Dan Hikuroa (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

Dan Hikuroa is an earth systems scientist and senior lecturer in Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. Other hats include co-deputy director of public engagement for Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems, a principal investigator for Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, acting chair Ngā Kaihautū Tikanga Taiao — Statutory Māori Advisory to the Environmental Protection Authority Board and UNESCO Commissioner for Culture. His iwi affiliations are Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato Tainui and Ngāti Whanaunga. 

I met with Dan recently for a conversation about his work on earth and water. 

I have long thought that, when talking about Papatūānuku’s world, one should be close to that world, inviting it in to the kōrero, rather than theorising from a distance.

So we stepped out of the Māori Studies department in Wynyard Street, past Waipapa marae, where preparations for a kawe mate for scholar and leader Mānuka Henare were under way, down into the valley of Stanley Street, crossing the buried Waiparuru Stream, with the deafening roar of trucks heading to and from the port, then up into the quiet green enclave of Pukekawa, the Domain, where rimu, nikau and kawakawa offered a cool embrace. A spring-fed stream trickled beside our path, and the kōrero flowed.


Kennedy: Can I start by asking about te taiao? I’ve been thinking about that word, breaking it down in my mind into two words, tai and ao, the tides of the world, and wondering if that is a helpful way of thinking about its meaning. Seeing the earth in terms of processes, ebbs and flows, a ceaseless flux.

Dan: It’s all that, and more. There’s a modern framing of pūtaiao as science: pū, the taproot, the foundation, the base of taiao, the world, and how this captures the depth and breadth of science, because taiao is everything, seen and unseen. It’s that classic Māori thing: it’s literal, it’s metaphorical, it’s passive, it’s active.

Some years ago, I attended a wānanga for geography teachers at Waiwhatawhata marae, south of Hokianga Harbour. The late Huirangi Waikerepuru [an educator and a pioneering figure in the revival of te reo Māori] was one of the participants, sharing pūrākau and his understanding of their purpose. We were talking about geology and geography, and so, of course, taiao came up. 

Huirangi shared with us an amazing learning, that taiao can be conceptualised as tai moana, the water tides, tai rangi, the tides of the sky, tai whenua, the land’s own tidal processes, and tai tangata

I said: “Mātua, there’s a framing in science called earth systems, where they talk about the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, the biosphere — are these tai similar conceptions to that?” He agreed that that would be a fair analogy. For me, that was a neat point of connection between science and mātauranga.

The word taiao is relatively recent in my hearing. What about you? Have you known it since childhood?

In a word, no. I grew up Pākehā, in Glenfield. My father was of a generation in which his parents, both fluent Māori speakers, intentionally chose to raise their children speaking English. You know this story. It’s been well rehearsed, but is no less painful for being so common. All the mātauranga I’m encountering and being shared is new to me. I did not grow up with it.

How did your journey towards mātauranga begin?

The seminal moment was taking Māori 130, Introduction to Māori Society. I took that paper to broaden my science degree. It was the first time I’d been to the arts part of the university, and it was an eye-opener. I was blessed enough to have taken that course when Ranginui Walker was teaching it. 

How privileged I was that all I had to do was enrol in a course and pay some money and I could receive that knowledge shared by that man. Things that I had thought to be true about New Zealand history were shown to be falsehoods. I caught a glimpse into a new way of looking at, understanding, and being in the world.

Was that the awakening moment for you?

It was more like the door being opened. There had been earlier awakenings. I remember one at primary school. Although I was raised Pākehā, I was clearly Māori by name and partly by physical features, and I grew up seeing Māori as different. Let’s be honest, as second best, naughty and dumb. 

I had an amazing teacher, Mrs Marie Smith. She brought together a few of us Māori children and told us that we were descended from greatness, and that being Māori was cool. It was the first time I associated being Māori with something positive.

You trained as a geologist in the western science tradition, and suddenly there’s a new paradigm of mātauranga Māori opening up. What happened next?

I applied for a PhD scholarship. This was in the mid-1990s. In my interview for the scholarship, I was asked about mātauranga, and how I saw it fitting in with science. Were the two compatible? I said I believed that mātauranga and science could be complementary, both were bodies of knowledge, with much mātauranga and science generated using the same steps. 

Mātauranga made theoretical sense, but I didn’t understand the underpinnings of it. It wasn’t until I read Māori Marsden’s work, especially on kaitiakitanga, that I started to engage with mātauranga at a deeper level. I realised I had been trying to understand it through a worldview shaped by my science background. 

Even today I sometimes have to make a conscious switch. I’ll jump to an answer and then say to myself: “Hold on. Which lens are you looking through?” Today I would say I am seeing the world through two worldviews concurrently.

(Dan pauses to point out an exposed face of the tuff cone of Pukekawa, the volcano that formed the Domain crater. Nearby are blocks of the same compacted ash with roots of pōhutukawa growing over and around them. 

“Great symbolism,” I remark. “The implacable rock and the roots of living organisms finding their way around it.” 

“And wedging it apart,” Dan adds.)

My answer must have satisfied the scholarship committee, because I received the scholarship and went on to do my PhD. 

At the same time, I had a cousin who was doing a Bachelor of Environmental Studies at Awanuiārangi, in Whakatāne. She told me they were looking for someone to teach a geology course. Whānau are always your greatest champion (and harshest critic), and my cousin told them I was a doctor of geology. 

That was a little premature, but I took the job and taught there for three years. I was encouraged to include mātauranga wherever I saw that it would fit, but I didn’t have much of an idea what that would look like.

One of the things about teaching geology in a place like Whakatāne is that in addition to learning from textbooks, with theory and examples, the land is your teacher, too. The processes are your teacher there, with Whakaari puffing on the horizon, and inland floodplains expanding, and coastlines ever changing. 

Along with the land as a generous teacher, I experienced the generosity of colleagues and students at Awanuiārangi. When I say students I don’t mean students in their teens and 20s. Some were kaumātua, some were parents whose kids had gone off to school and could say: “Now I can pursue a degree.” There was something special about these students. 

At the same time I was teaching geology in Whakatāne, I was teaching a stage 1 course at the University of Auckland. Much of the content was similar, but there was an absolute polar contrast between the approach and motivations of students. 

The students at Auckland tended to look at an assignment, assess what the grade was worth, and tailor their time and effort to attain that grade. The students at Awanuiārangi were on a journey of enlightenment and learning. 

And so was I. The word taiao began to bubble up for me around that time. The realisation that we were looking at the same things but making sense of them through different worldviews. 

We look, we observe, we see the relationships between things as a geologist would, but, when it comes to explaining why those things happen, we might invoke deities or ancestors or a taniwha, perhaps to demonstrate our understanding that that stream will flood from time to time. In the Māori worldview, we might say that it’s the flicking tail of the taniwha that you need to beware of, so you don’t build there. 

I’ll give you an example. In Matatā in 2004, 2005, they had a swarm of earthquakes, and a massive flash flood in 2005. My students said: “Explain again about earthquakes, and how and when they occur?” 

I replied with a standard explanation about how, if pressure builds up on a brittle substance like the earth’s crust, it will deform until it fails. At the point where it fails and readjusts, that’s the earthquake. “Yes, but what determines when the earthquake happens?” the students asked. “When the material that’s having pressure exerted on it can no longer withstand it,” I said. “Yeah, we get that,” they say, and I start to see what they’re really asking. 

When the flash flood occurred, a lot of the debris — boulders the size of cars —  ended up smack bang on a battle site. In the months prior to the flood, approval had been given for a development on that site. The students were looking for an explanation within the Māori worldview as to why the swarm of earthquakes and flood happened at that time. 

When I realised that, I said to them: “You know why those earthquakes occurred at that time. You’re trying to seek an answer from a knowledge system that can’t incorporate the data that you’re using. Your taha Māori can explain it one way, and your taha science can explain it another way. And that’s fine. Both are valid.”

You spoke about Māori Marsden and kaitiakitanga, and you teach about kaitiakitanga in your tikanga course. Has your understanding of kaitiakitanga changed over time? I’m thinking about the reform of the Resource Management Act, which includes kaitiakitanga, and also about that fact that Pākehā are increasingly aligning with the value of kaitiakitanga. 

Some would say Pākehā are trying to appropriate a term and a role that has a specific application to Māori. It’s a kind of “Kiwi not iwi” thing — let’s all be kaitiaki! And in one sense, we do all need to be guardians, stewards, caretakers of the environment. We should all be engaging with this mahi. So it’s complicated.

If we go back to the RMA, to me, I’m fine with how kaitiakitanga is defined.

Kaitiakitanga means the exercise of guardianship by the tangata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Māori in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship.

I have no discomfort with that definition. Where it’s come unstuck is the application. I’ll paraphrase Sir Joe Williams, Supreme Court judge: The RMA was an amazing piece of legislation with enormous potential that lawyers and practitioners have stuffed up. 

Yes, there’s a range of opinions about who can be kaitiaki, and hence who can exercise kaitiakitanga. But I think that’s the wrong question. 

Kaitiakitanga is about restoring and revitalising mauri. It’s the work of kaitiakitanga that’s important, not who does it. I agree that if you don’t have tino rangatiratanga it’s almost impossible for you to exercise kaitiakitanga, so those political debates are valid and vital. 

But when it comes down to what the purpose of kaitiakitanga is, to me it’s about restoring mauri. 

That’s a crucial distinction. Being a caretaker or a guardian isn’t the whole story. There’s something deeper, more metaphysical about what kaitiakitanga is, and Māori are the ones to provide that deeper understanding based on tikanga and worldview. Who’s going to be the leader in the mauri space? Not Pākehā.

That’s what my approach is. Restoring mauri and determining what that means. The arbiters of that are tangata whenua. 

In your teaching, do you incorporate the idea that there could be nonhuman kaitiaki? 

I do. I try to teach fundamentals, and that means engaging with whakapapa that is more than just mum, dad and the kids. Whakapapa is how everything relates and is interconnected. 

The woven universe, to use Marsden’s phrase.

Exactly. So we had Rangi and Papa, we had their offspring, and they were the original kaitiaki. The mana then passed to a taniwha, or a shark, or a tree. That humans have a role to play is a far more modern construct. And that’s fine, as long as we remember that the mana has been passed down to us, and could be revoked.

I’ve been working with Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei for over a decade, and the primary focus of that work is restoring mauri to te whenua rangatira. So, for example, Ngāti Whātua were concerned that the boats in Ōkahu Bay were poisoning the bay. And now the boats have been removed from Ōkahu Bay. 

That’s kaitiakitanga, and I was involved with that process, but I was never interested in the question of whether I was a kaitiaki. What interested me was restoring the mauri to Ōkahu Bay. It’s the question of what drives you — is it mana, or is it mauri?

That’s always the issue. Power. It’s why the Waitangi Tribunal wrote about their concern with the growing use of the term mana whenua instead of tangata whenua. It looked like a focus on who could wield power instead of what it was being wielded for. 

I don’t believe I have my head in the sand. Māori need to have power to implement the things we need to do to restore mauri. Without the authority to practise kaitiakitanga, it’s all just talk. We need to have mana, but gaining mana isn’t what drives me. Restoring mauri is what drives me.

An example of the mauri focus is what is being proposed in Te Mana o te Wai. The first water should go to the river, then to the other taonga — the biodiversity — and only at that point, once we’ve taken care of those responsibilities, can humans exert what we call in a Māori view our “user privilege” and use the water.

It’s a total whakapapa view. When people hear the word “whakapapa” they often only think of it as a family tree: mum, dad, kids, grandparents, ancestors. But you can go right back to Tāne and to this tree here, and to the rocks under our feet. 

It’s a five-dimensional network: the three dimensions of space, plus time, plus the spiritual world. Whakapapa is the motivator and the reminder that everything is connected in time and space.

You write a lot about water these days, and work with groups restoring the mauri of fresh and salt water. You’re involved in marine regeneration around the Noises islands, and the wider Hauraki Gulf, and co-leading, with Anne Salmond, the Marsden-funded Let the River Speak project. 

When did water become your thing? You started off with geology, with rocks. How did water seep in to the picture?

Let me answer that this way. As an academic, you’re asked for your bio all the time. “What’s your discipline?” That’s boring. I tell people that what I do is serve the people. I work with, within, and for communities — mostly, but not exclusively, Māori communities, helping them to resolve their challenges and realise their dreams. 

In that work, water keeps coming up and coming up. “Dan, our river’s stuffed. Our wetland’s been drained. Our seas are depleted. Can you help us with that?”

At what point did this service thing happen? You’re an academic. How did that grow into serving the people and becoming a problem solver? 

In part, it was teaching at Awanuiārangi. The students were part of communities and I encouraged them to include their experiences in our collective learning. I also remember a throwaway comment from an uncle, referring to my doctoral work on ancient shellfish: “When are you going to do anything that’s of use to us, boy?” 

That started an itch. So, after finishing my post-doc on climate change, undertaken in part to satisfy that itch, a research institute was being established at Auckland University in earth science and engineering, and I was invited to be part of it. 

It was set up as a research consultancy, with the idea that where community needs and dreams aligned with our research interests and capabilities, we would work together. 

Two of the first approaches we had were from a group wanting to look at feasibility of building a geothermal power station, and another group wanting help with cleaning up an industrial waste site. We worked with those groups, and now they have a geothermal power station, and plans afoot to restore the mauri to the industrial waste site.

There’s an appeal to the immediacy of doing work in the community, but that’s not to devalue the importance of policy framing and change. Community work is the short-term game, policy change is the long-term game. I’m interested in both. 

I hold hope that te mana o te taiao will feature in the reform of the resource sector, as recommended in the Randerson report. The devil will be in the implementation. 

You’re involved with Te Pūnaha Matatini, which has a focus on complex systems. Complexity is hard. A lot of people don’t want complexity. They want the certainty of simple answers. They want quick resolution. Yet a whakapapa worldview has to be inherently complex because of all its strands. Do you find complexity thrilling, or daunting, or both?

I vacillate between being thrilled and daunted. But I think that’s good. When Māori Marsden came back from the war, a kaumātua of his wānanga asked him to explain how the atom bomb worked. When Marsden told him, the kaumātua exclaimed: “The bomb tears the fabric of the universe!” And then he asked: “But do they know how to sew it back together again?”

That’s still the question, right? Except today it’s climate change that’s tearing holes in the fabric of the universe, throwing the equilibrium out of whack. And hence your focus on mauri and whakapapa: gathering together all the threads of the woven universe to restore the flourishing of te taiao. I can’t think of a more important mahi.


Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021


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