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Māori ways of knowing and monitoring the freshwater environment

Te ao Māori (the Māori world view) acknowledges the interconnectedness of all living things, their dependence on each other, and the links between the life-supporting capacity of healthy ecosystems and people’s well-being (Harmsworth & Awatere, 2013). Mātauranga Māori (Māori systems of knowledge) have developed over hundreds of years since Polynesian settlement and are intricately interwoven with te reo Māori and whakapapa (ancestral lineage).

For Māori, the deep kinship between people and the natural world creates an obligation to care for the environment and maintain it for future generations. This obligation is expressed as kaitiakitanga – the cultural practice of guardianship and environmental management grounded in mātauranga Māori (Royal, 2015).

Māori cultural heath indicators can support environmental decision‑making

Māori communities are putting kaitiakitanga into practice around New Zealand to restore environmental health and reclaim their traditional knowledge (Royal, 2015). Some iwi and hapū/rūnanga (Māori tribes and sub-tribes) regularly monitor freshwater areas using cultural health indicators to show trends or changes in the health of these areas. Cultural health indicators support kaitiakitanga and the ways Māori use the environment, but they can also benefit all New Zealanders by providing a deeper understanding of the freshwater environment (see Kaitiakitanga of the Waikouaiti catchment).

We use information gathered by iwi and hapū to report on the cultural health index scores of some freshwater bodies. We also tell the story of how one iwi is using a traditional fishing method to monitor the abundance of kōura (freshwater crayfish) in Te Arawa Lakes.

We are committed to developing our programme to support Māori decision-making and well-being through increased reporting on freshwater cultural health indicators in future reports.

Kaitiakitanga of the Waikouaiti catchment

Kaitiakitanga is the custodianship role tangata whenua have over their freshwater environments. As kaitiaki (custodians) of the Waikouaiti river catchment in Otago, Kāti Huirapa ki Puketerakihave focused on measuring the factors that affect their ability to access mahika kai (Ngāi Tahu dialect for the term ‘mahinga kai’)from the river.

To assess the current state of the Waikouaiti river catchment, including important mahika kai sites, Kāti Huirapa ki Puketerakiused a combination of mātauranga Māori (Māori systems of knowledge) and other methods. Kaitiaki observations based on whakapapa and historical records describe the native biodiversity and the river’s ecosystem within the Waikouaiti catchment and how these have changed over time. Other methods rated four freshwater mahika kai sites in the Waikouaiti River based on habitat, invertebrates, and periphyton (algae). Results showed the overall health of two sites had a ‘moderate’ status, and two had ‘very poor’ status in 2015 (Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki, 2016). For the Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, the degradation of the river and their reduced ability to access mahika kai sites have a negative effect on the mauri (life force) of the river and the mana (prestige) of the hapū.

For more detail see Environmental indicators Te taiao AotearoaKaitiakitanga of the Waikouaiti catchment [Stats NZ].

Note: Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki is the hapū who hold tangata whenua status over the river catchment and is part of the Ngāi Tahu iwi. The hapū is one of 18 papatipa runanga that make up the Ngāi Tahu iwi. Each papatipa runanga is responsible for upholding the mana of the people and environment within their area (New Zealand Government, 1996).