Māori official in New Zealand’s Coast Guard insists that prayer to a god is the key to reducing drowning

January 13, 2022 • 10:45 am

This very short article appeared in Waatea News, which I gather is a purveyor of news related to the Māori of New Zealand. (It also runs, I believe, the country’s only Māori radio station.) I’m putting it up for one reason, and then we’ll get a break from the Kiwis and the iwi for a while.

First, a short answer: why am I banging on so much about Māori “ways of knowing”, codified as  mātauranga Māori? The answer is simple: this set of “ways of knowing” may (and likely will) be taught in New Zealand science classes as co-equal to modern science. And I happen to be a big fan of New Zealand, so it saddens me to see this happening. New Zealand is, after all, by and large an enlightened land, but this is a huge exception.

I’m under no illusion that it can be stopped. Jacinda Ardern’s government is too keen to look inclusive, as are many New Zealand academics.

And there’s nothing wrong with inclusivity, but when you want to “include” in science class a mixture of legend, oral tradition, philosophy, morality, creationism, and, yes, a few bits of genuine knowledge, and parade the mixture as “equivalent to modern science”, then I get angry. Keep your damn hands off science! In fact, this same debasing of science is happening in the U.S., and for largely the same reasons. Sometimes I’m glad I’m retired.

And now we see, in this article at least, not just a justification for prayer, but a claim that praying is the key to keep people from drowning. And it’s made by an official of the NZ Coast Guard. I am not making this up. Read and weep:

Here’s the entire article. I’ve put the interesting bits in bold:

The top Māori manager at Tautiaki Moana Aotearoa – Coastguard New Zealand – says traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing [sic] toll.

Kaihautū Māori, Pererika Makiha, says the Māori god of the sea, Tangaroa, has the final say when it comes to swimming in his domain.

More than 30 people have lost their lives in rivers, lakes and seas over the summer holiday period. Coastguard and its volunteer rescue crews provide the primary maritime search and rescue service in the country.

Pictured at a special ceremony held by Te Arawa iwi to gift a Māori name to Coastguard late last year are – from left to right – Water Safety New Zealand kaihautū Rob Hewitt and chief executive Daniel Gerrard, and Coastguard chief executive Callum Gillespie and kaithautū Māori Pererika Makiha.

Karakia are the way people – children as well as adults – communicate with the gods.

Makiha says there were numerous kinds of karakia – some are still recited today for activities such as gathering kaimoana (seafood) and the sport of waka ama – and reviving those rituals of old could be a way to help keep people safe in the water.

In other words, we don’t need more lifeguards—we need more prayer.

Okay, it’s one thing to realize that prayer is futile since there are no gods to importune, and we also can accept that prayer by itself can constitute a calming form of meditation. But it’s another thing altogether when a big Māori official (in the Coast Guard) proclaims that if you pray to Tangaroa, drowning deaths will decrease.

You’d think the guy would be embarrassed to say something this ludicrous, but it may be his form of  mātauranga Māori.  If this is “knowledge”, give me ignorance. I worry that the numinous aspects of  mātauranga Māori will indeed nose their way into science classes in NZ. And will PM Ardern stand up against them? Don’t count on it!

Besides, are there now going to be “god wars” in schools, pitting Jesus or Neptune against Tangaroa?

UPDATEReader Williams Garcia, in the comments below, called attention to this article in RNZ (I think that’s “Radio New Zealand”), and the article is not a joke. Click to read:

Yes, Māori, despite the claim of a Māori coast guard official that ” traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing [sic] toll,” drown at a disproportionately high rate compared to non-Māori, and a researcher has been given money to study this.

Now we have four possible causes, some of which may interact (I’m assuming this is a real statistical difference, but it hasn’t yet been shown; see below):

  1. This kind of prayer, directed specifically at a Māori deity, doesn’t work.
  2. Māori aren’t praying enough. (But then the drowning rates would be no higher than that of other people.)
  3. Māori may be around water more, as researcher Chanel Phillips suggests, and if drowning is a fixed percentage of immersion for all people, the Māori may drown more.
  4. A tentative explanation given by Phillips, which involves oppression:

One of the few existing reports on this topic suggested it might be because Māori, who had a strong cultural connection to water, no longer had access to traditional knowledge and tikanga associated with water safety, she said. [But prayer is supposed to be better than water safety!]

“Do we still have the knowledge that our tupuna had prior to colonisation, and do we still have that matauranga around being safe in the water and around our cultural connection to water?

“Maybe our high drowning rate could reflect the disconnection or severing of that relationship.”

First, of course, one has to do the statistics, and I can’t be arsed to see if the difference in drowning rates between Māori and non-Māori is statistically significant. But I’m sure someone will do them for us.


55 thoughts on “Māori official in New Zealand’s Coast Guard insists that prayer to a god is the key to reducing drowning

    1. I’m going to suggest that the only good that knowing how to swim does is that you might not panic instantly upon falling into the water, provided you’re not drunk or high. This allows any immediately available rescuer to have some chance of assisting you without risking his own life, provided he’s not drunk or high, too. If you can keep your head the rescuer might not even need to enter the water at all thus avoiding grave risks to him.

      But if you think you can swim and get in over your head playing in the water to where you get cold or exhausted fighting a sea and a current you are going to drown unless there is someone close by with a fast boat and skilled knowledge. Even then, heaving a near-lifeless obese body in waterlogged clothing over the gunwale of a lifeboat is a heroic activity for two rescuers and might need tackle or even a helicopter unless your lifeguards are exceptionally strong. I certainly couldn’t do it, whether I was in the water or in the boat in an exercise we did in Boy Scout camp many years ago. (You may need one rescuer in the water to keep the casualty’s face out of the water, even though you have almost no tractive purchase for lifting there.) We even had the requisite fat guy for realism and we were in only chest-high flat water a few feet from shore. Drachinifel has a Youtube video on the prospects of survival if you have to abandon ship (naval focus, not random drownings.)

      And never even mind the risks from unsafe diving, a traditional show-off activity that only good swimmers undertake.

      Preventing drowning is not about swimming. It’s about preventing foolish risks around water, particularly in ocean-coast countries. It’s attitudinal, not technical.. Traditional knowledge might actually help there.

      1. Even as a reckless young punk I never even considered ANY kind of diving: a few quadriplegics on TV put me off the idea for life.

    2. When I was a kid, every NZ primary school, no matter how small, even country schools with only a handful of pupils, had a swimming pool. All children were taught to swim. It was part of the curriculum. I don’t know when or why that changed. Now, schools only have pools if they can afford them.

      Māori are more likely to attend schools at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Because of the way schools here are funded, that doesn’t affect their education. But it does mean they’re more likely to attend a school that doesn’t have a pool.

      It is true that Māori feature extremely highly in the drowning statistics. Far, far, greater than they should in relation to their proportion of the population. I don’t know if this is related to a reduced ability to swim, or a greater proportion of time spent in the water, or some other reason.

      Three Māori that drowned last week were swimming in a place I know. There are signs everywhere that it’s not safe. Whenever I go there (not to swim), there are kids (unsupervised) swimming. Apparently when the police were still at the location following the drowning, more kids turned up with towels. The police turned them away.

    1. Variations of this have been going on for a long time :

      Maori spirits blocking ‘settler colonialist culture-destroying infrastructure’ occur every four years or so.

      UPDATE : regarding yesterday’s article on ‘Maori discovered Antarctica first’, specifically the Guardian NZ’s article about Maori discovering Antarctica around AD 800, before they even became Maori circa 1280AD, I have submitted a formal complaint to the Guardian London’s article auditor. I included the link to the WEIT article yesterday, including a screenshot of the ridicule the Guardian NZ’s article has attracted here. Unlike my previous attempt last year, this time I have been informed by a NZ staffer in the Guardian London the issues will be seriously considered.

      1. I know a bit about the background to the update in today’s article, ‘Why do so many Maori drown?’
        20 years ago I attended a postgrad public health seminar on drowning, and the conclusions were the same as can be read in the following NZ and international sources :
        The public health professor who spoke stated that Maori drowning death overrepresentation was caused by three demographic factors different to the White NZ population :
        1. More % of Maori lived in rural areas and therefore drowned in areas not overseen by surf lifeguards
        2. Drowning correlated by reduced impulse control typical of the young, esp young males — median Maori age is around 25, that is, a much greater % of Maori population is at peak drowning age risk.
        3. Lower family income in all ethnicities correlates with drowning especially for the family income of under-20s.

        On the face of it, the $120 K doctoral scholarship awarded by the Health Research Council to a Maori to ostensibly study the ‘postcolonial sequelae of cultural dispossession leading to drowning’ is bollocks.
        Last month I was talking to an anthropologist at an Auckland university whose specialty is Samoa & Tonga, and I was told this : A discrete pool of money in terms of university grants for pre-doctoral and postdoctoral research is given ONLY to those who claim some Maori cultural affiliation, on top of the contestable funding given to every PhD candidate or post doc for research.
        Particularly in healthcare, grant money of a certain amount is earmarked solely for Maori researchers. This research grant money is ranked and then shovelled out until it is all gone. If the quality of the research proposed by the Maori candidate ( that wins funding ) is not as highly ranked as another non-Maori candidate’s research ( that failed the funding round), the higher ranked but failed grant proposal by the non-Maori is not given the Maori funding.

        In addition, at least in AUT and U Auckland, many/most Maori students both pre and postdoc are given extra help writing [ ie ghostwritten ] grant applications. This is university management leaning on academic staff to give the students who happen to be Maori more help in grant writing proposals, than, eg Asian students whose first language is not English. The Asian candidates extended extra help to write a grant proposal because of language issues are only given the extra help based on the consciences of their supervisors. It does not come from management directive ( that is, factored into the job performance reviews of the academics ) which is directed to specifically assist Maori ( and more recently Pacific Island ) candidates.

  1. Intercessory prayer has never worked on any of the conditions or gods against which it has been tested. My priors would be that praying to a Maori god to protect against drowning would likewise have no effect. But, I doubt it has been tested. If they seriously think this works, they should pay for the appropriate study to test it out. How committed to this idea are they really?

    1. “…they should pay for…”

      If only. The “they” in this sort of challenge tend not to be involved with spending what would normally be thought of as “their” money. If Canadian aboriginals are any guide, the Maori would be all to happy to employ yet another dozen or two people attending a years long series of content-free planning sessions for the next round of planning sessions.

      1. I was thinking of it as a business opportunity. Invest a little to prove that the intervention works and then market it. “Rent a shaman” shacks on the beachfront could provide seasonal income……or not

  2. I just read an article on translation in which it described an anthropologist’s attempt to explain the story of Hamlet to West African bush people. She described how Polonius said that Hamlet went mad because he had been forbidden to see Ophelia, his true love. No, said the locals, only witchcraft can make someone go mad; someone must have put a spell on him.

    This sounds similar.

    1. When the measles hit Samoa (pre covid) and young children unvaccinated (as was the general population) died at an alarming rate for a small population
      Their govt imposed mandatory vaccination where some would take the jab and immediately race around to the local Sharman as their woo mindset was so strong. Why? Traditional and religious sentiment and practice dominate I would guess. Possibly coupled with a deep suspicion of western medicine, not helped by anti-vaxxers sticking their unhelpful beak in.
      What we here in NZ are also grappling with I contend, to break through the deep-rooted distrust and a fear of losing identity to the western “juggernaut”.
      That is, being pounded out of existence (rightly or wrongly perceived) and the subsequent confusion of being lost.I think all indigenous groups have been under this pressure.
      Many in the west are uncritical thinkers and not likely to change. You would not survive or prosper (children?) on an Island or within a group if you were I’d wager. You would be ostracised or worse.

  3. Sounds like he’s making a testable claim. So now let’s test it.

    Evidently these folks have not learned the lesson of the RCC, spiritualists, dowsers etc.: don’t throw any idea into the science/empricism pit if you don’t want it scienced.

  4. The episode called the Lysenkovshchina in a galaxy far away is often regarded as an object lesson about state interference with science. This is only part of the story. It began as an arcane academic dispute, becoming a vehicle through which careerists—Lysenko, his “philosopher” buddy I. I. Prezent, and their flood of followers—secured status and power in the academic and biological research establishments. The connection with the party-state, with Marxism-Leninism, and thus with the mentality of the Great Purge, was just one of several gimmicks they put to use.

    In the absence of that kind of unitary state power, similar careerist will put to use whatever other gimmicks are available. The contemporary assault on rationalism—using various gimmicks, some from postmodernism, some from “anti-colonialism”, some from “trans” ideology—is best understood as yet another performance of this classic of commedia dell’arte.

  5. I’m a born and bred New Zealander and I am so embarrassed that such a piece of stupidity has been published and has reached international ears and eyes.
    Mind you, some Americans still using think ‘thoughts and prayers ‘ are an answer to gun violence

    1. To be fair as a non-US foreigner, I don’t think for most Americans “thoughts and prayers” actually means anything. It’s really just what the outwardly religious say (or expect to hear) instead of “Bummer, Man,” or “I feel your pain,” after a mass shooting. It’s patter, no cognitive content. (Some people holler “False Flag!!” Different intent but still no cognitive content.) In a country where religiosity is common, patter will incorporate religious imagery. The proportion who would follow “thoughts and prayers” with actual sincerely intended intercessionary prayer is small, I think. Thoughts and prayers are a throwaway for the imagined souls and real-life families of the already dead victims, not for preventing further violence from being wrought on people still alive.

      This is not to mock people who, while in dangerous circumstances prayed on their own behalf and felt comforted or gained strength thereby. A Maine fisherman was washed overboard in the dark of winter and was sure he was going to drown. What give him the strength to carry on, he said later, was not God but singing the Stan Rogers song, The Mary Ellen Carter over and over until the Coast Guard fished him out of the water. (Great song. It’s helped me in dark hours too.)

      Stating as a policy suggestion that more prayer would prevent drowning is just bizarre.

      1. Perhaps interestingly, Rob Hewitt, who’s also in the picture above, has a remarkable story of surviving at sea after a diving mishap. His subsequent advice on preparation seems to have both physical and spiritual components. But he certainly doesn’t say that the spiritual is all you need, and some of what he did spiritually doesn’t sound exactly like a prayer
        for intercession! Link to story below if interested.


        1. Rob Hewitt would float nicely in any position, Id say. The density of fat is about 0.8 of that of water. he just needs to keep his face at the top of his position.
          In fact, all humans float if they keep the water out of their lungs, but some physical features make it easier.
          I have some really scary stories about being caught in a rip current, or being trapped in a shipwreck while scuba diving (in the latter case I was quite close to thinking I’d die, along with my diving buddy), but that would be long stories breaking Da Roolz.

    2. Estelle, I feel the same as you do. Seeing my country turn itself into something between a laughingstock and a dire warning isn’t much fun.

    3. I’m with you Estelle. I’ve always been proud of the high rate of “no religion” that most NZers profess each census, and the fact that it continues to grow every time we have another census. Also, that we were the first country to give women the vote, that Māori could always vote, and they were MPs almost since we had a parliament. This latest crap is soooo embarassing!

    1. In a Wiki digest about “Percy Jackson films” (whatever they are), biographical data on the referenced individual are provided, as follows:

      Also Known As: God of the Seas

      Gender: Male

      Status: Alive

      Hair color: Brown

      Eye color: Blue

      Race: God

      Residence: Olympus. The sea

      1. Percy Jackson is a US teen character who takes on various mythological foes / challenges – originally in books and then in the inevitable movie spinoffs. There’s a strong Harry Potter vibe (kid grows up not knowing his supernatural powers, etc. then discovers his father is Zeus IIRC). Our kids watched the first couple of films on DVD and they were OK (at least, as these things go).

  6. Why do so many Māori drown?
    – Newly funded research will investigate the over-representation of Māori in national drowning statistics.
    -Māori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population yet account for 22 percent of national drownings.
    -One of the few existing reports on this topic suggested it might be because Māori, who had a strong cultural connection to water, no longer had access to traditional knowledge and tikanga associated with water safety, she said.

    “Do we still have the knowledge that our tupuna had prior to colonisation, and do we still have that matauranga around being safe in the water and around our cultural connection to water?

    “Maybe our high drowning rate could reflect the disconnection or severing of that relationship.”

    ****Miss Phillips has been awarded a Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) Māori PhD Scholarship, worth $120,000, for her research.****


    1. Hmmm. Wonder what effect alcohol abuse has on these statistics? It’s been mentioned elsewhere that some Maori, because of the effects of colonisation and resulting alienation, have turned to alcohol for consolation.

      1. Yeah Ross, most adult drowning victims I’ve seen in South Africa were plastered.
        Alcohol and water don’t mix well.

    2. 15% vs 22% doesn’t sound like a big deal, honestly.

      There are probably many other groups 20% of the country which, if you separated out their drowning statistics, would be as far from the mean. Maybe poor people are less likely to take swimming lessons. Maybe people who live near/far from the coast are more/less likely to get into trouble. Surely the youngest 20% will drown at a rate much further from the mean. Probably 20% of the population is teetotal and I’d bet good money they drown less often. The oldest 20% probably aren’t doing too much swimming, either.

      Which is not to say that every drowning isn’t an awful tragedy, of course. Just that being shocked by minor disparities tells us more about the hunger to find disparities to be shocked by, than about anything being wrong with the world.

  7. Jerry’s updates on NZ are warning signs of much worse we can get. I’m curious as to whether the woke revolution has gone beyond anglophone and Scandinavian countries. I have a feeling the rest of the world are watching and smirking. China and Russia certainly are enjoying it – hard evidence of Western decadence.

  8. About 40% of NZers profess no religion. Whether promoting prayers to Tangaroa will lead to loud objections from the irreligious, or covert, eye-rolling scepticism, or provide evidence that those who believe in nothing will believe anything, who knows? In my case, it reminds me that I am very much a child of the Enlightenment and, where cultural imposition creeps into public policy, determined to resist such regressive absurdities.

    Thanks, Jerry, for this repeated exposure. You are now being referred and linked to in NZ centre-right blogs I read daily and other places.

    1. After perhaps Japan and the country of my birth Australia, NZ is one of the most pleasantly atheist of the 45 countries I’ve visited and the 4 I’ve lived in.
      —- Japan, btw, is rarely touted as a country by professional atheists as an example of a country that does incredibly well (economically, socially, morally) without any of the bronze age fairy tale nonsense. Most atheists just point to Scandinavia. Living in Tokyo one can forget Christianity/Islam etc even exist. I adored that.

    2. The last census showed that Māori professed no religion at an even higher rate than European New Zealanders.

  9. New Zealand’s coastal drowning statistics are getting worse, not better

    -Two groups were overrepresented in the data from this report – men and Pasifika. Māori were close behind.
    -Māori followed closely behind with 1.13 deaths per 100,000 people, and 0.91 deaths per 100,000 for other ethnicities.

    ***Dalton said a “European solution” won’t necessarily work, so it was important community groups work together to create an appropriate solution.*** (New Zealand Surf Life Saving (NZSLS) chief executive Paul Dalton.​)

    ***Phillips’ evidence-based model, called Wai Puna, underpins the strategy. It is focused on three key pillars – whakapapa: attitudes and beliefs, mātauranga: knowledge, and tikanga: behaviour.*** (Dr Chanel Phillips a Māori physical education and health lecturer from the University of Otago)

    ***“Water safety is not merely about teaching water skills alone,” Philips said.***

    ***The sector-wide approach indicates a big cultural shift, Phillips said, and for it to be underpinned by a Māori framework was “pretty incredible”.***


    1. I used to read accidents in North American Boating (if that’s the correct name, it’s been a while). The majority of the drowning cases involved alcohol and men trying to pee over the side of boats.

      (I was looking for white water and sea kayaking accidents, to learn from them.)

      1. The explanation of this statistic is simplicity itself. Peeing over the side of a boat makes Tangaroa angry, as well He should be.

      2. Panic, I think is the big one. Kayaks are often nearly as stable upside down as rightside up. Some people who have not mastered rolling just don’t think to get out of the cockpit when they suddenly find themselves under the boat. If you train properly, you will react through muscle memory, and probably will be out of the boat paddling to shore before panic has a chance to set in. I have seen people drown, still in their boat, in conditions where they could have just stood up and waded ashore, had they gotten out of the boat.

        I love offshore paddling, but as I got older and wiser, stopped doing so in single hulled kayaks. If you flip an outrigger canoe, it is fairly straightforward to right the boat, and get back on between the hull and outrigger, even in rough seas. Recovering a swamped and overturned kayak miles offshore is very strenuous and complicated.

        My educated opinion (Swiftwater rescue tech, fast boat rescue certified, unlimited tonnage master, oceans)

        1. Yes, the title page of the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ should be burnt in any swimmer’s, diver’s, kayaker’s, etc’s. mind: “Don’t Panic”. It goes for many walks of life, basically any walk of life, such as e.g. cataract surgery.
          I developed three basic rules there in training eye surgeons, and rule no 1 is: “don’t panic”. Never ever.

          [for those interested in the other rules: rule no 2 is ‘don’t be in denial’ (if a complication occurs) and no 3 is “the Better is the enemy of the Good”. The unofficial rule 3, defined by my students, was: “train your sphincters”, but that is just rule 1, in a more ‘graphical’ way of knowing, IMMO. My students and I don’t see eye to eye there, Ouch, that has many levels, as you can see]

        2. Kayaking is a pretty expensive hobby (I think, I live in Manhattan so don’t kayak), given the SES of Maoris I’m not sure kayaking (which does look hell of a dangerous) is the main reason.
          (see my comment on alcohol below)

  10. I support the chief executive of Water Safety New Zealand, Daniel Gerrard, because he has the same last name as I do, and it is spelled correctly. This is a scientific reason.

  11. As an alternative, did they consider Jesus’ lessons about how to walk on water? I think you can find them in a book I don’t remember the title now (something like “bubble”). I may not be mātauranga Māori but it’s also mythology, so it should work as well.

  12. Just in case of confusion it might be noted that Coastguard NZ is a private charitable organisation whose primary concern is boating safety and who operate a nationwide network of rescue boats. Thus not comparable with the status of the US Coastguard (who are ocassionally seen down here with an icebreaker).

    The increase in drownings is no doubt due to many factors but a major one is the closure of the swimming pools that used to exist at virtually every school. A lack of understanding of water movement at beaches and rivers is no doubt another. A significant number of beaches in NZ are far from safe and fast flowing rivers are always unpredictable. In both cases traditional knowledge is of course useful as it is in pretty much anything to do with sea and tides.

  13. /facepalm

    This reminds me of a story I once read, I forget where (might have been in a Steven Pinker book):

    An ancient skeptic was shown a painting of sailors who had survived a deadly storm at sea after making offerings to the gods.

    “Does this not show the power of the gods?” he was asked.

    “Why yes,” he replied, “but where is the painting of the sailors who drowned after making their offerings?”

    Do the Maori keep a list of all their brethren who drowned after praying to Tangaroa?

  14. It’s interesting how the author in the drowning paper simultaneously proposes that Māori have a “connection” to water, but at the same time that this connection was “severed” through colonialisation. Add a few random words like cultural, traditional, knowledge here and there, and now she can have it both ways without it becoming too apparent: Māori are drawn to water, because culture or tradition compell them to, but then more often drown, because the tradition and culture are also lost due to colonialisation.

    It’s not impossible that both effects work at once in opposite directions, and they conspire in unfortunate effects. However, that’s not proposed clearly. The aim here seems rather to pick out contradictory elements chiefly to assign blame, not to actually further understanding. I doubt the author has an understanding what she is saying in the concrete.

  15. Maoris have a much higher alcoholism rate that other NZers and alcohol plays a LARGE part in many drownings in OECD countries (people often don’t know that fact and I can’t find the reference right now). That could account for some of the difference.

    Relatedly, pedestrian deaths usually involve alcohol – the decedent being drunk – NOT the driver. (No relation to Maoris though).

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