(Photo: Kennedy Warne)

One of the Tuia 250 commemoration events was a two-day marine symposium held at the Wānanga o Aotearoa in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa last weekend. The symposium was called Moananui — The Ocean Speaks. E-Tangata contributor Kennedy Warne was one of the speakers in a session on indigenous environmental knowledge. He gave the following kōrero . . .


I greet and acknowledge the land on which we meet, and the sea beyond, and pay my respects to its traditional custodians past, present, and emerging. I also acknowledge my fellow Oceanians, thinking of the words of Epeli Hau’ofa: “There are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home.”

We are here on Tangaroa’s paepae to hear the ocean speak. As children, we had no difficulty hearing the ocean speak. We simply lifted a shell to our ears. As adults we tend to lose that ability, that curiosity and sense of wonder. Instead of hearing the ocean speak, we learn to speak about the ocean in the languages of exploitation and appropriation, property, quota and resource. How do we find our way back to a conversation in a different language, one of reverence and belonging, as expressed in the lines of Hone Tuwhare:

Dear Karirikura, beloved ocean,
we should be lost without you.
But you are here beside us, very close:
soft thunder in our ears.

To help me hear the ocean speak, I have on my writing desk at home a supplementary eardrum. It is the eardrum of a whale. I’m not sure which whale. It was given to me by a great uncle who was a shell collector. I, too, was a shell collector, and he gave me some of his treasures. This is the most treasured of all. It reminds me that conversations in the ocean are happening all the time, but humans rarely tune in to them.

A recent book by poet, painter and ocean advocate Greg O’Brien has as its title Always Song in the Water — a phrase spoken in conversation with whale scientist Rochelle Constantine. Whales express themselves with speech we hardly ever hear and can barely begin to understand.

The eardrum reminds me I need to listen. It reminds me of the words of Tūhoe leader Tamati Kruger, who wrote: “Each and every day, all of nature hear and echo the messages of Papatūānuku to Ranginui, but only some of mankind have come to understand that our silence is our part in these Te Urewera conversations.”

One of the remarkable things about this eardrum is that its shape looks like a breaking wave. This whale’s eardrum is an image of its world. The whale carries inside its body a mirror of the ocean. Can humans, too, carry within them such a symbolic consciousness of the ocean, of the Earth?

“This whale’s eardrum is an image of its world.” (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

We have come here to speak about protection of the ocean. We come in the planet’s most uncertain hours to sing a redemptive tune. And what is it we are protecting the ocean against? Regrettably, us. In the ultimate act of biting the hand that feeds and the breast that suckles, a powerful portion of our species has lost all respect for the oceanic source of our existence — for all life came forth from the ocean.

It is often assumed that it is in the realm of policy and regulation, law and treaty, that the ocean’s protection lies. But such protections lack permanence and are subject to political whim. We only have to consider the unravelling of environmental protection in the US under the current administration to see how weak regulatory protections can be when the ruling regime changes.

There exists a deeper, more lasting form of protection. It is the protection of a parent for a child, a lover for the beloved. It is a protection rooted in relationship, which expresses itself in belonging. This is how indigenous cultures have traditionally related to the non-human world, treasuring, sustaining and conserving it with a korowai of stories, songs and ceremonies.

Activating this type of protection is not easy in cultures where connection to the natural world has become diminished and weak. It is a long journey for nonindigenous cultures to see the natural world as ancestral, personal, totemic, communicative, alive. If we wish to rekindle a relationship between people and ocean, then we must speak to their deepest selves: to the places in the human psyche where the orientation to the natural world is shaped.

I will give three examples of how this shaping occurs in three different cultures. Here is one from Aotearoa. It has to do with a practice that has reshaped my own relationship to land and sea: letting a place know you.

It is expressed beautifully in Patricia Grace’s short story Fishing, about a young woman and her whānau who are coming to the end of their summer at the sea, and this is their last day together. The woman spends the day on her own, casting a line from the rocks. As the sun sets she puts her fishing line away because there is something else she has to do — because, as Grace writes, “how could you be really sure of coming there again next summer? And why should you come if you didn’t let the place know you? It wasn’t enough just to hold the end of a line.” So she walks into the sea, swims out through the thickets of seaweed into open water and floats on her back and watches the sky redden and lets the sea move her as it wills. She lets the place know her.

When I think of this kind of intimate engagement with a place, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known, I think of the extraordinary depth of Aboriginal engagement with country, honed over perhaps as long as 50,000 years, Earth’s longest continuous culture. Much of their expression of attachment occurs in song. “Singing up country” in elaborate place-specific song cycles is central to their sense of personhood and their practice of stewardship.

Anthropologist John Bradley, who has learned for decades from the Yanyuwa saltwater people, writes: “These song cycles, or kujika, were placed into the earth and sea by the original Ancestral beings, so it is as if the land and sea themselves have become a recording device and the song is still there constantly moving, only waiting for human kin to give it voice. These songs are Australia’s oldest music, a most ancient libretto embedded in the country, which speak of origins and beginnings, and ways of understanding the richness of this continent. With songs such as this there can be no such thing as terra nullius, a land without inhabitants, or mare nullius, a sea without inhabitants.”

The song cycles envisage and celebrate the physical, emotional and spiritual health of land and sea. When sung in the proper manner, writes Bradley, they are “an invocation, a conjuration of the enchanted, that brings with it the experience that it describes; it is not ‘history’ or memory, nor a metaphor for something else. Kujika is of the now, of the every being. When performed with full knowledge and intent, it becomes actual re-creation.”

Invocation, as Yanyuwa practise it, is the source of restoration. You restore a place by re-storying it. Imagine if, across the world, at this moment of planetary peril, the human species as a whole began to affirm the mythic, mystic strata of connection to place that the Yanyuwa experience, aligning themselves with nature’s being.

Imagine if, as has happened with the Whanganui River and Te Urewera, the personhood of the ocean were recognised and even enshrined in legislation.

As with Te Kawa o Te Urewera, Tūhoe’s management plan for Te Urewera, a new mode of governance for the ocean might start from the proposition that “our fracturing of nature has sponsored our own fragmentation.” That new mode might seek to enshrine that “most difficult of virtues . . . our sense of belonging.”

Or do we prefer to retain a resource-centred view of the water world?

Earlier I mentioned the words of Epeli Hau’ofa: “There are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home.” But there’s another line that he added wistfully after that: “We seem to have forgotten that we are such a people.”

Hau’ofa feared that Oceanian people might be losing their relationship of reciprocal belonging to the sea, becoming desensitised by western anthropocentric ways. In a 1998 essay The Ocean In Us, he wrote: “It is one of the great ironies of the Law of the Sea Convention, which enlarged our national boundaries, that it also extended the territorial instinct to where there was none before.”

Hau’ofa feared that the waters that united Oceania in the past might become a divisive factor in the future. There would be the temptation to nationalise based on resources. To become fence builders and boundary enforcers, poring over satellite maps and mining reports.

“It is therefore essential that we ground any new regional identity in a belief in the common heritage of the sea,” he wrote. “Realisation of the fact that the ocean is uncontainable and pays no respect to territoriality should spur us to advance the notion based on physical reality and practices that date back to the initial settlements of Oceania — that the sea must remain open to all of us. . . . As the sea is an open and ever flowing reality, so should our oceanic identity transcend all forms of insularity, to become one that is openly searching, inventive, and welcoming.”

How did we become so possessive, so property-based, so transactional in our interactions with the non-human world? Where did relationship go? An Inuit story tells of the perils of losing connection and respect. The story exists in multiple forms among Arctic peoples, but all of them centre on Sedna, or Sanna, the mother of the sea. Here is one version:

A girl goes fishing with her stepfather. When they are a long way offshore, the stepfather, a cruel man, throws her overboard. She struggles to climb back into the boat and begs him to save her. As she grips the gunwale in the freezing water, he takes an axe and chops her fingers off so that they fall into the sea. They drift downwards, and so does the unconscious girl. But as she sinks in the green-dark depths, she awakens and realises she is not drowning. And she is amazed to see that her fingers have turned into animals: walrus, seal, whale, narwhal.

At the bottom of the sea, she finds four paths leading north, south, east and west. She realises that she can see everything that happens on land. So she builds a house with two rooms: one for herself and one for the sea animals. And although she has been treated brutally, she loves her Inuit people and gives them the animals for food. The people rejoice, for now they no longer have to rely on just fish and birds. They have skins for clothes, fur for warmth, blubber for oil, meat for food. They recognise that these good things come from the girl who is now a grown woman, the mother of the sea.

In time, however, they forget. And they grow to disrespect the sea, allowing refuse, garbage, all manner of filth — nitrogen runoff from intensified dairy farming, sedimentation from commercial developments (I’m ad-libbing a little here!) — to enter the sea. All this detritus drifts down and tangles in the hair of the mother of the sea, turning it into a clogged and clotted mass. So she calls back the animals to her house at the bottom of the sea. And the people begin to starve.

And, as people are apt to do when the environmental chips are down, and greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and the ocean is becoming overheated and acidic, they hold a summit. They decide that a shaman needs to go and visit the mother of the sea. After days and nights of spiritual preparation, the shaman — who in many versions of the story is blind, to emphasise that he is operating in a supernatural dimension — dives through a hole in the ice and descends to the lightless depths. And what does he do? He combs the hair of the mother of the sea. He combs out the knots and the refuse and makes her beautiful again.

And that is what I think protection of the ocean is about. It is a story of sea change that occurs in our hearts as well as in our marine management plans. It is stewardship based on personhood, symbolised by combing the hair of the mother of the sea.


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.

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