Does the teaching of indigenous knowledge need to be examined?

New Zealand’s embrace of Māori vocabulary goes hand-in-hand with the incorporation of Māori understandings into curricula. But is a debate about the unintended consequences of this move being stifled by fear of speaking out? John Ross reports

November 11, 2021
Maori painting on fence, Rotorua to illustrate Does the teachi ng of indigenous   knowledge need   to be examined?
Source: Getty

The University of Auckland’s adoption of a new Māori name in July was the latest instalment in a reconciliation process that has been unfolding across New Zealand for half a century. 

The old moniker Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau was a literal translation of the university’s English title. The replacement, Waipapa Taumata Rau, combines the name of the nearby shoreline with terms referring to “a hundred” or “myriad” “summits” – invoking a sense of challenge, achievement and revelation.

The university’s ihonuku, or pro vice-chancellor Māori, Te Kawehau Hoskins, said at the time that the new name better connects the institution with its location and highlights its partnership with the Ngāti Whātua iwi (confederation of tribes). 

“The University of Auckland is serious about its developing relationship with mana whenua [territorial rights] and that must be demonstrated in our identity and carried through to our actions,” she said. “This new name…champions building respect for Māori knowledge and challenges us to understand that we are part of a whakapapa [genealogy] of historic and current relationships.” 

A man sits next to a Maori language sign

This represents a big turnaround from much of the 19th and 20th centuries, when te reo (“the language”) was suppressed in schools and children could be caned for using it. Te reo served as a common form of communication between Māori and the Western traders who began frequenting New Zealand in the 1790s. 

That changed from the 1860s, when Pākehā (European New Zealanders) began to outnumber Māori. By the post-war period, when many rural Māori moved to the cities, te reo was in serious decline. But a 1970s move to reassert Māori identity helped stem the tide. Pre-schools that immersed Māori children in te reo emerged in the early 1980s, followed by Māori-language primary schools. Māori became an official New Zealand language in 1987. 

These advances, while arresting te reo’s decline, did not generate the critical mass needed to ensure its future. Efforts to galvanise the language, however, have gained pace under Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government.  

The Ministry of Māori Development’s latest language development strategy sets goals for at least 1 million New Zealanders to be capable of holding basic conversations in te reo by 2040, and for 150,000, or 19 per cent of the adult Māori population, to use the language as much as they use English – up from 15 per cent or so now. All public service departments were required to develop Māori language plans by June this year.

The country’s eight universities have also outlined aspirations to help nurture te reo, usually as part of broader Māori development strategies. Auckland’s plan for the revitalisation of Māori language trumps the national strategy with its target of 50 per cent of staff having basic competency by 2040. All staff will have undertaken professional development in te reo by 2024 and all degrees will contain te reo courses by 2025.

“While our people shouldn’t stress about not being fluent in te reo Māori, they should be open-minded to learning it and to Māori ways of thinking,” Hoskins said in a press release celebrating Māori language week in September. “That’s being able to listen to people speaking in Māori and getting the gist because they have familiarity, and maybe have some basic short conversations, do a short mihi [greeting or acknowledgement speech], and be able to self-identify. It’s also an understanding of concepts, like manaakitanga (enhancing the mana [prestige or authority] of others).” 

Plenty of Kiwis already possess such skills. Brett Berquist, Auckland’s US-born international director and a linguist by training, says many New Zealanders habitually use perhaps 100 Māori words in their everyday communication: “This has become a mainstream part of how we talk.”  

Auckland’s efforts to make te reo even more mainstream include a free app called Te Kūaha (the doorway), launched in 2020. It helps users learn basic words and expressions, with syllable-by-syllable pronunciation guides and information on cultural protocols, songs, tribal groupings, local geography and more.

Meanwhile, language specialists at Auckland are developing a glossary of Māori terms for common modern phrases, such as job titles, building names and internet search vocabulary. All section headings on the university’s website are now bilingual, and many positions – from vice-chancellor to manager, coordinator, adviser and analyst – have been appended or replaced by Māori names. 

Kaiarataki (deputy pro vice-chancellor Māori) Michael Steedman says some 1,000 te reo terms have been coined by Auckland in a “relational translation” exercise led by members of the local Māori community, guided by language planning theory and Celtic language revitalisation experiences in Wales and Scotland.  

Staff tend to include their Māori job titles in their email signatures, while personalised Zoom wallpapers carry indicators of their te reo proficiency. These “simple” things help build familiarity, Steedman says. “You’ve got to use the language rather than do a one-hour professional development programme and just leave it there.”  

Members of a Maori cultural group perform

Language can help facilitate a deeper connection with Māori customs, stories and significant landscape features, he adds. “The more we use it, the better that connection becomes.”  

Auckland University Press produces many books on Māori culture and history, as well as Māori translations of global bestsellers. And universities nurture and promote cultural consciousness through myriad activities stretching well beyond language revitalisation.

Each university in the North Island has its own marae (meeting ground), serving as a family, cultural and spiritual centre and a hub for student services. It is often a focal point for teaching and research and a venue for traditional ceremonies – for example, to induct new staff or to commemorate the bestowal of Auckland’s new Māori name. Such ceremonies can last hours, dwarfing “welcome to country” observances in Australia. Many university meetings also begin with karakia – incantations, intentions, prayers or blessings used to encourage productive outcomes.  

Universities and other institutions provide free community courses in te reo. “They’re full!” Hoskins says. “People are flocking to them. Sometimes Māori can’t even get into them because they’re full of non-Māori – which is a good problem to have, in a way. Like anything indigenous, it can be a political football. So if the broader community thinks positively about the Māori language, that in a sense gives agencies and the state permission to ramp up their support.” 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joins the the crew on the Te Whanau Moana waka

For all the progress and ambition, there is clearly still a long way to go. “My [first] name is mispronounced every day, and I’m a senior leader of the University of Auckland,” Hoskins observes. “We [Māori] would all say, ‘focus first on your pronunciation!’” 

But if Māori are bemused at native English speakers’ tussles with te reo, people overseas are grappling with the increasing presence of te reo terms in New Zealanders’ everyday English. Hoskins acknowledges that this can generate “translation difficulties” in offshore communication, but says it is not a big problem. “When I write an article, I use Māori language, but I’m well aware of the readership, so I make efforts to provide in-text guidance.  

“Dominant-culture people think that everything should be so readily available and transparent to them – that we should have access to all knowledge and all things at all times,” she adds. “I don’t go with that.” 

Academics say the chance to learn about Māori culture, including language, is one of the drawcards that entices foreign students to New Zealand universities. But some counsel against incorporating te reo in “outward-facing” documents intended for overseas audiences, such as foreign students and researchers who have no familiarity with the language. 

An academic who prefers not to be named adds that New Zealand’s remoteness encourages an “insularity” that sometimes overlooks the need to make itself understood elsewhere: “New Zealand academia is often just used to talking to itself. Sometimes other countries aren’t really that keen to engage with us anyway. It’s a perception going both ways.” 

Auckland’s English-born vice-chancellor, Dawn Freshwater, says New Zealand needs to consider the possible effects of replacing English words and names with indigenous ones. “It’s a way of expressing what is unique about us, a point of difference, but it potentially creates isolation if it does not facilitate inclusion,” she says.

But it can be difficult to discuss such things. A professor at one university, who also asked not to be named, says he has unsuccessfully raised objections to a mention of Te Tiriti (Treaty of Waitangi) without translation in a document intended for both domestic and international audiences. When he persisted, his colleague replied: “I will not engage in a racist debate with you.”

Sociologist Elizabeth Rata, a professor in Auckland’s School of Critical Studies in Education, says the “burst of inclusion” of Māori words in New Zealand English has accelerated over the past three years and would be a worthy topic of research. “English can accommodate considerable change. It would be interesting to know at what point you create a new form of English that’s difficult for others to understand,” she says. “But no one dares to talk about it...You’re either pro or anti Māori, pro or anti Māori language, racist or not racist. That stops people saying, ‘Something’s happening to New Zealand English; let’s have a robust discussion about it.’” 

Rata has courted controversy since the early 2000s, when her criticism of immersive te reo education – among other aspects of the culture-based curriculum – saw her castigated for supporting an “imperialist form of philosophical universalism”, in which “racism” is “disguised as public debate”. 

“For children who are in the total-immersion Māori schools, some are not getting the academic English that they require,” she says. “Some are, but not all. We should be able to talk about things like that without being accused of being anti-Māori or racist.”

Hoskins says te reo was on the “brink of extinction” in her childhood. She learned it through a combination of Māori immersion events, university education and participation in Māori language initiatives for her own children, such as kōhanga reo (Māori language preschools). “My parents didn’t speak Māori to me,” she says. “Māori have suffered intergenerational breaks in the transmission of the language in home and community life.” 

In that context, the release of Auckland’s te reo revitalisation plan was a “watershed moment”, Hoskins believes. “Language is an important entry into understanding things about the Māori world. Māori tend to teach te reo by embedding it within culture – Māori concepts, Māori cultural practices and the logic that underpins them – and that has transformative effects for New Zealand society. 

“Universities are producers of knowledge, so they’re important in many ways to the language, but also to our broader national project, which is to make good on the promises of the Treaty of Waitangi [the 1840 agreement between the UK and Māori chiefs]. So they have an important role in fostering appropriate engagement with and recognition of mātauranga Māori, or Māori knowledges. With those knowledges always comes the language.” 

But the incorporation of mātauranga Māori in school and university curricula is a particular bone of contention since it goes beyond merely applying Māori terms to familiar topics. The extent of that contention was laid bare in July, when Rata and six other Auckland professors and emeritus professors published a letter in popular current affairs periodical The New Zealand Listener.

The letter critiqued a Ministry of Education working document exploring how to introduce subjects that give mātauranga Māori equal status and parity with “other bodies of knowledge” in the senior secondary school certificate. The seven authors took issue with a proposal to introduce a history and philosophy course as a fourth alternative to electives broadly equating with physics, chemistry and biology. The new course would examine how science has been used to support “the dominance of Eurocentric views” and as “a rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge”. 

The letter says “science itself does not colonise”, although “it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art”. And science is not especially European, it adds, given its origins in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as the contributions from medieval Islam. 

“Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy,” the letter says. “However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself. To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations…Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.” 

The letter drew visceral responses from academics at Auckland and elsewhere. “[It] is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia,” one wrote. And an Auckland ecologist asked how her department could now be considered a “safe place” for Māori students and scholars. “Rather than this letter and the associated ‘debate’ progressing us forward as a society, it enables white supremacy,” she wrote.  

New Zealand’s national academy for science and the humanities, Royal Society Te Apārangi, denounced the “harm” caused by the “misguided view” of the authors and rejected their suggestion that “mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth”. Asked by Times Higher Education how it had formed this interpretation of a letter co-authored by three of its own members, it declined to comment.  

The letter’s seven authors included Garth Cooper, an Auckland biochemistry and medicine professor who has Māori grandparents and who, although he does not speak te reo (“My grandmother thought my brother and I should learn English,” he explains), knows “quite a lot” of words in the language.

Cooper has worked with Māori patients and communities for years, and, as a longstanding member of the Māori Committee of the Health Research Council of New Zealand, contributed to early drafts of the society’s guidelines on research involving Māori. He has also developed tutorials to help overcome the educational disadvantage faced by many Māori and Pacific Islander medical students. And his research focuses on diabetes – a condition experienced disproportionately by Polynesians. He stresses the importance of a “factual basis” in the practice and teaching of medicine.  

“Excellence in the knowledge and understanding of medicine is very important to me, as it is to science,” he says. “Accessibility is really important as well, so that people have access to optimal care wherever they live. The main reason I signed that letter is because I was concerned [that teaching] Māori kids about the colonising effects of science [would] lead to loss of opportunity.” 

Cooper credits fellow Māori Ross Ihaka, an Auckland mathematician who co-created the R open-source programming language, for “the most important thing that’s come out of New Zealand in the last 100 years. I think of young Māori scholars that would be the next Ross Ihaka basically missing out because they were told that science was a colonising influence of no interest to them.” 

Auckland physics professor Shaun Hendy, a Pākehā, has a different view. He says the colonisation of New Zealand was “very much entwined with science”. “Violent encounters” began from the moment that James Cook’s crew became the first Europeans to set foot on New Zealand soil during a voyage to observe the transit of Venus.

Hendy says this history must be acknowledged. “Allowing kids to interrogate it” will do much more to alleviate the implicit Māori mistrust of science than “sweeping things under the carpet. If scientists aren’t addressing that, why would you trust them?” 

A response to the Listener letter, initiated by Hendy, has attracted more than 2,000 signatures from academics, students and alumni from all over New Zealand and as far afield as Canada, Chile and Denmark. “Science has long excluded indigenous peoples from participation, preferring them as subjects for study and exploitation,” the letter says. “Indigenous ways of knowing, including mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with ‘Western’ understandings of the scientific method. [Mātauranga] offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.” 

Hendy is principal scientist with Te Pūnaha Matatini, a complex systems research centre that claimed the 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize for helping steer New Zealand’s globally admired policy response to Covid-19. He credits the centre’s early success partly to an indigenous board member who disabused researchers of their initial assumption that Māori, as a young population, would not be particularly susceptible to the virus.

“He drew on his oral history of the 1918 pandemic,” Hendy says. “He knew that Māori suffered disproportionately in that pandemic compared to Pākehā. He was quite insistent.” 

The outcry over the letter in The Listener echoes global arguments about the decolonisation of university curricula. But, according to Freshwater, Auckland’s vice-chancellor, the heat in such debates often obscures the light, prompting many people to opt out entirely.

“Nobody is wrong here,” she says. “Why would we want to make people wrong for engaging in debate and dialogue? I didn’t want to close this down. I wanted to open it up. This is a great opportunity to have a thoughtful, respectful dialogue that places universities at the heart of contentious ideas that can be examined using critical analysis, evidence and debate – these being essential to the process of advancing knowledge."

Freshwater worries that people do not feel safe to speak out, within or outside academia, anywhere in the world. "Reactive emotions rather than passion lead. Everything gets inflamed and exacerbated. I don’t think it’s helpful to have everybody modifying their behaviour because they might be attacked on social media and people might threaten them.”

For Auckland fish ecologist Kendall Clements, co-authoring the letter in The Listener may have taken a professional toll. Within 12 days of the letter’s publication, Clements was removed from two collaboratively taught ecology and evolution courses that he had helped deliver for years. And while an email criticising the authors was distributed to staff and graduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, Cooper’s attempt to respond through the same channel was blocked. 

The university says the school email distribution list was “not the appropriate medium” for this type of debate, so its moderators were told not to allow further emails on the topic. And Clements’ teaching duties were changed to balance his workload after another academic’s departure, “and to ensure that the best teaching teams were in place to deliver all courses. The Listener letter was a catalyst for actioning this, but not for the decision.” 

Clements says many academics have privately thanked him for voicing concerns that they share but are afraid to express. He says he supports the inclusion of mātauranga Māori elements when they can clearly add value – in subjects on overfishing or tree preservation, for example – but questions their relevance to things like DNA replication.  

He says Pākehā academics who raise such questions are told to mind their own business. “I am far from alone in having concerns about this. It’s not just the lack of collegiality; it is the assumption that only Māori get to have an opinion on what gets taught and how. Anything taught in a science paper should be open to challenge by anyone.”  

Rata says that even a year ago, she thought universities were largely immune to such issues. “Now there is a move to insert indigenous Māori knowledge throughout the university curriculum and throughout broad university practices. The problem is, we can’t actually talk about it.” 

Hendy, though, says Pākehā academics need to think about “relationship building” and how they work with Māori communities. “There are ways of doing it respectfully, and there are ways of doing it disrespectfully. I think the controversy is partly generational. Younger New Zealanders are very comfortable with the direction of the country.” 

Hoskins says she has experienced controversies like this before and tries “not to give too much oxygen” to opponents of including mātauranga Māori in curricula. 

“There’s a wave of interest and positivity, and it’s much more bedded down among the younger generations of not just Māori, but non-Māori,” she says. “I think we’ve seen a sea change. But when the wave comes in, the wave goes back. It’s just a complicated dance.” 

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Reader's comments (3)

Also worth noting that the existence of the 'modern university' is a form of cultural hegemony. The 'university' originated in the Middle East / Mediterranean area as a particular form of pedagogy very different from, say, what a Chinese, sub-Saharan African or Amerindian model might look like. Now we have the 'modern university', that is, one driven by finance and economics rather than by blue skies research, and that is founded even more narrowly on an Anglo-Saxon model of capiitalism. Had the Aztecs conquered Europe, rather than the other way around, or had the Chinese persisted with the voyages of Zheng He and colonised the Americas, what then might European or North American universities look like?
The irony is that the Maori themselves colonised NZ and committed genocide against the original inhabitants, exterminated all land mammals and destroyed a third of its forest land. And as for the Chinese, they teach science the same way it has been taught in the west and many developed societies: math, physics, chemistry, biology etc. That has led to an astounding transformation of the country in the past 40 years. Let’s hope those condemning “science” can appreciate the enormous benefits it has brought them. I doubt too many would return to indigenous lifestyles, which were often short and brutal.
It is a shame that New Zealand seems to want to isolate itself from the global community. Universities are about the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. That becomes much more difficult if they start to speak in a language that few people outside a particular culture know (or are interested in). Like it or not, English is the main medium of communication across the world and it is likely to remain so, at least for the time being.