Kennedy Warne is editor-at-large for New Zealand Geographic and outdoors correspondent for Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme. A geographical explorer for 30 years, he considers his most important exploration to have been cultural and spiritual: an awakening to te ao Māori.
He wrote about this journey in a chapter of the just-released book Listening to the People of the Land: Christianity, Colonisation and the Path to Redemption, a collection of commentaries and personal reflections about the harmful connection between settler Christianity and colonial agendas, and how contemporary churches have sought to chart a path of healing based on the principles of radical repentance and humble attention to tangata whenua.
The work of reconciliation between races and worldviews seems only more urgent in the wake of the atrocity in Christchurch, where the contagion of white supremacy demonstrated its virulent power.
Awakenings: Encountering the Indigenous, Encountering the Earth
When I scroll way back in memory, I see a man on the corner of Bell Road, in Mangatawhiri, east of Auckland’s Bombay Hills. The man is Māori, and he works for my great-uncle on a farm carved out of the Pokeno peat swamps. I loved that farm, where I often went to stay during school holidays. It introduced me to country ways, to time not measured by hours but by jobs accomplished — cows milked, sheep shorn, hay brought in, hay fed out, the ten thousand tasks of farm life.
The name of the man at the corner of the road is Gordon. To this day, that’s all I know about him. I don’t even know his surname. But there he is, in memory’s eye. Why is that? Why does an unknown man linger there? Even at that young age, was something being born in my unconscious — the seed of the thought that coming to know this country’s first people was a path I would one day walk?
Today I would say that in Gordon’s dimly remembered face I see the face of the land, the face that Tamati Kruger of Ngāi Tūhoe spoke of to the Waitangi Tribunal when he said: “We are this land and we are the face of the land. Wherever those mountains come from, that’s where we come from. Wherever the mist emerges from and disappears to, that’s where we come from.”
Getting from there to here — seeing in the hired man on the roadside the incarnate face of the land, the radical identification expressed in the now familiar phrase used by Whanganui Māori: “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au,” I am the river, the river is me — was a slow awakening. There were some cultural blinkers to discard along the way.
I grew up Baptist. Each year, our church held a camp at Henderson’s Carey Park, named for the “father of modern missions,” William Carey. I knew several missionaries who served with the Baptist Missionary Society, which had been formed on the basis of Carey’s essay An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. What I didn’t know — and, quite possibly, wouldn’t have perceived as problematic — was that Carey’s view of indigenous people was, in today’s terms, deeply racist.
Māori were “in general poor, barbarous, naked pagans, as destitute of civilisation as they are of true religion,” opined Carey, articulating a view that was, in his times, as unremarkable as the law of gravity. Such stadial thinking, which ranks human societies hierarchically from civilised to primitive, “was at the heart of the evangelical enterprise,” writes Anne Salmond in her recent book Tears of Rangi, in which she explores the “collision of cosmologies” which occurred when Europeans arrived in Aotearoa.
Stadial thinking has its origin in the Enlightenment view of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmic pecking order with God at the top and creation sorted into descending categories. It differs fundamentally from the way Māori and other indigenous people frame reality. Where European ontology is linear and hierarchical, Māori ontology is circular and reciprocal. European thinking leads to separation and objectification; Māori thinking leads to relational exchange — “the rhizomatic, ramifying networks of whakapapa,” as Salmond puts it. If the Enlightenment view is epitomised in “I think therefore I am,” the Māori understanding is “I relate therefore I am.”
The two worldviews clashed most emphatically and tragically over land — and the European transactional view of land which emphasised ownership prevailed over the Māori view which emphasised relationship and whakapapa and is most exquisitely articulated in the fact that in te reo Māori “whenua” is both the word for land and the word for placenta. As Waikato senior law lecturer Linda Te Aho puts it: “We see ourselves as not only of the land but as the land.”
Who can fully enumerate the sorrowful consequences of the disparagement and suppression of Māori cosmology? Of all the early missionaries, only Thomas Kendall — conflicted, erring Kendall — engaged with an indigenous worldview that fascinated and entranced him. It all ended sadly for Kendall. Salmond writes that the paradox of representing Christendom while embracing Māori thought “tore him apart.” He was a tragic casualty of the cosmological collision.
While Kendall wavered in his assurance of European superiority, his fellow missionaries were resolute. One consequence of their certainty that their view of reality carried the divine imprimatur is that Māori concepts became weakened — eviscerated, even — by their rendering into English by missionary translators. Forced to fit a European worldview, writes Salmond, they were cut adrift from their true meaning. This is particularly apparent for words that relate to ontological concepts.
The missionary translators were keenly attuned to anything that smacked of idolatry, so the act of translation naturally involved the reduction or removal of what they saw as heathenish errors.
Thus, as Salmond enumerates, an atua, a powerful ancestor, lost all sense of personal connection and was rendered a disembodied god. Wairua, the totality of a person’s immaterial being, became compartmentalised as spirit. Tapu, stripped of ancestral presence, became merely a category called sacred. Likewise noa, rather than fulfilling the role of yin to tapu’s yang, was demoted to profane. A tohunga, an expert steeped in ancestral knowledge, became a religious priest (or, worse, a witch doctor). Karakia, chants which in their very utterance invoke the breath of life, turned into supplicatory prayers. Utu, the principle of reciprocity, was narrowed and sensationalised as revenge. Whakapapa, the matrix of connections among all human and nonhuman life, dwindled into mere genealogy.
“There are no words in English to translate words like tapu, mana, utu and hau, which were (and are) ontological terms, premised on the taken-for-granted presence and power of ancestors in everyday life, and different states of being in te ao mārama, te kore and te pō,” writes Salmond. “Such words presuppose a reality that is, in many respects, fundamentally at odds with Western ideas about the world.”
But, as I say, I grew up knowing none of this. The hard shell of Pākehācentric thinking had yet to crack open.
A spirit’s flight
An awareness of Māori connectivity to land was my first awakening moment. It happened early in my tenure as editor of New Zealand Geographic — in 1989, in fact, when the magazine was less than a year old. One of our photographers had produced a set of evocative images of the Spirits Bay–Cape Reinga area. I had pictures, but no text. Who could write words that would catch the essence of that spiritually charged landscape — the leaping place of the departed?
I was given a name: Saana Murray. She was a poet, an elder of Ngāti Kuri, the tribe of that place, and a keeper of the long-burning fires of her people. After some phoning around I found that she was in Ōtara, staying with the family of one of her 13 children. I drove to the house and showed her the photographs and asked if she would be willing to write something. What she wrote was up to her, I said. I wanted to capture the spirit of the place.
Saana agreed. Then, nervously and apologetically — deadlines were looming; deadlines were always looming — I asked how soon she could write the text. What she told me I have never forgotten. “I cannot write anything here,” she said. “I will have to go to the land.”
She said it as if it she were stating the obvious. Yet it was the first time I had heard such a thing: that words about the land required the presence of the land. That knowledge was inseparable from its context.
For someone steeped in scientific thinking — a mindset in which knowledge is something endlessly transferable, a form of currency — it was a challenging thought. For a moment, the fabric of my fact-based worldview started to fray, and I caught a glimpse of another country.
I have come to learn that this is the country Māori inhabit. In the Māori way of thinking, context is vital. Knowledge is not disembodied information but part of a living matrix of encounters and relationships, past and present, natural and spiritual.
Saana cared deeply about Māori knowledge, and she asserted that tangata whenua (the people of the land) are its rightful and necessary custodians. She believed that the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed the custodianship of Māori things by Māori people, and it pained her that that guarantee had not been honoured. Yet Saana never stopped believing in the Treaty. “I was born to the tune of the Tiriti of Waitangi,” she once wrote. It was a tune she would sing all her life.
Two years after New Zealand Geographic published the Spirits Bay story, Saana and five other iwi representatives lodged the Wai 262 “flora and fauna” claim with the Waitangi Tribunal. It was a claim, among other things, about Māori control of Māori intellectual property. When, after 20 years of research and deliberation, the tribunal delivered its report in 2011, Saana was the only one of the original claimants still alive to read it.
Then, later that year, she passed, too.
I heard the news while driving to the Bay of Islands. It was already the last day of the tangi, and she was due to be buried that afternoon at Spirits Bay. There was little chance I would get there in time, but I wanted to pay my respects to a woman whose influence I had felt for 20 years. So I kept driving.
It was dark when I arrived at te muri o te motu (“the tail of the fish” — the tip of the North Island). As I had expected, the tangi was over. The place seemed deserted. Then I heard dance music and children’s laughter and the clink of bottles coming from a small marquee surrounded by a clutch of cars and caravans. I walked over.
“I’m looking for the whānau of Saana Murray,” I said.
“You’ve found it. Come and join us for a beer.”
I sat in the tent with a smoked trevally and a Lion Red and listened as one of the granddaughters-in-law told me about Saana’s passing. Saana had felt, at long last, that her work for the iwi was done. She had fought her battles and could rest now. So when the latest bout of illness came, she let herself be taken. Hers was a completed life. How many of the living achieve such closure at death?
I knew about a few of her battles. When her own mother lay dying, she had asked Saana to promise that she would endeavour to “retrieve the land and ratify the Treaty.” Land and Treaty became the wellsprings of Saana’s energy and passion. For 40 years she pleaded her people’s cause to politicians, ombudsmen, governors-general, talkshow hosts, judges, even the secretary-general of the United Nations.
She once joked that she would go down in history as “the Great Objector.” She objected to the Europeanisation of her people. She objected to Pākehā trampling of the Treaty. She objected to “laws with claws like parasites, devouring my human rights.”
One of her battles was over sand — specifically the dazzling white sands at the entrance to Parengarenga Harbour, the raw material of New Zealand glass manufacture. The dunes were Ngāti Kuri land. A century of mining and dredging had left the dunes scarred, vegetation damaged and kai moana smothered. Saana fought to stop her people’s land being sucked away for Pākehā profit. She prevailed, and today the dunes lie unmolested, glittering in the sun.
“She’s buried on the hill over there,” one of the whānau told me. “You can go up if you want.”
In the dark, I followed the path which led to a tiny urupā: just four graves. It was a path Saana would have walked often, for her own son is buried there. Saana’s plot was mounded up with sand and covered with flowers, kete and keepsakes. Jammed into the middle of it was a young tī kouka. Its long leaves were rattling in the wind — one of the quiet anthems of the north.
The moon was up and the surf was glowing in its light. The scene was uncannily similar to the opening photograph of our Spirits Bay story, two decades earlier, in which a solitary white bird soars across a wide expanse of sea. I had entitled the story “A spirit’s flight.” Those words sat well in my mind as I bade farewell to another spirit, flying away home.
Soul of the forest
A year later I was in Te Urewera, writing about Tūhoe’s long walk to justice and having a little more cultural sleep rubbed out of my eyes.
One night, in Waimana, some whānau were explaining a word I had heard several Tūhoe using: matemateaone. Cynthia Turuwhenua said that it was a feeling of being wrapped and cocooned by the earth. Like being privy to the yearning that Ranginui, the sky father, feels for Papatūānuku, the earth mother from whom he is eternally separated.
“It’s like being in a spell,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m walking in the forest I get the taste of Papatūānuku on my palate. There’s a sudden sense of sweetness. ‘Hmmm,’ you think. ‘What’s that?’ It’s no particular flower or plant. It’s just the taste of health. Other times, at night, the sky can feel like an ocean of stars and you seem to have stepped off the edge of the earth. You’re dizzy, but you don’t want the experience to stop. It’s too special.”
I had felt those very things in the Urewera forests. Once, at midnight, I stepped outside a hut on a high forest ridge and almost stumbled with vertigo. The stars were thicker than I’d ever seen — great clusters of light spangling the sky — while immense trees thrust upwards to greet them. It felt as if I was witnessing visceral contact between Rangi and Papa.
At dawn I walked to a bluff with a view of mist-wreathed valleys and listened to kōkako, the soul of the forest, the bird that Tūhoe say mediates between wairua time and people time. Kōkako seem not to simply sing their notes, they send them into the world as gifts, painting the forest with song, drawing the listener into the music.
In such times the curtain between natural and supernatural feels thin, like a membrane allowing passage from one side to the other. The more I get to know te ao Māori, the thinner that membrane seems to get.
This interpermeation of the physical and the more-than-physical realms, natural and supernatural, sits awkwardly in the Western world view, but comfortably in the Māori one. Physical and spiritual are children of the same parents. Intimations from beyond are known, expected and trusted — though less so today than in the past, when colonial thinking had yet to erode Māori cosmology. Te Kooti, whose presence is often felt in the hills of Te Urewera, was one who “lived by the omens of the sky, thunder and the rainbow, and waited for the time that they told,” wrote historian Judith Binney.
It is challenging for a contemporary New Zealander to imagine how personal the land must have felt to pre-European Māori, and still does to many Māori today. Papatūānuku is not just a Gaia-like tip of the hat to nature; she is part of the literal whakapapa through which Māori trace their ancestry. Geography is experienced as a story, an ongoing and never-ending encounter. Topographical features, boundaries, food-gathering areas, sacred sites, event markers: the named landscape affords myriad links in a woven fabric of relationships that grows stronger and richer through time.
We are apt to forget, though, that “Māori,” as a people, did not exist prior to their encounter with this Aotearoa landscape. I remember hearing Ngātiwai kaumātua Hori Parata say: “When we came to Aotearoa we were Polynesian. The land made us Māori.” Māori became tangata whenua, people of the land, through engagement with the land.
Over time, writes Taranaki scholar and author Ailsa Smith, “as their sense of the rightness (tikanga) of their being in that place increased, they built up body, spirit and social consciousness from the atoms, elements and landforms surrounding them. No other group of people in New Zealand’s social history will have such an opportunity of developing a oneness with the soil as Māori did in transition from their East Polynesian origins: being born out of and returning to Papatūānuku in a closed cycle of renewal and decay which moulded their thinking and being from that time onwards.”
Singing up country
For Māori, the process of being shaped by place began seven centuries ago. For Aboriginal Australians it began 70 times seven centuries ago. Out of the vast timespan of that reciprocal exchange has come a way of being in, with and of the land that is truly astonishing.
I sensed the immensity of this relationship when I was in Uluṟu in 2017, two days after the historic decision was announced that Uluṟu /Ayers Rock will be closed to climbing from October 2019. It was my first time in the Red Centre, my first time walking barefoot across warm sand the colour of saffron, my first time seeing the rock’s flanks flame in the setting sun, my first time peering into caves and overhangs where tjukurpa or “dreaming” — the cultural law that connects the physical and spiritual worlds — has been taught from one generation to the next for millennia.
The Aṉangu people had grieved and chafed for a century as they saw their sacred rock turned into a sightseeing attraction. They had felt ashamed as tourists, predominantly white Australians, walked on their ancestor, defecated on their ancestor, stripped naked on their ancestor, drove golf balls off their ancestor, and then bought the T-shirt, the fridge magnet, the bumper sticker proclaiming “I climbed Ayers Rock.”
That era of cultural ignorance and moral offence is coming to an end. For the traditional owners, the closure of the climb sets right a historic wrong. It restores the integrity of what Māori would call the kaitiakitanga, or sacred relationship of care between people and place.
At Uluṟu, I saw that relationship being mapped visually by Aṉangu women artists creating paintings in the cultural centre. Dot by dot, whorl by whorl, with fingertips and brushes dipped into enamel paint, they did the patient work of storytelling that preserves and nourishes their connection to this ancient landscape.
Relationship to land — or “country,” the word Aboriginal people use as the best English approximation — is at the heart of Aboriginal being. As with Māori, the relationship is intimate and intense. To be Aboriginal is to sense that one is part of “a multitude of invisible threads of connection, where people stand in a matrix that sees them able to call all people and all animate and inanimate things in country as kin,” writes anthropologist John Bradley.
“Country is spoken about in the same way that people talk about their living human relatives. People cry about country, they worry about country, they listen to country, and they visit country, and long to visit country. In return, country can feel, hear, and as close relatives bring to that relationship all of their past experience, their present and their future.”
When Aboriginal people engage with the matrix of their world, they call it “singing up country.” As they sing, “country in all its wealth and vitality opens up in the singers’ minds,” writes Bradley. “They are seeing the land anew as it once was and they hope it will always be. A distillation of the power and sentience of the country is being revealed once more.”
Song is a recitation of the country’s DNA, and it is the way in which people negotiate with country. In singing about country, the people are striving to understand and accommodate its needs, writes Bradley, “so that country will in turn continue to meet theirs. The singing of country is about love and the lifting up of space and place, of the only home that people have ever known.”
There is a sobering flipside to this engagement. If there is no one to sing the songs of country, the land suffers. It loses its life force — its mauri, as Māori would call it. It goes bad. It goes wild. Country needs humans to sing its song.
When I first learned of this reciprocity it resonated within me like a struck gong. Surely this is relationship with the earth we were born for, created for. Is this not what the prophet Isaiah hinted at when he wrote that the mountains and hills will burst into song before us, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands? A generative and intimate encounter between people and place?
Such reciprocal encounter is certainly at the heart of Māori experience, seen most movingly in the story of sky father and earth mother — Ranginui and Papatūānuku — weeping for each other: sky bathing earth in rain, earth responding to sky in mist. People join that circle of life-giving exchange, expressed in the phrase titiro atu, titiro mai — one glance directed at another, the other glancing back.
As I understand it, the European tradition need not have taken the mechanistic, hierarchical, stadial route that it did. In Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, we are told that Rome was founded on a forest inhabited by “a race of men that came from tree trunks, from hard oak.” That awareness, writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his book Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation, would have enabled the Romans “to feel in their veins a genealogical affiliation with the wooded world of nature.” In other words, a whakapapa connection.
The same Romans who saw themselves as being born from the oaks had a concept close to the Māori understanding of mauri, the force that binds the physical and spiritual realms into a single entity. They called it the genius loci — the spirit of place. And in a graphic representation of reciprocity, the spirit was sometimes depicted as a figure holding a cornucopia in one hand and a libation bowl in the other. We receive from the land in abundance; we give to it lavishly our attention and care.
Ominously, classical depictions often include a third emblem: a snake. Perhaps I’m whistling in the metaphorical wind here, but I hear echoes of the serpent in the Garden, uttering the original lie: “Take it. Take it all. You shall not surely die.” The West has surely fallen for that line, seeing earth as a cornucopia for unlimited consumption, with no reciprocal obligation to limit and nurture. The spirit of libation finds no welcome in the modern market economy.
But change may be coming. The establishment of legal personhood for the Whanganui River and Te Urewera forest has challenged and inspired the world community. Te Kawa o Te Urewera, the Tūhoe people’s set of guiding principles for how their home place should be managed, starts with the proposition that the philosophical fracturing of nature from culture “has sponsored our own fragmentation.” Tūhoe’s position is that “people need nature for life, purpose and humanity,” while nature “enjoys people for their aspiration, endeavour and friendship.”
I saw that reciprocal exchange in action when I was researching a New Zealand Geographic story on Ngāi Tūhoe. One morning, the late Nanny Pohutu, of Ruatāhuna, took me with her to collect leaves for rongoā, traditional Māori medicine. The day was clear and crisp, typical of midwinter in Te Urewera. Pohutu had already been in the forest that morning, soon after daybreak. Dusk and dawn are when the mauri of the forest is strongest, she said.
We paused at the edge of te ngahere, the forest, for a few moments, and Pohutu said a karakia, asking the forest to welcome us. Everything Tūhoe starts with prayer. It is a matter of respect, an acknowledgement of human limitation, an orientation to the unseen world.
We waited a little longer. “The ngahere is like a marae, or someone’s home,” Pohutu said. “You wait to be invited in.”
We followed a sun-dappled path, and Pohutu pointed to this plant and that, stroking the leaves as she passed. Kokomuka, a species of hebe, for curing rashes. Manono, a coprosma, for cuts and sores. A type of fern for toothache. Tawiniwini, snowberry, to ease a cough. Makomako, or wineberry, for tired eyes. Kāramuramu, another coprosma, for detox. “Sometimes the tree tells you what it’s useful for,” she said.
How does she know which of a tree’s leaves to pick? “Ask the tree. Let the mauri within you connect to the mauri of the plant, she said.” Pohutu was collecting seven-finger, patatē, and there were many of these slender green shrubs lining the path. “Perhaps one is moving more than another in the wind, and it catches your attention. Perhaps a bird is flying around one. You might go past and then turn back, because one stands out to you. There are many ways a connection is made.”
She reached towards me and twisted my ear hard, catching me unawares. Pick respectfully, she said. I got the message. Be mindful. Plants are the children of Tāne. Adjust your cosmology.
Pohutu sang a waiata as she picked. Her soft, lilting notes blended with the sounds of a stream that babbled beside the path. The waiata, she explained, was sung in the forest and when cooking the plants at home to make ointments and medicines. It started and finished with the words: He aha koe e patai nei, e moko? What is your question, child? This is the timeless method of knowledge transfer in Tūhoe: the passing of Tūhoetanga across the generations, one child at a time.
Conversation with whenua, conversation with tangata
Towards the end of his long life, American poet Robert Frost said to a group of university graduates, “All there is is belonging and belongings. You belong and I belong. The sincerity of their belongings is all I have to measure people by.”
For years now I have carried Frost’s poem “The Gift Outright” in my mind as an invitation to belonging and a reminder of the desolation that follows when land is seen as properties to be owned and not places to be loved. The poem begins with the lines:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
Frost called his poem “a history of the United States in a dozen lines of blank verse.” It is the history of New Zealand, too. It is the history of every settler nation. First the desire to possess, to own, to call the land “ours.” Then, later, a long time later — and for some, perhaps, never — the awareness of a need to belong, the impetus to preserve and respect. A turning away from objectification and towards subjective engagement, from resource to relationship, from land-as-commodity to land-as-identity, from foreign soil to whenua.
Who is invited to make this journey? I believe we all are. The land will naturalise us if we will let it. The land will make us “native” — a nativeness of soul. As Melbourne ecophilosopher Freya Mathews puts it in her luminous book Reinhabiting Reality: “To be native is not just to be born in a particular place but to belong to it. To be native is to have one’s identity shaped by the place to which one belongs: one is a creature of its topography, its colours and textures, saps and juices, its moods, its ghosts and stories. To be native is to experience the world as fundamentally continuous with one’s own nature, rather than as an alien and lower realm of sheer mindless externality.”
To become native is to undergo one’s own nativity, one’s own incarnation into place. “To belong to the land is to uncover its layers, discover its story, and weave one’s own identity into that story,” writes Mathews. “Through a particular place, [the world] agrees to become our world, attentive to us, attuned to us. We become its people.”
Belonging takes place one step at a time as we engage with the places of our lives. Land calls, we respond. Titiro atu, titiro mai — one glance directed at another, the other glancing back. I see, and I am seen. Belonging comes about through knowing a place and letting the place know you. A conversation with landscape.
I began this practice of knowing and being known over a period of months when I visited my local urban creek, almost daily, to see what I had to say to it, and it to me. It was like beginning a conversation in a foreign tongue — or rather a language once known but forgotten through lack of use. The word “conversation” comes from Latin roots that mean “an act of living with or keeping company with.” How perfect. For a conversation with place is not only verbal — though that is certainly part of it. And the earth is well able to reciprocate with tree talk, rockfall, glacier movement, subterranean rumblings and the manifold voices of the atmosphere as rain, thunder, wind and more.
“Singing up country” can also be with the voice of the senses, of the soul’s articulation of respect, reverence and care and of physical responses to the world’s promptings. At Te Auaunga/Oakley Creek, I cup my hands and drink from a spring that the ancestor Wairaka drank from centuries ago. I was born within sight of the mountain named for her — Owairaka — and still today I view her maunga daily from my home. At her spring I pick watercress and let the sharp peppery tang fill my mouth. Body and soul, I connect myself to this place, this ancestor, becoming woven into their story.
This process is enriching for both pilgrim and place, for recall the Aboriginal understanding that land that is not sung suffers and loses its generative spark. The alternatives are stark: choked, attenuated landscapes, starved of the oxygen of story and encounter, or cloaked, replenished landscapes, vibrant with the many voices of memory.
Those voices of memory lead me forward to a conversation with those whose connection to place far exceeds my own in duration, complexity and intimacy. And here is the great absence and silence that lurks within Frost’s poem quoted above: he gives no recognition, no preferential honour, to the nations whose displacement and near erasure from the land provided the opportunity and the substrate for the belonging he seeks.
As I see it, the invitation is to walk in conversation both with place and with those who hold the stories of place — stories that have emerged over multiple lifetimes and been woven into a literature that maps and matches the landscape. And so, when I approach Te Auaunga from one of its entrances, a newly opened cycle path, I pause beside a tall ironwork pou dedicated to a local iwi, Te Ākitai Waiohua, and say aloud the proverb printed on nearby signage: Te Ākitai oho moata, Te Ākitai awake at early dawn — or Te Ākitai “ready for anything,” as the panel interprets the phrase. The whakataukī reminds me of the last lines in Walden, Thoreau’s exploration of the deliberate life: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” I, too, wish to be awake to all the presences in this place, including those whose feet preceded mine and on whose shoulders rests the mantle of mana whenua.
There is good reason to believe that a fully manifest conversation with place is impossible outside of a conversation with first peoples. This is the position that John Bradley has come to after a lifetime of learning from men and women who have caused him to reflect on what knowledge means and what purpose it serves. He has become wary “of an ongoing coloniality” in the way that stories can be turned into information and knowledge into disposable data stripped of its cultural context — a danger that is equally apparent on this side of the Tasman.
For Bradley, there is a linguistic aspect to this question of conversation — one that was put to him with sobering clarity when the most senior speaker of a vanishing language leaned over to him at a meeting and whispered, “Can my country hear English?” If that woman’s language evolved over tens of thousands of years through reciprocal engagement with the land, and if that land retains its ability to hear it, what then, asks Bradley, is the value of translation “if the end result creates an ontological flatness and ecological deafness?”
Indigenous languages are “the old-growth forests of the human mind,” writes Bradley. And the danger of translation and conversion to the written word is that that link might be weakened or even severed. “As the orality of the stories are lost, their performative character is also forfeited, as well as their links to more than human earth; the country becomes stripped of the particularising stories that holds it.”
If Bradley is right, then it seems to me that the appropriate stance for Pākehā taking a journey towards becoming native to Aotearoa is one of acknowledgement and aroha to our tuākana — the older brothers and sisters who precede us and show us the way. In my case, it is to Saana Murray, to the Tūhoe who welcomed me into their forests, homes and marae, and to an unknown man standing at the corner of a gravel road.
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