By Laura Goodall 23/03/2016

Understanding holistically how the world works and our role in it helps us to make sustainable, long-term decisions. Many scientists work in a narrow field of research so need to collaborate across different disciplines to see the big picture. Yet indigenous knowledge is often overlooked.

Dan HikuroaDr Dan Hikuroa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui, Te Arawa) is a specialist in Earth system science and integrating Māori indigenous knowledge and science. He is currently Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Auckland, Principal Investigator at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Associate Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini.

Since starting university as a geologist more than 20 years ago, Dan has been involved in many scientific projects, ranging from leading a geological expedition in Antarctica to co-writing the 2014 State of the Hauraki Gulf Environment Report.  Here, he shares some aspects of his journey in incorporating Māori knowledge as part of his work.

What is Earth system science, and how is your way of exploring it here in New Zealand different from elsewhere?

“The easiest way for me to explain this is to quote Carleton University’s definition:

“Earth system science embraces chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and applied sciences in transcending disciplinary boundaries to treat the Earth as an integrated system. It seeks a deeper understanding of the physical, chemical, biological and human interactions that determine the past, current and future states of the Earth. Earth system science gives us a physical basis for understanding the world in which we live and upon which humankind seeks to achieve sustainability.”

“I take Earth systems science a step further here in Aotearoa NZ by including Mātauranga Māori as another body of knowledge, and drawing from Māori values, principles and practice.”

What similarities and differences are there between Mātauranga Māori and science?

“Mātauranga Māori is the state of knowing with a knowledge or cognisance of something, a method for generating knowledge, and all of the knowledge generated according to that method.

“Some Mātauranga Māori include a suite of observational or experimental techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, and updating and integrating previous knowledge. These techniques comprise systematic observation, measurement and experimentation, along with forming hypotheses, experimentally testing them and modifying them. These are all consistent with science and the scientific method.

“The only difference I have seen between the two is that Mātauranga Māori is explained according to a Māori worldview.”

When and how did you start bringing Māori aspects to your work?

“I definitely didn’t consciously set out to do it from day one. When I started university my goal was to obtain a degree in science. Having been raised in an urban setting, away from my turangawaewae, I was not in an environment rich in mātauranga. I don’t recall any ‘tipping point’ or ‘eureka’ moment, but I will mention a couple of things:

“When I applied for a PhD scholarship, I was asked to comment on a statement – something like ‘Māori did not have science’. My answer was definitely not, that considerable portions of Mātauranga Māori had been generated by techniques consistent with the scientific method. In fact I think I recall saying in that regard Māori had been practising that form of knowledge generations before the word science existed.

“It was during my PhD that another significant event in my journey occurred, the impact of which was not apparent to me initially. I was approached by Brett Stephenson to teach on the Bachelor of Environmental Studies course at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi in Whakatane. Whilst working independently and with Brett on compiling and creating teaching materials, I began to see more and more parallels between science and mātauranga. Furthermore, discussions with Brett and others at Awanuiarangi such as Wiremu Tawhai, and of course the students, deepened and extended my initial observations.

“I need to stress here that whilst there are some considerable similarities between science and mātauranga, there are also some fundamental contextual differences. However, the key point is that the two bodies of knowledge were not entirely incompatible and I became increasingly interested in exploring their compatibility and even entertaining the concept of integrating the two.”

“Considerable portions of Mātauranga Māori had been generated by techniques consistent with the scientific method… Māori had been practising that form of knowledge generations before the word science existed.”

What are tikanga and do you happen to incorporate any into your research?

“Tikanga are tools of thought and understanding. In his book Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values, Hirini Moko Mead says that tikanga are packages of ideas which help to organise behaviour and provide some predictability in how certain activities are carried out. They provide templates and frameworks to guide our actions. They help us differentiate between right and wrong in everything we do and in all of the activities that we engage in.

“I certainly didn’t consciously follow any tikanga for my PhD research – leading a deep-field geological mapping expedition in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey and seeking to understand supercontinent break-up processes. And nor in my post-doctoral work elucidating the effects of rapid climate change on oceanic biota in the ancient past as part of a team of 150 scientists from over 35 countries in an International Geological Correlation Project.

“However I became very accustomed to exploring and practising tikanga when I was teaching at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, and naturally when I was appointed to the role of Community Earth Systems Programmes Manager at the Institute of Earth Science and Engineering tikanga became a critical part of my everyday life. I even established tikanga practices for the Institute.”

“Using tikanga ranges from exploring the mātauranga base and ideas, through holding powhiri to start projects, to always reporting back to communities, preferably at the marae.  However the use of tikanga starts at the very beginning of any research by ensuring what we intend to do is tika, and that why, how and who we do it with is tika.

Why do you think it’s important we consider Mātauranga Māori as well as science in New Zealand? Is there any sensitivity around using this traditional knowledge?

“At the most fundamental level any decision maker or anyone tackling Aotearoa New Zealand’s issues (or trying to realise their dreams) should draw from all knowledge available and that includes Mātauranga Māori – I believe there is no sensitivity there. The justifiable sensitivity arises when it comes to how and who undertakes the work.”

How might a scientist who recognises the importance of indigenous knowledge make the first step towards integrating it?

“Establish trusting, honest reciprocal relationships with appropriate people and groups. Make sure you can answer the question ‘What value does this hold for those with whom I want to work?’ ”

How might someone with new knowledge feed this back to indigenous communities?

Carefully and with respect. In an ideal situation, they would have been working with the community from the outset.

Have you had any challenges or breakthroughs in integrating Mātauranga Māori and science?

“Conceptually no – however it would be inappropriate to not mention the immense impact the work of Sir Mason Durie has had in this space. He and others like Wiremu Tawhai established the space – I merely stepped into it.

“Although not widespread, it’s been a hurdle when some people have mistakenly believed I was trying to ‘claim’ Mātauranga Māori for science – I think open dialogue might help overcome this.

“One of the biggest successes has been through understanding water quality in terms of mauri. I didn’t really achieve it – it was the community members with whom I worked that conceptualised it.”

To find out more about Dan’s project on understanding water quality and mauri, you can read the research paper (pdf) or  click below to play his video:

[Ngā mihi/credit: Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga]

You can also learn more about mauri by watching a separate video explanation of the concept as part of a mini-documentary series by RealWorld Media.

Tēnā rawa atu koe, Dan, for sharing your story.