As I’ve written many times, Mātauranga Māori (MM)—considered the “way of knowing” of the indigenous Māori, who arrived in what is now New Zealand from Polynesia in the 13th century—has been the subject of some kerfuffle in NZ. That’s because there’s a movement, promoted not just by the Māori but by many white “allies”, to make MM equivalent to “modern science” (sometimes called “Western science”) in the school curriculum. And by “school” I include “kindergarten through college,” because that’s what MM proponents want. Because all things Māori are valorized in NZ, and more or less off limits to criticism within the country, only the brave will investigate MM further. Is it really science? Is it part science? And if the latter, what are those other parts?
But when you do investigate whether MM is equivalent to modern science, as I have, you find out that it’s not even close. There are bits of “practical knowledge” in it—stuff like when to harvest berries and catch eels—but it lacks a coherent methodological underpinning. Instead, MM is a mishmash of practical knowledge, traditional lore, theology, morality, codes of behavior, stories, myths, and so on.
I continue to read and write about it because nobody in New Zealand, with rare exceptions, has my freedom as a foreigner to analyze MM without being, well, canceled. Yet I know that there are many Kiwis opposed to accepting the equivalence of MM and modern science, much less teaching that equivalence in science classes. I know this because every week I get emails from disaffected Kiwi scientists who applaud me for criticizing the “equivalence” trope and telling me that they dare not question it themselves. Indeed, some who have questioned it have lost their jobs.
Wikipedia says this about MM:
Mātauranga Māori has only recently gained recognition in the scientific community for including some knowledge consistent with the scientific method; it was previously perceived by scientific institutions and researchers as entirely mythological lore, entirely superseded by modern science. In the 21st century, Mātauranga is often used by academics and government institutions when addressing particular environmental problems, with institutions or organisations partnering with iwi [roughly, Māori subunits equivalent to “tribes”], typically with government funding.
Note the weak tea here: “some knowledge consistent with the scientific method.” Yes, that’s true: there is a time to gather berries and a time to let berries ripen; a time to gather eels together and a time to refrain from gathering. But this is the “practical knowledge” of MM. And no, it’s not entirely mythological lore, but MM surely includes a ton of mythology. As for imbuing government initiatives with MM, that is largely a form of obeisance to the Māori done largely from guilt. (I am not denying here that many Māori were treated abysmally by immigrants from Europe, but rather questioning whether we need to absorb their traditional lore into modern science.)
After I read the paper below, published in 2015 in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand , as well as the MM “flash cards” that I’ll deal with in a forthcoming post, I realized two things:
1.) MM is not a way of knowing but a way of life: it encompasses virtually all of Māori culture. While parts of it are “consistent with science”, most of it is not. This is explicit if you read the “flash cards” I’ll show tomorrow. A “way of knowing” implies a methodology, and MM has no methodology except, in the empirical bits, the use of trial and error. To assert that there are gods, that all things are connected through descent from earth and sky and divine creation, and so on, is not “knowledge” but belief. MM, then, is most often a form of belief, and comes close in many ways to a religion. Its assertions cannot be questioned, are regarded as sacred, there are divinities to be worshiped and propitiated, and so on. This religious aspect is part of the MM “way of life.”
2.) The promoters of MM have higher ambitions than I thought: they not only want MM seen as the indigenous science, but want reparations for the previous hegemony of Western science, part of the reparations consisting of having “respect” for the tenets of MM and of teaching MM in science class as a kind of science.
To fathom the hard-core advocates of Mātauranga Māori and their ambitions, I recommend your reading this short paper, which is online free (click on screenshot, pdf here).
I will put the explanatory MM “flashcards” in a later post as including them might make this too long.
The paper’s abstract really shows that it is a big demand for incorporating MM into not just the science of NZ, but as an accepted part of Kiwi culture that cannot be criticized by non-Māori:
All peoples develop their own academic traditions: philosophies grounded in their experiences over successive generations, and theories for growing knowledge and wisdom. Mātauranga Māori (mātauranga) is the Indigenous knowledge system of these lands. It is dynamic, innovative and generative. The mātauranga continuum is the knowledge accumulated through this system. Government policies and systems have marginalised mātauranga and prioritised Western science, and the past 100 years have seen a slowing in the expansion of the mātauranga continuum. Unless the survival of mātauranga is prioritised, it will cease to flourish. Māori have discussed and written extensively about the ongoing impact of colonisation on mātauranga and tikanga Māori. This paper builds on those discussions, arguing for tino rangatiratanga, including Māori ownership of mātauranga, fulfilment of the government’s obligations to Māori, and the reinstitution of mātauranga as a primary knowledge system in Aotearoa. It explains why mātauranga revitalisation is important and outlines some of the steps towards this goal. We are calling for Western academics to support mātauranga revitalisation, with the vision of two functional knowledge systems operating that are unique to New Zealand.
Even seven years ago a paper in the J Roy Soc NZ was larded with untranslated Māori words (as we’ll see in a day or so, the language itself is considered part of the “way of knowing”.) Note that the second sentence is misleading, as MM is not an “indigenous knowledge system”. While it includes some knowledge, it is not a way of producing knowledge, which itself comes from trial and error rather than any widespread toolkit like that of modern science. Further, a lot of MM’s “spiritual knowledge” is dubious at best, and the divinities that oversee the whole system don’t exist.
To “reinstitute MM as a primary knowledge system in Aorearoa [the Māori word for ‘New Zealand’]” is to make a mockery of the very word “knowledge”. It’s as if one described Orthodox Judaism as a “knowledge system”. And of course to assert that the Māori “own” MM is the equivalent of saying that outsiders cannot criticize it. That’s why the seven Auckland University Professors who said that MM, while sociologically and anthropologically important, was not the same thing as science, were widely attacked, with two of them even investigated by the Royal Society of NZ. No, science and MM are not “two functional knowledge systems.”. Science is, while MM is a way of life that includes many things that don’t count as knowledge.
I’ll give a few quotes from the paper, which I’ll indent:
Definition of MM:
In this paper, mātauranga refers to Māori knowledge and all that underpins it, as well as Māori ways of knowing. Mātauranga is in our stories, our environments, our kawa and our tikanga. Mātauranga includes ‘language, whakapapa, technology, systems of law and social control, systems of property and value exchange, forms of expression, and much more’ (Waitangi Tribunal 2011a, p. 22). It is passed between generations and developed through our arts and technologies. Rāwiri (2012, p. 20) describes it as a ‘theoretical and applied values and knowledge creative activity base’. Mātauranga has expanded in response to exploring, theorising and understanding at local whānau, hapū and iwi levels. As an experiential system, it emphasises relationship-based learning using whānau and hapū understandings in our own environments. It is a complete knowledge system that includes science.
Well, I won’t define all the terms, but you can already see that it’s more than a “system of knowledge”, but also “all that underpins it”, which means “Māori culture.”
It can’t be partitioned into science-y and non-sciency parts:
This paper refers to the currently dominant knowledge system as Western epistemology, and its science as Western science. Western science incorporates knowledge from non-Western epistemologies. However, the structures of Western science—such as the specific compartmentalisation into disciplines, the hierarchies organising knowledge within those disciplines, and the types of knowledge that are excluded or included—reflect Western philosophical traditions.
This part isn’t true. As we’ll see on the next MM post, MM can be partitioned into disciplines like marine biology. But let’s continue:
Pūtaiao, which refers both to Western science when taught in te reo Māori and to a subset of mātauranga most recognisable to Western science (Stewart 2007), is not discussed in this paper. Dividing mātauranga into science and non-science, or any of the compartments that Western knowledge systems use, is inappropriate. Mātauranga is its own system with its own organisation, and it is this system and organising that we want to prioritise.
It’s not clear whether they are “prioritising” it only in the paper’s discussion, or in NZ education, but what’s clear is that this is something that cannot be taught as coequal to “Western science”.
“Reparations” for MM:
Western knowledge has taken much from Indigenous knowledge systems (Kuokkanen 2007, p. 150). Western academics must consider how they will give back to mātauranga. The relationship between Western epistemologies and mātauranga is currently one of domination, power and control. Those who have benefited most from this unequal relationship should support mātauranga to develop equally and independently.
I would question whether Western knowledge has taken much from MM in particular, and I would argue that modern science has done a lot more for the health and progress of Kiwis, including Māori, than has MM. Scientific medicine is one example, and if it has “domination,” it’s because it works—in contrast to the chanting and herbal and spiritual treatments of Māori. And those who have benefitted hugely from the “unequal relationship” are the Māori themselves, who certainly avail themselves constantly of the fruits of modern science (antibiotics, to mention just one item). Western academics have virtually nothing to give back to mātauranga in terms of knowledge, but perhaps what the authors mean is “power and control.” That is, advocates of MM want it to become coequal with modern science. This is why the government (and many NZ academics) are pushing to have MM taught as science. The whole argument is about power, but in the end the fruits of science will show which “way of knowing” is more fruitful.
Cooperation is not the goal. (my emphasis)
Although there will be opportunities to work together, that is not the goal of revitalising mātauranga. The goal is not partnership; it is tino rangatiratanga and reinstituting mātauranga as a primary and independent knowledge system. Future relationships will be between equals.
I’m sorry, but they are not equal. MM is not a knowledge system, and even its empirical bits do not make it “equal” to modern science. This undergirds the attempts to force MM to be taught as an “equal” to modern science—practice that will be a disaster for all the inhabitants of New Zealand, who will not only be confused about how to find out truth, but who will also fall behind the rest of the world in science education, as has been happening for some time.
Finally, some gobbledygook:
This approach has implications for innovation and generating new knowledge. Exposing all New Zealand academics to mātauranga will reveal the presuppositions underlying Western knowledge systems, and expand their thinking beyond those limits. This could inspire new conceptions of knowledge and approaches to creating knowledge. It will also assist in developing skills that promote conversation and learning from different knowledge systems. . . Teaching multiple knowledge systems gives us the ability to experience the world in different ways, to recognise how those systems affect our perception and understanding, and to extend our understandings (Kuokkanen 2007; Stewart 2007).
This sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s nonsense. As is usual in these discussions, not one example is showing how the infusion of MM into science will improve our understanding of the universe. Indeed, the infusion will degrade science, since we would be forced to take seriously creationism, gods, lizard spirits that control rivers, and so on. Teaching “multiple knowledge systems” may be of anthropological and sociologcal value, but teaching MM is of no scientific value at all.