Jun 30, 2021
Published on: Landfall
2 min read

Emma Espiner

Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface by Jacinta Ruru & Linda Waimarie Nikora (eds) (Otago University Press, 2021), 340pp., $60

Ngā Kete Mātauranga, a collection of stories from twenty-four leading Māori researchers, creates a virtual community for tauira, academics and whānau to experience whakawhanaungatanga with a constellation of scholars who speak to us in their own words. Edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, this repository of knowledge is the result of a partnership initiative between Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga and the Royal Society Te Apārangi and was published this year by the Otago University Press.

It is moving to encounter so many Māori researchers in one place. Indigenous scholars are thinly spread, often isolated in institutions with little support or recognition, and the contributors to this book relate their personal experience of this lonely reality. In the kōrero whakamutunga which closes the book, the editors remark: ‘We would confidently guess that most university departments today employ maybe one fully tenured Māori academic staff member at best.’ We know from the published work of researchers Tara McAllister, Sereana Naepi, Joanna Kidman, Reremoana Theodore and Olivia Rowley that Māori make up only five percent of academics in our universities.

This marginalisation is experienced in different ways. Some of the book’s contributors experienced it as students by seeking people who looked like them, and finding nothing. For some, the reality of our lives was questioned. Nēpia Mahuika says that at school, ‘I was taught that history was not about us. We were told that Māori histories were unreliable myths and fantasies, and that real New Zealand history was a narrative of Pākehā settlement and the making of the nation state.’ Even once acceptance into the academy is granted, exclusion persists—still. Speaking of last year’s winter lecture series 2020 at the University of Auckland, Marama Muru-Lanning says, ‘After I had completed my presentation the marine biologist professor facilitating the public talk stood up and said, “Thank you, Marama, that was interesting, and now we have a real scientist [Professor Gillian Lewis] to talk about New Zealand rivers.” However, when Gillian took the podium the first thing she said was, “Marama’s talk was real science.”’

In my field of medicine, I can see the attraction of a specialty like general practice that has a critical mass of Māori doctors already, a whānau you could join, rather than attempting the near-Sisyphean task of breaking into the specialties where there are none, or maybe one or two scattered around the motu. When you factor in a hostile academy, the achievements of the scholars included in this book are truly breathtaking. From physics to law, from psychology to anthropology, from geology to astronomy, political science, English and many more, the disciplines are disparate but are shown to be interconnected through the unifying force of Māori scholars intending to use the specialist tools of their respective fields to restore, discover and embed Indigenous knowledge for the benefit of all. It’s work that places them right at the edge of what’s possible. Jacinta Ruru, speaking of the often painful collision of Māori and Pākehā, says, ‘I wonder if we as a nation are forever on the intellectual precipice.’ This book shows what Māori scholars are creating in this fraught and contested space.

Each scholar profiled was tasked with discussing their approach to decolonising research within their field. The editors had the specific goal of using this project as an opportunity to show New Zealanders how mātauranga is positively influencing Western-dominated disciplines of knowledge. I’ve seen many ignorant people scorn mātauranga Māori, determined to perpetuate the colonial trope of a superstitious, primitive and backward culture with nothing to offer modern life. This collection of stories is an antidote to the blinkered view that there is no complementarity between mātauranga Māori and the Western scientific tradition.

Rangi Matamua eloquently dismantles this fallacy when he refers to the hard science that underpinned our voyaging ancestors’ ambition. ‘Often Māori knowledge is seen as myths and legends and not “proper science”. The truth is you do not navigate and criss-cross the Pacific Ocean, settling every single inhabitable island in the greatest expanse of water on the planet, using just myths and legends.’ Storytelling was essential to remembering the science, for passing the lessons through the generations. He could be speaking for all of the Indigenous scholars included in this book when he says, ‘Narrative is so important in connecting people to knowledge.’ Storytelling is innate in our culture, and our approach to decolonising research reflects this. For our Māori academics, dissemination of knowledge is not just about publishing in high-impact-factor journals or speaking at conferences attended by other academics, but about sharing knowledge in a way that connects directly with, and benefits the people. Meihana Durie speaks about the responsibility of those who draw from puna mātauranga: ‘As much as we take from it, we must also replenish it, by sharing new insights from our work, experiences and interactions.’

This book is one way that this knowledge is shared. You can read this text beginning to end, back to front, to weave in and out of stories that pique your interest, to find connections in whichever way suits you. I approached the book in the way that I approach everything; relationships first, then kaupapa. I looked for my relatives, my mates, the people I want to be my mentors one day. Then I looked for people in my discipline, adjacent disciplines and aspirational disciplines. It’s unsurprising that many of those included are names that we are familiar with through articles on pro-Indigenous media platforms like the digital magazine E-Tangata. Joanna Kidman, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Māmari Stephens, Tahu Kukutai, Dan Hikuroa, Meihana Durie and Suzanne Pitama are all familiar to me through the amplifying channel of Māori media. They are not so frequently called upon in other parts of the media. This book should be delivered to every mainstream newsroom in the country so they can see that there is at least one Māori expert who should be on speed dial to speak for every issue.

One of the most expansive forms of activism is to speak each other’s names in places where they might not be heard. I learned about Rose Pere, Irihapeti Ramsden and Camara Jones from Papaarangi Reid’s lectures at medical school. She would repeat them like a prayer, cementing the importance of these women and their ideas with each repetition. It’s a kind of magic that is available to all of us. Each of the participants in this project, Ngā Kete Mātauranga, does this too. Whether they call to their ancestors or mentors, there is a deep sense of gratitude and responsibility felt by each scholar. Equally, these are not gatekeepers jealously concealing knowledge; they are teachers who want to leave something better for our mokopuna. Alice Te Punga Somerville relates a quote from Epeli Hau`ofa that Teresia Teaiwa shared with her: ‘Our job is to make way for people who are better than us.’ Meihana Durie speaks of nurturing the next generation of learners to build on ancient knowledge: ‘Much of what remains is fragmentary, so creating the right environment to enable new mātauranga to emerge is essential.’

The most affirming moments of my medical degree came from events that were not compulsory in my training. They were events that connected me with other Indigenous scholars and students. This book is a similar form of connection for a time in our history when we cannot meet as easily in person. The Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors Congress 2016, in Tāmaki Makaurau, and the Indigenous Leaders in Medical Education conference in Ōtautahi at the end of 2019, stand out as the most nourishing and intellectually stimulating experiences in six years of training to be a doctor. Nadine Caron, a First Nations general surgeon from Canada, spoke in Ōtautahi. Reframing the axiom that Indigenous peoples have been researched to death, she said that she believes we can research ourselves back to life. It goes without saying that we should be the ones doing that research.

Endorsing Ngā Kete Mātauranga, Papaarangi Reid describes the authors as stars ‘whose experience, knowledge and wisdoms help us navigate our challenges and our celebrations as we journey through learning, healing, imagining, developing and self-determining the expanse of possible Māori futures’. Speaking of Patricia Hill Collins, Tahu Kukutai endorses: ‘her call to not only diagnose what is wrong but to try to prescribe an alternative vision through resistant knowledge projects’. Jacinta Ruru says, ‘Our book, Ngā Kete Mātauranga, is intended to be a book for the nation. Our gift to you.’

Joanna Kidman’s closing words read like an incantation: ‘These stories will outlive us.’

Tuhia ki te rangi

Tuhia ki te whenua

Tuhia ki te ngākau o ngā tāngata

Tihei mauri ora!

Write it in the sky

Write it in the land

Write it in the heart of the people

Behold there is life!

EMMA ESPINER (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) is a doctor at Middlemore Hospital. Emma hosts the RNZ podcast on Māori health equity, Getting Better, which won best podcast at the Voyager media awards in 2021. She won Voyager Opinion Writer of the Year in 2020. Emma’s writing has been published at The Spinoff, newsroom.co.nz, stuff.co.nz, the Guardian, and in academic and literary journals.Twitter: @emmawehipeihana