Dame Anne Salmond outlines the big issues for knowledge and the future that New Zealand must address – highlighted now by the dispute for Māori academics at Waikato University

When I was young, and a first year student at the University of Auckland, I met Eruera and Amiria Stirling at a party. After a year in the US as an American Field Service scholar, when I’d begun to discover the depth of my ignorance of tikanga Māori, I’d enrolled to study te reo at Auckland. Amiria and I sat down and talked, and she invited me to their home in Herne Bay. Over the next 20 years, she and Eruera became my teachers and guides in te ao Māori, and the world as I knew it was transformed.

Eruera was an orator and scholar in the wānanga tradition. Whare wānanga, schools of learning in which young people were taught ancestral knowledge, have a deep history in the Pacific. As a very young boy, Eruera was taken by one of the last tohunga (knowledgeable experts) from Kirieke, a whare wānanga in Te Whānau-a-Apanui, and trained in whakapapa and ancestral mātauranga. It gave him a life-long love of learning, and a passion for critical debate and inquiry.

While we were working together on Eruera: The teachings of a Māori Elder, a book about his life and times, Eruera remarked, ‘Knowledge is a blessing on your mind. Its helps your footsteps to find the right pathways for the people.’ His thinking was expansive and inclusive, fascinated by the ancestral past while deeply engaged with current debates and possible futures. He was a mentor to Ngā Tamatoa, among others, a generation of University-trained young Māori leaders who fought for te reo, and the return of Māori land. He and Amiria marched on the Land March, visited the occupation at Bastion Point and sat on the golf course at Raglan.

Eruera Stirling

Eruera’s world was framed by whakapapa, lines of descent tracing from a first surge of energy in the cosmos to thought, memory and desire, the earth and sky, the sun, moon and stars, the sea, winds, forests, crops and people, life forms linked together in a vast, all-embracing kin network. As we travelled from marae to marae, he’d recite ancestral karakia and waiata, trace whakapapa links, tell stories of ancestral battles and marriages to inform current debates and alliances, and help to shape decisions about the future.

At the same time, when He Taua took place, a clash between Māori students and engineering students at Auckland who’d been performing mock haka, Eruera gave evidence in He Taua’s defence, explaining the tapu that surrounded the haka and the depth of offence caused by the engineering students’ drunken antics. Wānānga and mātauranga are about the future as well as the past, protecting the mana of ancestors as well as future generations.

Towards the end of our time together, just after Eruera was published, I spent a year at King’s College at the University of Cambridge. Some of the great scholars I met there reminded me of Eruera, with his love of learning, his philosophical habit of mind and astute insights into past and current events. Cambridge itself, with its ancestral legacies of learning, arcane ceremonies, senior fellows, fine college buildings and carved interiors decorated with the portraits of former Masters, often reminded me of marae.

Its no accident, then, that for many years now, universities in New Zealand have been known as ‘whare wānanga’ in Māori It’s a bow towards equivalence between ancient European and Pasifika institutions of learning, dedicated to passing on ancestral knowledge while carrying out new inquiry and transmitting the findings to future generations. The question is, how far is this gesture of respect rhetorical, and how far is it real?

At the University of Auckland, this question came to a head in the early 1980s, when Māori staff and students, supported by non-Māori colleagues, fought for a University marae. Early reactions were dismissive, with many academics seeing no benefit in such an institution on campus. Māori Studies staff and their supporters fought the issue through Faculty and Senate meetings, Dr. Patu Hohepa reminding his colleagues that Auckland University College was established with an endowment of confiscated Māori lands, and Wharetoroa Kerr chanting the karakia used to free the Tainui canoe as it was hauled across the Tāmaki isthmus, asking them to support the marae.

Finally, when Māori students occupied the steps of the Vice-Chancellor’s building, the Vice Chancellor, Dr Colin Maiden, met them and promised that the University marae would be built. He kept his word, and Waipapa marae was established with Tāne-nui-a-Rangi meeting house at its heart, and Māori Studies behind it. The elders who designed the whare whakairo decided that its carvings should tell the story of the emergence of the cosmos; of Papa-tuānuku and Ranginui, earth and sky; and the waka that carried their ancestors across the Pacific to Aotearoa. They named it after Tāne-nui-a-Rangi, the ancestor who first brought knowledge to human beings in the world of light.

For Māori and other staff and students engaged in this struggle, it arose from the interlock between power and knowledge in Aotearoa’s colonial history. For two centuries, mātauranga and wānanga, ancestral forms of knowledge, had been dismissed as benighted and defective, imperfect understandings based on superstition, almost always by those with very little if any knowledge of them. This is pure prejudice, based on pre-judgment. When scholars engage in this kind of dismissal, they betray their own deepest values, which demand that judgment is preceded by rigorous, in-depth inquiry.

Since that time, as marae at different universities in New Zealand were established, with high calibre programmes of research and teaching in te reo, mātauranga and wānanga, these and other initiatives such as Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Centre of Research Excellence and Vision Mātauranga policies in research funding have led to world-leading innovations across many scholarly disciplines In Aotearoa.

In law, medicine, engineering, architecture, the natural sciences as well as the social sciences and humanities, projects that link whakapapa with ideas about complex systems, transcending ancient European dichotomies between mind and matter, culture and nature, people and the environment have proved illuminating. Scholars including Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Professor Jacinta Ruru, Dr. Rangi Matāmua, Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Dr. Dan Hikuroa, Professor Tracey McIntosh and Professor Margaret Mutu, among many others, have gained global reputations for their work across a range of fields.

These experiments are leading to innovative policies, as well – the world-leading Urewera and Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River) Acts, which give legal recognition to land and rivers as living beings with their own rights; the reference to ‘te mana o te taiao’ in the draft replacement for the Resource Management Act, shifting the emphasis away from resources to be managed and exploited, towards thriving communities of plants, animals and people; the ‘Tiaki Promise’ in tourism, which emphasises the need for visitors to take care of our islands; even the emphasis on ‘Wellbeing’ in New Zealand’s budgetary processes, which echoes the idea of ‘Ora’ (health, prosperity, wellbeing) in which human beings are entangled in wider living systems, and our fates are intertwined.

Through these and myriad other innovative moves, Māori ideas are working together with those from the arts, humanities and cutting edge science to open up new possibilities for thinking about the future. This requires a secure, rigorous foundation for te reo, mātauranga and wānanga, however, in scholarly institutions in which such exchanges are actively fostered.

This in turn demands proper funding, and institutional decision-making that understands, respects and supports the distinctive qualities of these kinds of knowledge. As I understand it, this is the challenge that lies at the heart of current controversies at the University of Waikato, where former gains have been reversed, leading to a crisis of confidence among Māori scholars and students in their institution and its leadership.

In a planet stricken by climate change, collapsing ecosystems and the extinction of one species after another, our species Homo Sapiens, ravaged by a global pandemic, desperately needs new ways of thinking about how we engage with other life forms.

Some of our finest thinkers in Aotearoa see innovative possibilities in working with relational framings from wānanga, with ideas about symbiosis and complex networks, for instance. These are pathways that should be opened up, and not shut down by prejudgment. Universities are there to serve their communities and the wider world, and to explore new ways of thinking. Managerial approaches that reinforce inequality, embed privilege and stifle innovation are non-adaptive, and need to be transformed.

The current review of the treatment of te reo, mātauranga and wānanga, and of some very fine Māori scholars at the University of Waikato is a fine opportunity to tackle these fundamental questions, through deep thought and rigorous inquiry. I know that Māori thinkers across the country are contributing their hopes and ideas to the review, and hope that it does them justice. After 180 years of colonial arrogance and 40 years of neo-liberal ideologies that have entrenched inequality and devastated communities, institutions and landscapes across Aotearoa, the time has come to reconsider how universities are run and for whom, explore new directions for the scholarly project in New Zealand and the wider world, and find good pathways to the future.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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