Blending Māori knowledge with research for better results

  • Fern. Image - Richard Gordon

    Fern. Image - Richard Gordon

Reversing the decline in New Zealand’s biological heritage can only be done in partnership with Māori and their unique body of knowledge.

We're aiming to connect with Māori communities and their environmental knowledge holders to help strengthen and sustain these valuable knowledge constructs by exploring aspects like the acquisition and processing of intergenerational transfer of mātauranga Māori. 

Led by Dr James Ataria of Lincoln University, this project will increase capacity for biological heritage research with, for and by Māori.

It will empower a network of participants (Māori and non-Māori, researchers and community leaders, policy-makers and administrators) to utilise mātauranga Māori and embed best practice mātauranga Māori in biological heritage programmes. It will contribute to the Challenge Mission by developing and applying tools (frameworks, methodologies) that empower Māori communities to gather both historical and new knowledge (including data, tools, technologies) relevant to biodiversity within their rohe. Also to use that knowledge (data, tools, technologies) for their benefit and the benefit of Aotearoa New Zealand.


This project will co-develop a methodology for mātauranga Māori holders and potential contemporary and future users that facilitates the application of this knowledge to restore and futureproof mātauranga Māori processes and frameworks.

A kupenga (fishing net) is a useful analogy that frames our approach. Traditional mātauranga (knowledge) associated with kupenga design and construction was once widespread and embedded in communities but has eroded over time. In this project, current mātauranga associated with biodiversity is symbolised by the eroded net. Our project aims to assemble pockets of existing net-building mātauranga (biodiversity knowledge) in order to explore frameworks that rejuvenate and sustain net-building knowledge (biodiversity knowledge) and practice, now and into the future. Weaving individual knowledge holders’ contributions together will identify strengths and holes in the kupenga, and the latter will inevitably require further attention. Once mended/completed this kupenga can be deployed to continue to serve Māori interests on mission-critical issues for the Biological Heritage Challenge; iwi, hapū, whānau management of natural resources; and create opportunities that build linkages with national and international organisations.

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) has evolved over a millennia of community associations with their respective local environments. Ecology and culture are inseparable - one is defined by the other. Collectively this corpus of knowledge is intimately and spiritually entwined with Indigenous communities through frameworks of familial relationships. Therefore, this knowledge has an important role to play in creating contemporary solutions that address many urgent and ‘wicked’ issues like threats to global biodiversity associated with climate change and the transport of invasive species (vertebrates, plants, insects and pathogens). However, the role of IEK in the conservation of biodiversity has yet to be fully explored and utilised.

The key question that researchers and indigenous communities are attempting to address is: how can we effectively harness IEK to solve these issues that are threatening biodiversity and cultural heritage? This is a problem faced by indigenous peoples all over the world. In New Zealand there is a growing acknowledgement of the opportunities that IEK, known as mātauranga Māori, can contribute to solutions. These efforts are reflected in the NZ science system at both the policy and strategy levels and is manifested by an increasing number of science research collaborations with Māori.

However, holders of mātauranga Māori and kaitiaki (guardians) are inherently aware of and concerned about the vulnerability of this knowledge. Accordingly, kaitiaki are committed to ensuring that this knowledge is adequately protected and importantly transmitted to future generations to avoid the risk of demographic concentration of knowledge amongst the elderly. Fragmentation of Māori culture resulting from colonial processes has impacted the intergenerational transmission and succession of mātauranga Māori. Why is this important? Because the stewardship and restoration of the biological heritage of Aotearoa is inseparable from this body of knowledge. Therefore, this process now requires restorative development and implementation of an approach that acknowledges mātauranga Māori, its origins and potential in local, regional and national contexts. This restoration of mātauranga Māori processes will require the creation of a Māori cultural environment where Māori cultural processes predominate and the well-being of the knowledge holders and the knowledge can be assured - Nā te Māori, mai te Māori mā te Māori - From Māori, by Māori, for Māori.

Facilitate wider Māori involvement in biodiversity management and protection, including co-innovation and co-management by the following focused and interconnected aims to:

  1. Use a plant/animal/ecosystem, identified by He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga, as an exemplar case study to examine how mātauranga Māori was acquired and used for the protection and recovery of the identified species.
  2. Describe how this knowledge of species/ecosystem was processed and transferred between past and living memory (intergenerational transfer), and how it and its holder were or weren’t protected.
  3. Evaluate knowledge pathways including identification of gaps associated with mātauranga Māori acquisition and retention in order to capture and utilise new knowledge (i.e. data produced from evolving molecular technologies) for the benefit of Māori communities and New Zealand’s biological heritage.
  4. Embed best practice indigenous knowledge management across biological heritage programmes.
  1. How to address the intergenerational loss of knowledge through cultural fragmentation and dissociation?
  2. What is the appropriate curation, management and stewardship of IEK?
  3. How do we developme and promote best practices in collaboration and co-innovation with indigenous knowledge holders?
  4. What is the best practice for creating pathways for including Indigenous knowledge in biodiversity conservation praxis?

This research will employ a mixed methods approach that will integrate quantitative, qualitative and Kaupapa Māori methodologies.Operating within a Kaupapa Māori framework demands a research process that not only asserts Kaupapa Māori ethics informed by tikanga Māori but allows for a collaborative approach where key stakeholders have input.

Traditionally the management of knowledge (especially esoteric higher forms of knowledge) was highly regulated and extremely prescribed where entry to these Māori houses of higher learning (whare wānanga) was limited to very few individuals and where successful candidates were subjected to strict regimes of training. We will focus on biological heritage/biodiversity mātauranga constructs and its inherent processes that environmental practitioners access and use regularly.

Indigenous knowledge systems are not static but are dynamic as they are influenced by both internal and external influences for example mātauranga Māori today is a mixture of traditional knowledge and inherited knowledge from exposure to western culture. To facilitate the development of an appropriate knowledge framework we will take a pragmatic approach that uses plant/animal/ecosystem as a vehicle that will invoke a sense of affinity, kinship and passion and will facilitate deeper discussions around knowledge constructs and biological heritage mātauranga.

Central to this research will be the establishment of He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga (‘repository of information - a pool of knowledge’), a group of respected and knowledgeable kaūmatua, kuia and Māori who will examine knowledge management issues and offer advice on the development of best practices and wellbeing indicators. He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga will also be critical to selecting exemplar case studies that will provide an appropriate cultural context to examine mātauranga Māori and provide a level of familiarity and comfort that will facilitate knowledge holder engagement in this process.

In Stage One (RA1) we will develop a framework for managing biological heritage/biodiversity mātauranga via case studies. The first step will be to establish He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga using a process of whakawhirinakitanga (group development through relationships built on trust). Following this an establishment wānanga or wānanga whakawhanaunga will be held where the biological heritage knowledge holders will assemble under a tikanga Māori process to discuss, debate and define the parameters of their engagement with this project.

In Stage Two (RA2) selected case studies of biota identified by He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga will enable us to examine, describe and analyse how our participants and selected Māori communities acquire, retain, transmit and secure valued traditional, culturally-attuned knowledge in the face of declining human capacity, encroachment and demands by outside (non-Indigenous) forces, and diffuse anxieties by inside (Indigenous) forces? Case studies will also allow us to identify and examine the actual and potential impacts (positive and negative) on these communities.

The case study will involve:

  1. Describing how knowledge of the species/ecosystem was processed and transferred between past and living memory (intergenerational transfer) i.e. waiata, karakia.
  2. Examining Māori values and concepts that codify the natural environment including mana, tapu, mauri, kaitiakitanga, and exploring how those concepts contribute to and manage tangata-tangata (people to people) and tangata-taiao (people to environment) interactions like social life and the preservation and protection of the environment.
  3. Determining Māori concepts of biodiversity, alongside biodiversity assessment needs and strategies to address real-time assessment needs.
  4. Demonstrating how Māori communities can reverse decline in mātauranga Māori as well as integrate multiple sources of other information (including genetics) to expand their own knowledge base and develop opportunities from such information like position statements.
  5. Understanding and applying tikanga to develop culturally informed (best practice) guidelines.

In Stage Two researchers, with guidance from He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga, will test the framework developed in stage one of the project.

Research model

Mātauranga Māori Research Model.

The Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, changing relationships with Crown agents (DoC, MfE, MPI, regional councils), and more progressive legislation and policy are creating greater opportunities for whānau, hapū, and iwi to lead, define, measure, and form culturally appropriate responses and solutions to New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This research will therefore contribute to a deeper understanding and acceptance of mātauranga Māori acquisition, processing and transfer of intergenerational knowledge relating to biocultural heritage, and an understanding of how this applies to and is incorporated into the management and protection of NZ’s biological heritage.

Additionally Challenge parties and researchers will gain opportunities to work alongside Māori communities engaged in biodiversity restoration work. We envision strong uptake of the ‘culturally-informed standards’ (guidelines).

This project examines how Māori engage in biological heritage programmes and contribute and gather meaning. Additionally because it is a Kaupapa Māori project it is stakeholder driven, consequently citizens (Māori) are key drivers of this research. We will reach out to Māori communities through the established He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga roopu. It is expected that those communities will regain ‘lost’ knowledge and or practices and find methods for ensuring the survival of that knowledge and those practices.

The project presents a unique opportunity to assist the reconnection of fragmented processes of knowledge acquisition and transfer and to showcase best practice mātauranga Māori management to both a national and international audience of multidisciplinary research teams including Indigenous practitioners and communities.

The research will frame a process to halt the decline of knowledge fragmentation and identify approaches to best retain Māori biodiversity knowledge via a streamlined process of knowledge acquisition and transfer by:

  • Establishing He Putunga Kōrero-He Puna Mātauranga, a community of practice (roopu), who work with mātauranga Māori. As the repositories of knowledge they will understand the complexity and challenges of intergenerational conservation of biocultural heritage. They will be representatives of people who will have an enduring connection with the land now and forever, and therefore are best placed to provide solutions to mending the kupenga (fishing net).
  • Identifing the challenges and needs pertaining to the acquisition, retention and application of biodiversity mātauranga.
  • Developing a framework that articulates for understanding and protecting biodiversity mātauranga.
  • Developing culturally informed standards with Māori for researchers generating data from indigenous species.
  • Testing emerging biodiversity and biosecurity technologies and in some cases developed them with Māori communities.

This project will be led by Dr James Ataria (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) who is recognised as an expert in kaupapa Māori research, mātauranga Māori and community engagement. Dr Ataria will lead the engagement, community research and outreach aspects of the project, while Dr Simon Lambert (Tūhoe, Ngai Ruapani ki Waikaremoana) will mentor and lead the methodological development, international stretch & comparison.

Key Researchers

Melanie Mark-Shadbolt, Bio-Protection  Research Centre, Lincoln University

Dr Ocean Mercier, Victoria  University

International Collaborators

Ruth Bone, Kew Gardens, Millennium Seed Bank

Dr Mariella Marzano, Forest  Research Scotland

Additional team members have or will be brought in to meet specific needs such as Te Reo expertise, community engagement and whakawhanaungatanga skills.

Māori Leadership

Jamie Ataria, Transforming Biodiversity Conference 2017