and struggle, the world’s evolving thought-content achieves conscious articulation.7

Hence, the key tenet of indigenous worldviews and epistemology is that the mind exists within the world, participating in it. This is the beginning of an extensive discussion about the nature of humankind’s relationship with the world. Even the very idea of ‘mind’ welcomes discussion from an indigenous point of view. For now, let us note that the key or foundational idea of formal indigenous worldviews is that we, humankind, are products of the earth and participate in a living and woven universe. As such, we ought to remember this and build knowledge and conduct our lives conscious to maintain unity with the natural world.

‘Wānanga’: Features of an Indigenous Approach to Knowledge Creation

In our language, the word we can most closely associate with the idea of the creation of new knowledge is wānanga. Our ancestors conducted wānanga processes and maintained an institution of higher learning called whare wānanga. Today, there are three major whare wānanga in New Zealand. Our challenge is that in the midst of addressing important and critical education needs of our people we need to also fashion ways of creating, imparting and sustaining knowledge based upon indigenous principles. One such way is to conduct a deep and creative exploration of wānanga itself.

Listed below are some of the features of a wānanga process. These are experimental and were developed through an extensive reading of material concerning the workings of the traditional institution called the whare wānanga. The ideas also reflect the worldview within which this institution conducted its affairs. Finally, reading the work of indigenous thinkers throughout the world has been invaluable. I stress that these lists are not exhaustive and remain in draft form. There is no particular order, either, to each list.

Worldview, Epistemology

  • Knowledge resides in the body, ‘in bodied’ knowing—authority is built in a person of knowledge as they become a vessel or the embodiment of knowledge.
  • The pursuit of knowledge concerns the progressive revelation of depth and understanding about the world rather than the construction of new knowledge as one constructs an object.
  • Knowing (the world) is equivalent to identification with the world—humankind is a product of the earth and we dwell (or ought to dwell) in a kinship relationship with the earth. The world is to be known and understood through relationship.
  • Indigenous knowledge is a ‘heritage inspired’ knowledge system which often speaks of the wisdom of the ancestors.

The Process of Wānanga

Listed here are a range of matters about how the wānanga process might be conducted.

  • The purpose of the wānanga process is to activate the mana atua of the person, the powers of the individual. It is important to recognise that these ‘powers’ are the qualities and energies of the natural world and the goal is to allow these qualities to flow through the person. Thus the person becomes one with the natural world.
  • The venue, place and location of the wānanga process is important. Spaces and places are not ‘neutral’, absent of qualities and energies. The topic of discussion ought to be synergistic with the location and vice versa.
  • The time of the wānanga process needs to be appropriately set. Indigenous knowledge making is conscious of the natural rhythms of the universe—of the way day and night interact, for example, of the way in which energy flows naturally in a person throughout a single day. Attention is paid to the appropriate date in the lunar calendar and more.
  • The process for the selection of topic is set by the leaders of the wānanga. They consider the needs of the day, the capacity of wānanga participants to address the question, relevance to community interests and more.
  • A person is elected by the group to be kaiwhakahaere, to facilitate the setting of the topic (the questions posed) and to facilitate the process for discussion and any outcomes achieved.
  • Much use is made of narrativised knowledge (kōrero). This kind of knowledge is available to the group (pre-existing stories and narratives of the deeds of ancestors and myth heroes within which contain ideas and perspectives relevant to the topic at hand).
  • Identification with the subject—one has the authority to speak not because one is ‘right’ but because of connection and relationship.8
  • Memory (mahara) is not just about knowledge of previous events but also conscious awareness (te hīringa i te mahara—a traditional expression about the awakening of the conscious mind).
  • Encounter with the world occurs through the apparatus of the body—use is made of meditation (nohopuku) and fasting (whakatiki) practices whereby inspiration and new ideas are actively sought. Hence, whilst much development might take place in a group, individuals may also be dispatched into the wilderness to seek understanding.

This, then, is a sample and incomplete list of items concerning the wānanga process for the creation of new knowledge. Overall the purpose of this way of creating knowledge is to bring humankind into greater alignment, awareness, sensitivity and relationship with the natural world environments in which we dwell. We seek not to dominate life but rather to live harmoniously within it and where we might seek to exert our influence in the world: it is the natural world itself prompting us to do so. Given the tremendous distance that now exists today between human consciousness and the natural world; environments in which we live—evidenced by environmental despoliation, climate change, population pressures, energy production issues and more—an approach which seeks to reharmonise our creativity with the planet is warranted and, indeed, urgent.