Tame Malcolm and his son Kaiwhare. (Photo supplied)

The word “kaitiaki” is everywhere now. But Tame Malcolm, a conservationist and student of te reo, argues that the way we’re using it “romanticises and dilutes the word’s many complex and profound meanings”.


Growing up in Rotorua, speaking te reo Māori, I don’t remember hearing the word “kaitiaki”. 

This is despite the fact I was fortunate enough to learn from people who dedicated their lives to protecting our environment. I swear my Uncle Mita Mohi knew all of the birds on Mokoia Island by name — he would call them and they would come and visit him.

When I asked my dad about it later in life, he said they never used words like kaitiaki in relation to human activities — even though, from sunup to sundown, his whole life on the farm in the 1950s and ‘60s revolved around the concepts of conservation and sustainability. 

His daily routine back then would astound most of this generation who strive to have less impact on our whenua. Dad was once asked to share his views on sustainability, and he drew a blank. But get him talking about his childhood and it’s clear the concept was the backbone of the whānau. He just never described himself as a kaitiaki.

You see, in Te Arawa, where I’m from, the term kaitiaki is reserved for Atua, tupua, wairua, or other non-human entities. This includes inhabitants of the ngahere and the sea. For example, Te Arawa is named after the shark that saved our waka, and the shark was then referred to as a kaitiaki. 

It wasn’t until I heard Kevin Prime, a well-respected kaumātua from Ngāti Hine, speak about how they didn’t have a word for kaitiaki when they were younger, that I realised maybe it wasn’t just a Te Arawa thing. 

For Matua Kevin and his whānau, conservation of natural resources was just something they did. It was part of their everyday life. It was not something that had a title. 

The notion of a kaitiaki being a celestial — not human — guardian is shared by other iwi. For some, a kaitiaki can mean the guardian of a realm, as in Tāne Māhuta, the Kaitiaki of the forests, and so they are careful to use a capital “K” to be clear the word refers to an Atua.

Yet the word kaitiaki is everywhere in mainstream Aotearoa these days. We often see it used to describe a person who takes cares of others, or to describe someone who takes care of taonga and items of value. 

In the conservation and sustainability sector in particular, the word has almost become the default kupu for those whose main work is to protect the natural environment. It is even used as a title to denote a role or job description.

The intention in most cases, I’m sure, is to signify some sort of deeper meaning than a prosaic English word like “conservationist” or “caregiver” can possibly capture. 

On one hand, this does highlight a beauty within our reo which can’t easily be translated into English. On the other, it romanticises and dilutes the word’s many complex and profound meanings.

I am by no means a reo expert. I left high school with the impression that I was fluent because I could speak Māori well enough to talk to my mates. But once I got out into the big wide world, I realised that there is a huge difference between speaking words at school and truly knowing and understanding the language as a whole. 

I think about the kupu kaitiaki in the same way. It’s a word we say all the time, but do we really know and understand the deep concepts associated with it? 

My entire career has been dedicated to conservation, mainly in pest management, but any spare time I do get, I commit to improving my te reo Māori. What I have noticed are the huge similarities between restoration of our reo and restoration of our environment.

In both cases, we have to be careful that what we do doesn’t have negative impacts even if we start with good intentions. In the environmental space, we saw this with the release of stoats where the intention was that they’d help address the rabbit problem. I think about how we use our kupu in a similar way. I wonder whether releasing them so widely into the world may result in negative impacts that we don’t realise just yet.

For some iwi, the idea of kaitiaki doesn’t necessarily refer to our allies or friends. I seldom see non-Māori acknowledge the more violent roles that kaitiaki can play. Romanticising the kupu kaitiaki in areas like conservation, has led to an absence of understanding that, in some instances, kaitiaki will take human life to guard what they are charged to protect.

I have heard other iwi say that someone can be a kaitiaki only when they are actually in the act of protecting something, thus it becomes a mantle. This mantle can be shared by a whānau who take turns carrying out the responsibility, for example as ahi kā of the marae.

The overuse of the word kaitiaki also flattens our dialectical differences. In Ngāti Porou, for instance, they use the word “kaitieki”. I was unfortunate enough to hear a non-Māori try and correct a Ngāti Porou speaker because they thought they were saying kaitiaki wrong!

My people in Te Arawa have the words “hunga tiaki” or “tāngata tiaki” when we want to refer to a human element of the tiaki concept. Other iwi and hapū have different words altogether for the idea of being an environmentalist. 

I have heard some people from Tūhoe describe the act of protecting their land as “matemate-ā-one”. The dictionary gives the meaning of this as a deep affection for one’s land — however, my mate from Tūhoe says what it means for him is that he would die for his land. 

Another powerful whakaaro is that the kupu kaitiaki simply can’t be used by humans as it is not people who protect the land, but the land that protects us. We can’t be kaitiaki of the whenua when we are in fact, taurima, or effectively children, of our environment. 

During land court hearings, for example, judges and court officials have been shocked when tangata whenua would identify large geographical features as kaitiaki of certain areas and of certain people. For example, maunga were described in court as kaitiaki of large areas of lands, and awa were described in court as kaitiaki of people.

Similarly, land surveyors in the late 1800s were bewildered when they were informed by tangata whenua that the kaitiaki of the land was a bird or an insect. This was at odds with their western philosophy that land was generally owned by a male.

Then there are some iwi who do use the kupu kaitiaki in the way we see it being used in conservation circles today. They describe a kaitiaki as someone who protects the environment. It may be that members of these iwi, who obtained senior positions in government, helped encourage its wider use by including it in legislation.

So, when I question whether we are using the term kaitiaki correctly, I do worry that I will offend some people — especially those who have been willing enough to teach me reo Māori. 

Our reo has been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to the hard work and lifelong dedication by some truly remarkable people. So, who am I, a student of te reo, to come in and start questioning the use of kupu, when perhaps any use of reo Māori should be applauded as it supports those heroic revitalisation efforts?

I also worry that I will upset some of my conservation heroes, as these are people who have committed themselves to protecting our environment and who use the term kaitiaki with pride.

But I’ve found that when I do find the courage to express these thoughts, it generates conversation. Some people have asked me what kupu they could use instead of kaitiaki. To answer that, I encourage them to speak with the local tangata whenua in their area. 

Others reached out to me worried that they had been using kaitiaki to describe conservationists and may unintentionally upset someone. To that, I’ve responded that some iwi do use the kupu in that way, so maybe they could have a chat with the iwi in their rohe and start the dialogue there.

My own approach is to avoid its use. My own people don’t use the kupu in that way, and I am still learning that it means something different to all iwi in Aotearoa.

But I don’t mind what people choose to call themselves. Ultimately, if the kupu kaitiaki encourages people to think about protecting the beauty and diversity of our environment, then that’s a good thing. 

What I do hope though, is that by using it, we take care not to forget the beauty and diversity of our reo Māori — and we strive to understand and protect its complexity, too.


Tame Malcolm is from te waka o Te Arawa. He grew up in Rotorua where he learned te reo, tikanga and bush craft from his parents and whānau. He has spent his entire career managing pest animals, and now works for Te Tira Whakamātaki, a not-for-profit organisation helping Māori communities protect their environment. In addition, he runs his own pest control company and is completing his PhD in mātauranga for predator management.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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