Māori philosophy – thinking about Antarctica

Thursday 6 August 2020
Massey University Māori philosopher and Associate Professor Krushil Watene is part of a group of researchers looking at how Te Ao Māori extends beyond the shores of Aotearoa to snowy white polar extremes.
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Antarctica can challenge us to think differently about how we relate to the environment (photo/Cassie Matias-Unsplash).

Last updated: Friday 1 April 2022

A group of researchers is looking at how Te Ao Māori extends beyond the shores of Aotearoa to snowy white polar extremes. Māori philosopher and Associate Professor Krushil Watene has thought deeply about Antarctica and how indigenous knowledge could offer new ways to think about our relationship and responsibilities to the polar environment and nature in general.

Convening the Philosophy programme in the School of Humanities at Massey University, and specialing in indigenous and political philosophy, Dr Watene, Ngāti Manu, Te Hikutu, Ngāti Whātua o Orākei, Tonga, recently took part in a forum to share ideas and information on Antarctic issues from a range of Māori experts. 

The online seminar series; “Māori and Antarctica: Ka mua, ka muri”  – created as part of research on the Ross Sea in Antarctica through the National Science Challenges’ Vision Mātauranga programme led by Dr Priscilla Wehi (Manaaki Whenua), generated discussion on the future development of Māori voices and representation in New Zealand’s Antarctic science, policy, and governance. The series, convened by Dr Vincent van Uitregt, attracted over 100 Māori from hapū and iwi across the motu, and generated interest across New Zealand Antarctic scientists and researchers keen to support the work.

Dr Watene says evidence exists that indigenous peoples around the southern hemisphere had knowledge of, and connection to, the Southern Ocean and even Antarctica. According to tribal narratives of Ngāti Rārua and Te Āti Awa, the first human to voyage to Antarctica was Polynesian explorer and navigator Hui Te Rangiora. His journey to the Southern Ocean is recorded in a carving on a Motueka marae, and on pou at the entrance to Kahurangi National Park.

Antarctica fascinates philosophers as well as scientists, she insists. “That’s because it’s a place that challenges many of our assumptions about what we value. Antarctica challenges our perspectives, unsettles them – and in doing so provides us with opportunities to reimagine our lives together, to reimagine our relationships with the natural environment and to rethink our responsibilities. 

In this vein she asks: “What does Antarctica tell us about the limits of our current thinking? And how can Antarctica help us to reimagine our concepts and ideas anew? 

The standard approach, she says, is “to take our existing values and practices (grounded in notions of ownership, the natural environment as a resource, and state interests) and to then transplant those ideas – we see this method in the way that we frame decision-making and governance in Antarctica.

“This roughly maps onto standard approaches in moral and political philosophy. We begin with a story about human well-being, and we extend that approach as we need to non-human animals, to other life forms, to people in different countries, to future generations. From here, Antarctica simply becomes another boundary to extend – we simply ask ourselves how our existing concepts and ideas apply.”

Ancestral stories recorded in whakairo (carving) can offer a different perspective on how humans related to the natural world based on different values, she says. “Not only do those stories capture important moments and events, not only do they tell us what our ancestors did and what they saw, but they tell us something about their perspective, about what they were thinking, and they tell us something about what our ancestors valued.

“This highlights the beauty of Māori philosophy in the way that it draws attention to and records the places where our lives with each other and the natural environment meet. It provides an account of the connections and relationships between people and all things – making sense of the world through relationships.”

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Māori philosopher Associate Professor Krushil Watene, from the School of Humanities.

All life is connected

“Within such a framework (a whakapapa framework that charts relationships in descent and kinship layers) – landscapes, seascapes, waterways, natural properties and other creatures are ancestors and kin. Each having their own importance (in physical and spiritual terms), and each woven together. From such a starting point, all human beings, non-human animals, and the natural world have a common origin, history and future,” Dr Watene says.

“Many of our mainstream assumptions (property ownership, individual rights, and the notion of our environment as a resource without limit), fail us under the weight of our contemporary realities,” she says. “We need stronger foundations to take us into the future. We need pathways through which new ideas and fresh perspectives can be nurtured. 

“What we find within Māori and other indigenous philosophies is potentially a rich heritage of stories and concepts and ideas that can provide us with a change in perspective at a time when fresh eyes and fresh thinking is so urgently required.”

Dr Watene was awarded a $300K Marsden grant in 2017 for a three-year study into how Māori and other indigenous perspectives can have a stronger voice in discussions about social and global justice. She was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2018 and was recently appointed to the Advisory Board of the 2020 United Nations Human Development Report alongside some of the world’s leading economists and humanitarian thinkers. 

The Māori and Antarctica seminar series is just the beginning of a broader kōrero for whānau, hapū and iwi to say where they want voice and representation in New Zealand’s Antarctic science, policy and governance, she says. To join in the kōrero, check out the website to view all the seminars and register to have your say in the upcoming online wānanga and survey.