Words and images by Jacqui Gibson
Gone are Auckland Museum’s days of doing science using a museum-centric academic approach, after Māori land rights holders Ngāti Kuri gave the museum an ultimatum.
Aussie-born Head of Natural Sciences at Auckland Museum Tom Trnski admits his first pepeha at Waiora marae in the Far North was pretty nerve-wracking.
“I was a bit scared, I won’t lie. Coming from Australia, I didn’t grow up learning te reo. Introducing myself in Māori to a group of native speakers was tough. And the relationship, at that point, wasn’t in good shape. But having the courage to do it paid off.”
That was four years ago.
“Today my relationship with Ngāti Kuri is close. When I go there now, I feel like part of the family – and I like to think it’s because of what we did to prepare for that first hui and show iwi members we were there with open hearts and a willingness to do things on their terms.”
Wānanga in the Far North
In 2016, Tom led Auckland Museum’s first-ever visit to Ngātaki at the very tip of Te Tai Tokerau, Northland.
The weekend wānanga followed an ultimatum by Ngāti Kuri a year earlier.
Iwi leaders invited the museum to either team-up with the tribe to realise their aspirations or halt all scientific study within their rohe and stay off their land and out of their oceans for good.
Ngāti Kuri’s rohe covers approximately one million square kilometres in the Far North. Starting at Maunga Tohoraha (Mt Camel) in the south, it extends north to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) and includes the much-studied islands of Manawatawhi (Three Kings Islands) and Rangitāhua (Kermadec Islands).
It is considered a global hot spot of biodiversity.
“I’ll never forget the day Ngāti Kuri delivered that message,” says Tom.
“We’d mentioned to Ngāti Kuri the museum wanted to resume its 70-year botanical survey on Manawatawhi Island. Next thing we know Ngāti Kuri leadership, including several kaumātua, board member Sheridan Waitai [pictured at top] and chair Harry Burkhardt, are sitting at our boardroom table.
“They basically said to us:
‘Look, we’ve had scientists coming up here doing science since the early 19th century and we’re sick of the one-way relationship. You seem to think it’s okay to do your work and disappear, taking your knowledge with you. Well, we’re no longer okay with that.
We want to form a true relationship with you. We want a relationship that’s reciprocal, where you support our aspirations and we support yours.’
“My first thought was: ‘Holy moley, how are we going to bypass our usual Crown-led approach and navigate our way through this?’ But we found a way. And, really, that was the start of this whole new era.”
New era, new work programme
Since then, Ngāti Kuri and Auckland Museum have achieved a lot together, says Auckland Museum Māori Development Manager Nicola Railton (Ngāti Kuri, Ngā Puhi).
Wānanga have been held to determine roles, goals and a shared work programme.
Existing long term land and ocean studies continue. New studies, including a stocktake of Ngāti Kuri taonga (treasured) species, have kicked off.
Koiwi (human remains) belonging to Ngāti Kuri have been returned to iwi.
Auckland Museum now brokers all contact between Ngāti Kuri and New Zealand’s scientific institutions such as NIWA, Landcare Research and Auckland, Otago, Massey and Canterbury universities. It takes the workload off Ngāti Kuri and helps coordinate the research carried out within their rohe, says Nicola.
A new approach to record-keeping has been set up where every object in the natural science collection is described in both scientific and iwi (mātauranga Māori) terms.
New exhibitions exploring the natural sciences from a Ngāti Kuri world view are in development.
New species, as they’re discovered, are named by iwi, while Ngāti Kuri now oversee the museum’s use of all taonga species from their region.
Empowering the next generation
A science education programme is also underway for the 60-odd students at Te Hapua and Ngātaki Schools in the Far North.
Today, Ngāti Kuri kids regularly survey pest and taonga species at week-long field study events called Bioblitzes, run by Auckland Museum in collaboration with scientists from other organisations.
They monitor the health of the freshwater streams using professional, yet affordable, testing kits.
They’ve travelled to Auckland Museum to see the Ngāti Kuri collection first hand. Every fortnight, they Skype with museum scientists to talk science and get advice on their school work.
This year, a 13-year-old Ngāti Kuri student discovered 11 new species of seaweed walking the shoreline of Parengarenga Harbour, contributing her find to NIWA’s nascent database.
Tom says: “Before we started on this journey with Ngāti Kuri, local kids would never have seen themselves as scientists or even that science was an option in their lives.
“That’s changed completely. They’ve become curious. They have a much deeper knowledge of their environment now. I’ve no doubt we’ll make scientists out of some of these kids – absolutely no doubt at all.”
The bigger picture
While the work completed through the partnership so far is heartening, says Nicola, it’s also reflective of a much bigger shift in the way both iwi and museums are doing things.
“Ngāti Kuri’s ultimate vision is to completely rejuvenate their rohe, bring back taonga species such as their kaitiaki species, the pūpū whakarongotāua, or flax snail, for example, and turn their region into a predator-free ecosanctuary.”
In August last year, they announced plans to instal a $1.2 million predator-proof fence on their southern boundary.
Auckland Museum, meanwhile, is rethinking how to work with Māori and Pacific communities to help them achieve their goals and aspirations, says Nicola.
The timing of the new relationship couldn’t be better, she says.
The museum has a new framework for revitalising te reo Māori and is about to develop a strategy for mātauranga Māori, which, of course, will draw on their work with Ngāti Kuri.
Advice for others
According to Tom, word of the partnership with Ngāti Kuri is out among New Zealand’s science community.
“I’m not sure if we’re leaders exactly, but we’re definitely among the leading pack. We’re being invited to share what we’re learning at conferences. We’re publishing journal articles, blogs and answering requests for general advice.
“Overall, I tell people it’s a huge shift. It takes courage on both sides and a lot of trust. It’s a complete move away from the Crown-led process where getting approval from iwi was essentially a box-ticking exercise.”
Be prepared to change personally and professionally too, says Tom.
“My thinking as a scientist has definitely changed. For example, I look at natural objects differently now, seeing both the physical and spiritual dimensions. Honestly, I’m really grateful to have been introduced to this new way of seeing the world – I appreciate things much more deeply now than I have in the past.”
But the best thing about it?
“Gone are the days of producing science that’s based on a museum-centric, specialist academic approach. In this brave, new world, the museum is no longer the authority. It might sound a bit unsettling. But it’s actually very exciting.”
Donating just a few dollars to the Science Journalism Fund will help give journalists the resources to investigate and report on important science-related issues in depth.