Scientific and Indigenous ways of thinking differ in how they view where knowledge comes from. Many experiments strip the environment away from a piece of knowledge to see if it still holds true. Yet indigenous knowledge has deep links to its origins and can become ‘lost in translation’ without context. This is something that scientifically-trained people can struggle to get their head around at first.
Kennedy Warne, co-founder of New Zealand Geographic and author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, started his writing and photography career with a Masters in Marine Biology.
In E-Tangata, he has written a reflective piece on how the cultural sleep was rubbed from his eyes. A story in which he recalls how it took a connection with Ngāti Kuri kuia (elder) Saana Murray to get his first glimpse into the importance of context in Māori knowledge.
With kind permission (tēnā rawa atu koe, Kennedy), I’ve posted an excerpt from his original piece below:
Though it was more than a quarter of a century ago, I still remember the day I began to wake up.
It was 1989. New Zealand Geographic, the magazine I co-founded and edited with the publisher, John Woods, was less than a year old. One of our photographers, Arno Gasteiger, had produced a set of evocative images of the Spirits Bay — Cape Reinga area, and I was keen to publish them.
I had pictures, but no text. Who could write words that would catch the essence of that spiritually charged landscape — the leaping place of the departed?
Arno had a name: Saana Murray. She was a poet, an elder of Ngāti Kuri, the tribe of that place, and a keeper of the long-burning fires of her people.
After some phoning around, I found that she was in Otara, staying with the family of one of her 13 children. I drove to the house and showed her the photographs and asked if she would be willing to write something. What she wrote was up to her, I said. I wanted the words to support, but not explain, the pictures. Above all, I wanted to capture the spirit.
Saana agreed. Then, nervously and apologetically — deadlines were looming; deadlines were always looming — I asked how soon she could deliver the text. What she told me I have never forgotten. “I cannot write anything here,” she said. “I will have to go to the land.”
She said it as if it she were stating the obvious. Yet it was the first time I had heard such a thing: that words about the land required the presence of the land. That knowledge was inseparable from its context.
For someone steeped in scientific thinking — a mindset in which knowledge is a commodity, endlessly transferable — it was a challenging thought. For a moment, the fabric of my fact-based worldview started to fray, and I caught a glimpse of another country.
I‘ve come to learn that this is the country Māori inhabit. In the Māori worldview, context is vital. Knowledge is not disembodied information but part of a living matrix of encounters and relationships, past and present, natural and spiritual.
Saana cared deeply about Māori knowledge, and she asserted that the tangata whenua are its rightful and necessary custodians. She believed that the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed the custodianship of Māori things by Māori people, and it pained her that that guarantee had not been honoured. Yet Saana never stopped believing in the Treaty. “I was born to the tune of the Tiriti of Waitangi,” she wrote. It was a tune she would sing all her life.
A spirit’s flight
Two years after we published the Spirits Bay story, Saana and five other iwi representatives lodged the Wai 262 “flora and fauna” claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. It was a claim, among other things, about Māori control of Māori intellectual property. When, after 20 years of research and deliberation, the tribunal delivered its report in 2011, Saana was the only one of the original claimants still alive to read it.
Then, later that year, she passed, too.
I heard the news while driving to the Bay of Islands. It was already the last day of the tangi, and she was to be buried that afternoon at Spirits Bay. There was little chance I would get there in time, but I wanted to pay my respects to a woman whose influence I had felt for 20 years. So I kept driving.