By Rosemary Rangitauira 16/12/2020

Stories of the afterlife and the impact of colonisation on Ngāi Maori nudged Sylvia Tapuke on a path of exploring kaupapa Māori research and western science. 

She hails from Ngāi Tūhoe, Hineuru, Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Raukawa ki te Tonga, Te Arawa and Te Whakatōhea.

Talking to Sylvia makes you feel at home in her company and embraced by the humble essence of her lineage. She laughs as she reminisces about being called a whakaputa mōhio, a know-it-all when she was younger because she was inquisitive about the environment she grew up in.

“I have always been curious and interested in the world, about why things happen and how they come to be,” says Sylvia.

In more recent years, she has become fascinated by how her ancestors viewed the world and why they did things the way they did.

Currently a kaupapa Māori researcher at Scion in Rotorua, she says two people set her on her path of enlightenment.

“The first was Cleve Barlow who was teaching a class I was in. He told us about how he died and went to another world where he met his tīpuna (ancestor) and came back to his physical body. It fascinated me that I was in a university hearing this beautiful kōrero.

“The second person was John Turei, a kaumatua who shared his stories about how Māori have suffered immeasurably over time as a result of many layers of colonisation.”

These stories resonated with Sylvia who admits she struggled at university following a foreign mainstream programme.

“At the time I was living in South Auckland, in a life typical of a lot of disconnected urban Māori and Pasifika people. I hadn’t even met my own extended whānau in my tūrangawaewae (homelands).”

“Matua John’s story deeply sat with me and I realised I was part of that collective journey of our people who are affected by colonisation and part of the statistics he talked about. These two kaikōrero including Matua Cleve made me think about how my whānau and I had ended up where we had.”

Their wisdom motivated Sylvia to return to her tūrangawaewae places including Waiohau and Murupara – where her interest in whakapapa research began.

Joining Scion in July this year, Sylvia is privileged to work with whānau, hapū and iwi entities on projects that reflect and are focussed on information about who they are.

I am fortunate I can be myself there. I can be Māori and Samoan.”

She’s currently working on a wide range of projects including the Vision Mātauranga Māori, a funded partnership between Scion and Te Urunga o Kea, the Te Arawa Climate Change Working Group developing an iwi driven climate change strategy, due to be launched next year.

“I’ve come in at the tail end of the project as part of my current role with Scion but this is a kaupapa being driven by Te Arawa change advocates and their allies.”

Sylvia uses her research skills to support iwi, hapū, tribal entities as well as to her ahi kaa, the people of her tribal homelands.

That’s evident in her thesis, Mapping waiata koroua (traditional prose) of the Tarawera Eruption, 1886; and its relevance to contemporary natural hazards preparedness and response, she has created a resource to help prepare communities including kura (schools).

“It’s important to me to continue to share this work with kaiako Māori (Māori teachers) and teachers around the world. It’s primarily based on the stories of my koroua (grandfather), Koro Hieke Tupe, about the prophet and founder of the Ringatū faith, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, and how Te Kooti visited Te Ika Whenua and his prediction around the Tarawera Eruption.”

Sylvia is hopeful her work with tāngata whenua will help them to make effective decisions, to plan and assess as well as mentor and pass on knowledge to their future generations.

“The most rewarding part of my mahi is when people are empowered to be in charge of their own rangahau (research), telling their own stories and reaching their aspirations,” she says.

She reminds upcoming Māori researchers to be inquisitive because it’s in their DNA.

“Know yourself first before exploring beyond that. Be curious but remain humble because you are asking others for knowledge – which is powerful. Remember that kaupapa Māori is important because it becomes your marae ātea (marae courtyard) that surrounds you as a researcher. Ensure you safeguard that mātauranga (knowledge) by adopting tikanga in case you receive questions so you can respond to pātai (questions) and ensure the kōrero about your research is mana enhancing,” she says.

She also acknowledges Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga as a world-class institution which looks after Māori knowledge system derived from a spiritual source.

Sylvia says it has nurtured knowledge holders, generated communities of knowledge exchange, and supported kaupapa (projects) that feeds back into the communities and in turn restore, maintain and create unique knowledge systems.

Bonus read 

You can also check out the following studies that Sylvia Tapuke has been involved in including:

  • Murupara case study that draws from oral histories and interviews with Ngāti Manawa and Ngāti Whare descendants as well as other local residents and service providers. It explores the role of intangible cultural heritage in building community resilience; and
  • A Nātional Science Challenge funded study on the link between housing and health.