How te Ao Māori, indigenous values, and wisdom will save our Ao

In the face of adversity, with chronic climate and ecological disintegration happening before our eyes, what does the longevity of our whānau, hapū and Iwi look like several generations ahead of us today?

Māori hold a strong sense of responsibility and obligation to the perpetuation of whakapapa, guided by principles and values of how our actions will affect the wellbeing of our future generations. But what is the percentage of Māori that are forward thinkers? Are visionaries? How many Māori live by our traditional systems and values and understand the importance of our interconnectedness and interdependence on our natural environment, also known as our ancestors? 

Our affinity towards nature is genetic and deep rooted in evolution. We are not separate, we are not at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. Geology describes the science of the earth which is akin to the genesis stories of our tīpuna Māori. Both represent world-view perspectives that stem from ancient observations of climatic and atmospheric changes to the earth terrains.

80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found on Indigenous territories. Indigenous languages, skills, and techniques provide valuable information to the global community and serve as a useful model for solutions to contemporary issues.

Faced with a chronic environmental threat, are we compromising our survival by sacrificing our obligation to our environmental relations? This think piece will explore the rationale of why it is more paramount than ever before to grow and bring awareness of how Māori and Indigenous knowledge systems can save our āo. We will dive into common conceptual values, their meaning, their role and where we are going wrong to uphold these values.


For Māori wairua (spirituality) has always been acknowledged as a marker for health and wellbeing.

‘Wairua’ is typically used by Māori in reference to the spiritual dimension of our human existence. Etymologically, wairua is composed of two separate words – wai meaning water and rua meaning two.

There are various interpretations to this meaning. Tuhoe elder, Koro Jimmy Rahi, once explained wairua as the combination of bodily fluids that make up whakapapa. 

Wairua for many, post colonisation has been used in reference to Religion, for māori, wairuatanga is informed through karakia that bound the divine to human relations.  

Wairua can also be paraphrased as an element or energy connected to Mauri. Mauri, the vital life force, an energy that causes wairua, hinengaro and tinana to enter into a relationship that inspires actions to create a desired outcome, namely mana.  

“Mauri took up the role of combining the spiritual, intellectual and physical potentials of the collective to produce a state of mana that could be observed, detected, and/or expressed by the environment, the people and their leadership.” (Te Ao Hou – New origins, old concepts) 

Dr Ihirangi Heke once explained how access to wairua pathways has been seen as the most difficult to connect to. Wairua is seen to be the richness, the depth and complexity of human and environmental health and behaviour. Wairua is described as your connection, you transgress to Hinengaro that drives the brain and then Tinana, the application where your body will believe what you tell it too, using a ratio of 50% Wairua, 30% Hinengaro and 20% Tinana. This is a representation of what whakapapa has invited you to be.

The indigenous communities in North America encompass a multidimensional nature of culturally rooted spirituality. This includes knowledge, emotion, decision, self efficacy, family and social relationships, rituals and language 

Colonisation is well known as the underlying ingredient influencing the injustices that result in the inequitable health of biodiversity and Indigenous people. These are experienced intragenerational and intergenerational. Dispossessed from the lands that we belong to,

 has resulted in indigenous culture, practices, values and principles across the globe to be displaced and marginalised.

Surrounded by a marketing strategy that we are never content with. We are filled with so many objects that fulfil us with a desire to have. The more we get, the more we want.

Human nature can be seen as content, compassionate but also egocentric and inattentive, we grant, we stockpile, we create and we also destroy. 

Wairua is an intuitive way of being, however there is an absence of this sacred energy where we often compromise our indigenous life support systems in place for human centric values, wants and needs at the expense of our environmental relations. If we were to use the ratio example Dr Ihirangi Heke explained above, we are likely working at a 5% wairua, 20% Hinengaro and 75 % Tinana. Our astute intelligence, our highly evolved and advanced consciousness that once took us so far, now works against us.

We are obsessed with plastic bags. We believe we’re doing the world a favour by buying tote bags instead, though, on one estimate, the environmental impact of producing an organic cotton tote bag is equivalent to that of 20,000 plastic ones.

Wairua informs us that we are the cause, not the victims, that we must respond to the tohu (signs) accordingly, change our behaviour patterns, tap into a higher level of emotional intelligence and drastically alter our relationship with the Natural World as the new ancestors for tomorrow.

Whanaungatanga – Kinship

Whanaungatanga are kinship systems which encompass sophisticated relations to the human and non human relations.

I remember attending the Te Ritorito Conference hosted by Te Puni Kōkiri and Superu at Pipitea Marae in 2017. Justice Joe Williams (Ngāti Pukenga, Te Arawa), High Court Judge and former Chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal, delivered a strong presentation based around Kupe Lore (Pre 1840). A system of values and principles for the organisation and administration of kin communities.

He further explained how social status was defined by whanaungatanga relationships and the obligation to those around you. Whanaungatanga, as a principle, is our knowledge of whakapapa/genealogy as a lore to honour both our past and present. Our rights depended on our ability to remember our whakapapa and our obligation to exhibit and encapsulate all relationships to our Taiao as kinship rather than that of a property. We introduce ourselves as a river, as a maunga, that allows us to show what position we are in of the whole hierarchy.

“The physical and non-physical world was explained, rationalised, realised and rendered tangible by the lore of Whanaungatanga. This is what makes us Māori.” (Justice Joe Williams) Te Ritorito Conference, Pipitea Marae 2017

Whanaungatanga and indigenous interpretations of kinship such as the Australian Aboriginal people, describe their relationship as a cultural and holistic kinship to the land that underpins wellbeing. The human connection to whenua/land, health and wellbeing are all woven together and are interdependent. 

When materialistic values become the overriding concern, mauri ora and a conscious well-being, cannot flourish. Kasser’s extensive research revealed that the pursuit of wealth and possessions might be undermining well-being. 

Māori and other indigenous cultures around the world make the ideal custodians to the whenua (land) and ecosystems in which we highly rely on. However our huge dependency on materialistic things, wants and needs removes our ability to rationalise how we express whanaungatanga in an authentic way, in tune with our environment.

If we were to describe whanaungatanga and our relationship as part of an ecosystem that contributes to the wellness of the collective,we are far and beyond playing this role effectively. 

Media have a huge effect on what people will believe and what people know to be the truth. Furthermore people would prefer to listen to the update of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard saga, than climate impacts. 

Let us not forget the social war that created and severely damaged peoples’ relationships with each other over COVID, the mandates for people to wear masks, compulsory vaccination and vaccination passes. Ego can often contribute to the source of a suffering collective. How we react to the pressure of media narratives can severely affect our ability to uphold whanaungatanga effectively.

If we were to treat our environment as ‘family’ through showing a ‘connection’, we would see far less destruction. Having a deep understanding of whakapapa can enable us to explore the depths of our behaviour and origins. Transcending the ego for the wellbeing of the wider collective. Be Bold and Brave, be the disruptor and agitator and find ways to resist and challenge colonial institutions and ideologies. If we reacted the same way we do with trivial matters towards climate change, imagine the beautiful uproar this could create.

Create your own action plan of how you can effectively express whanaungatanga and perpetuate whakapapa to your community, hapū, iwi and environment that reduces ourselves from capitalism.

Kaitiakitanga – Guardianship

Kaitiakitanga is expressed as an exercise of obligation. A guardianship to fulfil responsibility and maintain the inherent balance of our natural world. To protect, care and ensure wise management and conduct of matters pertaining to those areas. The role of humankind sits in the space of teina (younger kin) to care, protect and keep safe the bounty of the tuakana (Elder kin – Natural world).

As Aboriginal people, they are born from the land, they come from the land, they return to the land, their spirit is in the land. The land is alive, its spirit is alive. Like Māori, they don’t see a distinction between those things that are living and those things that are geographical features. They all have a spiritual representation and a role. Their existence as Aboriginal people is very much dependent upon them being able to manage a caretaker role.

Through Māori whakapapa, the domain of Tangaroa (Atua/Environmental deity) is controlled by Tangaroa. This varies depending on what tribe you are from. The ocean is a food basket of the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, as such practices and elements that desecrate the mauri and mana of the ocean are seen as repugnant. Discharge of pollutants is one, overfishing at a rate that is slowly depleting marine species is another.

We are rightly horrified by the image of a seahorse with its tail wrapped around a cotton bud, but apparently unconcerned about the elimination of entire marine ecosystems by the fishing industry. We tut and shake our heads, and keep eating our way through the life of the sea. 

In the pursuit of wealth and possessions we are undermining our wellbeing and compromising our innate responsibilities and obligations as Kaitiaki. Many of us fail to make a noise because the variety of natural environments is a critical component, but we don’t know enough about those places anymore. They sit in isolation, in the lonely struggle to maintain and regulate itself.

The unions of our Atua Māori birthed species that formed communities and ecosystems that fill our forests and waterways. Their acts give origin and explanation to the creation of a natural world in which set the precedence of how we conduct ourselves in the conservation and sustainability of an environment that houses humankind.

How we practise kaitiakitanga requires building the capacity of organisations and communities to have a greater environmental awareness and more importantly active engagement to these environments. 

We can practise Kaitiakitanga by 1) changing our own behaviour, commit to active learning in environmental wellbeing, establish critical thinking wānanga in your community to highlight and grow critical consciousness that’s inclusive of impending threats to our natural resources by human behaviour and 2) through observations, for example using Dr Ihirangi’s Atua Matua Framework, we can simply look at what the environment is telling us, therefore dictates how we conduct ourselves. For example, moving from mātauranga the presence of knowledge, mōhiotanga – the collision between knowledge and the māori community/hapū/iwi and māramatanga, the awareness of how that can be applied.

Many of us in the Health sector play an expressive role of kaitiakitanga for humankind. Have we ever considered putting environmental knowledge before assessing the health status of a collective? Changing our approach enables a reciprocal effect that ensures the wellbeing of the entire collective that further reminds us of our obligation to the interdependent nature of the world.

What is your pepeha? Is your pepeha well? Prove it!

Te Reo Māori 

Kia tīkina e hau te kōrero hei tāhū whakaaro i konei “Ko te reo te matapihi ki te ao Māori”. I konei kapi ai te whānuitanga, te hōhonutanga o te reo Māori, ki te iwi Māori. Kua kīia pea ko ōnā heke, ōna maihi, ōna pou te mātauranga Māori, arā, ko tētahi heke, ko te tātai arorangi, ko tētahi, ko te rongoā, ko tētahi, ko te karakia, ko tētahi ko te whakapapa, te aha, te aha, koia tēnei, ko te ao Māori.  I ēnei whatinga huhua o te ao/mātauranga Māori, kotahi te ōritenga, ko te reo. Ā tēnā, kia whakatauirahia i konei tāku e kōrero nei e mārama ake ai tātou ki ngā kōrero i huaina i mua tata nei;

“The term mātauranga Māori literally means Māori knowledge and is closely aligned to the period of pre-European contact as it encompasses traditional concepts of knowledge and knowing that Māori ancestors brought with them to Aotearoa/New Zealand.  The survival of the Māori language is a cultural and historical marker linking us back to this period and demonstrates a continuum from pre-contact to the present day.  Post first-contact, mātauranga Māori evolved in important and significant ways as the ancestors encountered new environments and contexts such as flora and fauna, climate and geography and in terms of the need to respond to new technology, languages and cultures they had not known or experienced before.” 

This statement highlights the fact that the breadth of Mātauranga Māori cannot be understood without the Māori language. Command of the Māori language in the previous paragraph allowed the articulation of thoughts from a Māori perspective, despite the complexity of Mātauranga Māori. The entirety of what could be translated as Māori knowledge has a commonality, being the Māori language. Hence the well-known detrimental effects of colonisation that resulted in the absence of the language, and in turn, the underpinnings of the culture itself. Considering that pre-colonial encounter, the Māori language in its purity was the means of accessing Māori philosophies, perspectives, values, customs, traditions, the implications of colonisation to the Māori people are evident, hence the disconnection of relationship between Māori and our knowledge system in today’s society. Zuckermann (2014) parallels this view in stating that “When a language is lost, even though the ownership (rather than usership) still exists, the language is gone, together with cultural autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, ideas, values, and experiences.” (p. 186).

We live in a universe where all things are relative and occur whilst having an impact on something else. This concept is consistent amongst many Indigenous cultures, demonstrating that there is nothing in isolation, that all matters are in relation to one another, tapu and noa, te pō and te ao, whaikōrero and karanga, creating balance, all in which can only be completely understood through the Māori language. Consequently, the question is then posed, how is the well-being of a person from a Māori perspective maintained in the absence of your own knowledge system? It can be said that failing to understand the philosophies and worldviews at its depths through the Māori language can create restrictions in the relationship between people and environment. 

Colonisation and later, urbanisation were key factors that lead to the demise of Mātauranga Māori, however, fortunately, there was still a minority who believed in the importance of this taonga, despite unpopular belief at the time. This lead to the Kōhanga Reo initiative, and later, Kura Kaupapa Māori and Wharekura establishment, being full-immersion schools who incorporated Māori knowledge systems in its delivery. The benefits of brave actions that were made by the visionaries who fought for this kaupapa are now coming to fruition as waves of graduates from these initiatives are now populating areas that can influence change.

From a cultural perspective, Indigenous language recovery is another essential component to the decolonization project. Because the vast majority of Indigenous languages are in a state of crisis, unless drastic and immediate steps are taken to recover those languages, many of them will be lost. Since languages are the key to worldview and the embodiment of Indigenous cultures, their loss would threaten all that makes Indigenous societies culturally distinct. In her chapter, “Defying Colonisation Through Language Survival,”

There is another way for our people to exist, a way that draws on the best of our innate knowledge systems and through courageous acts of resistance, paves the way to our liberation. Examples of this is threaded throughout our history, the establishment of Kīngitanga, Ngā Tama Toa, Dame Naida and the ‘Kia Ora’ issue, to more recent events including Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, and the importance of having Matariki as a Public Holiday.

Crystal Pekepo-Ratu

Crystal Pekepo-Ratu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Vara) is the Kaiārahi- Design, innovation, research lead for Toi Tangata.