The Guardian touts Māori ways of knowing as ways of science

July 15, 2023 • 11:15 am

The other day I wrote about a Māori-themed school on New Zealand’s North Island whose curriculum was run by the phases of the moon—a school that seemed deeply steeped in astrology, and thus unlikely to provide anything more than a parochial and ethnic education to a class that was only 9% Māori, but whose educational plan was based on astrology and local lore for the first eight years of schooling.

Now the Guardian, with the excuse of celebrating the Matakiri, the Māori lunar New Year (marked by the rising of the Pleiades, a star cluster, and the occasion for a new national holiday), has taken it upon itself to report how indigenous “ways of knowing” are creating both a social and scientific renaissance in New Zealand.

The Guardian piece, which you can access free by clicking the screenshots below, is not nearly as bad as some of the palaver that comes out of New Zealand, but it’s so soft on the value of indigenous “ways of knowing” that at least four readers (all Kiwis) sent it to me. I’ll point out some of the “ways-of-knowing” pandering below, and give a few comments by my rapporteurs, but let me hasten to add—as I always do—that Mātauranga Māori (MM), or Māori “ways of knowing” do contain some empirical knowledge that falls within the ambit of science’s “practical knowledge.” Some of this knowledge, like using astronomical or seasonal data to judge when to catch eels and to plant or harvest food, are given in the article.  (MM, of course, also contains tradition, spirituality, legends, ideology, spirituality, and morality.)

But at least to me, and to the people who sent me this piece, the article seems a justification for all of MM, and especially for its value for understanding the natural world.  Some of that came from the sub-headline, asserting that the “ancient knowledge systems” of the Māori explains EVERYTHING, including natural phenomena. The response to that is “no, it doesn’t.”  One has to wonder whether the Guardian, like the NYT, has a penchant for touting woo. After all, it did tout the bogus claim that the Polynesians (ancestors of the Māori) discovered Antarctica in the seventh century A.D.

Here are some excerpts from the piece and some comments from me and from the Kiwis who sent it to me. Bolding is mine:

So far, the public face of the holiday has been preoccupied with star-gazing. But as Matariki comes to prominence in New Zealand society – bolstered by its status, since 2022, as a legally enshrined public holiday – Māori leaders say they are hopeful the country can learn more of the celebration’s ancient roots, in which the positions of the moon and stars are the foundation for understanding almost every aspect of the natural world.

“This knowledge system explains weather patterns, understanding environments, planting patterns, and understanding nature and the movements of fish and eels,” says Rereata Makiha, who is a specialist in mātauranga Māori (Indigenous knowledge), and served on the government’s Matariki advisory group.

Yes, the positions of the moon and stars may be helpful in guiding planting or catching fish, though I doubt they’reof much use in explaining at least short-term weather patterns and “environments”, whatever that means.  But what we can say with certainty, even if author Graham-McLay didn’t write the sub-headline, is that the position of celestial bodies does NOT explain “almost every aspect of the natural world.”


The establishment of the national holiday comes at a time when Indigenous sciences, astronomy, and environmentalism are experiencing a renaissance in New Zealand, reversing decades of dismissal and scorn of the subjects as rooted in myth. Since the 1970s, a slow and quiet resurgence of the customs among Māori – who are 15% of New Zealand’s population – prompted a call to formally recognise Matariki.

The resurgence of customs and knowledge of the Māori is a good thing—good for acquainting Kiwis with the history, sociology, and anthropology of their land, and with some current customs of the indigenous people. And it’s fine that Matariki is a national holiday.

But much of MM is indeed myth. One of the myths, which I’ve mentioned before, is the legend that the ancestors of the Māori, Polynesian voyagers, were the first people to discover Antarctica—in 650 A.D. (see also here).  This is a false claim, but one that is still being pushed by its authors, who got $600,000 to investigate the false narrative (it’s based on a mistranslation of an oral legend). In reality, the Russians were the first to glimpse the Antarctic continent—in 1820.

Other myths like this continue to pervade MM. If you read enough about this stuff, you see that the revival of MM also has a bad side, for the “authority of the sacred victim” that has come with the revival of MM has allowed those in favor of pervasive indigenization to silence their opponents out of fear of losing their jobs, and had led to a power struggle between “colonists” and  Māori that damages science, education, and indeed, New Zealand itself.

Below we see modern science and the customs of European colonists dismissed with a new epithet: “northern hemisphere traditions”:

“It’s challenging, because you’re up against the northern hemisphere traditions that were brought down here many, many years ago,” says Makiha. But the counter-cultural force of mātauranga Māori has outlasted attempts to destroy it before, he adds.

But the most bizarre claim in the whole piece is the one below.  Why? Because the Māori had no books when Europeans came to New Zealand!  Māori was a spoken language only until it was put into writing about 1820—by “colonizers”. Yet the author of the piece quotes Rereata Makiha without checking this obviously false claim (my bolding):

When the British colonised Aotearoa, “heaps” of the astronomical and scientific knowledge that brought his Polynesian ancestors to New Zealand by celestial navigation was lost, Makiha says. “Our books and teachings only survived because our old people were stubborn enough to move them around to different places so they couldn’t be tracked or found.”

(Rereata Makiha is “a specialist in mātauranga Māori [Indigenous knowledge], and served on the government’s Matariki advisory group.”)

As one correspondent emailed me, “This is unbelievable. Especially the claim that they had books when in fact they had no written language before colonisation.”

I’ll quote one more bit from the Guardian:

The fledgling recognition of Māori sciences has not been universally embraced. This month some teachers criticised the inclusion of mātauranga Māori in a leaked draft of New Zealand’s proposed new science curriculum for schools.

Indeed, for MM is not the same thing as “Māori sciences”, yet many in the academic and government establishment of NZ continue to equate MM, a “way of living”, not a “way of knowing,” with modern science.

Everyone who sent me this article cited the subheadline about “indigenous knowledge systems explaining everything”, though of course you could say, “well, we were only talking about weather and fish,” but even the “weather” bit is wrong, and the tenor of the Guardian article is that MM is more broadly explanatory.  Another correspondent wrote this:

I guess in addition to changing the meaning of the words racism, violence, genocide, etc., they’ve now changed the meaning of the word “explain”. Clearly, these people don’t understand the difference between cause and correlation.
A while ago one of the comments on your blog quoted the old saying about you can have your connotation but you can’t have your own denotation. This game of changing denotation to ring fence your argument is behind a lot of this nonsense, as is, of course, ignorance of what science is.

But let it not be said that all Māori have bought into MM, or its nonscientific bits like astrology, as a form of “knowledge”. Here’s a self-described “Māori Atheist/Freethinker” (he follows me on Twitter!), who is sensible about MM and its astrological claims. It’s people like Te Henare who can really forge a fruitful melding of indigenous with colonial cultures. But they are vanishing rare.

35 thoughts on “The Guardian touts Māori ways of knowing as ways of science

  1. Interesting to have the Guardian on supposed indigenous ways of knowing among the Māori on the same day as photos of some ancient tablets with charms and curses. These reflect indigenous ways of knowing in the Mediterranean world. One main achievement of science as it developed in that world was the capacity to recognize much of that body of traditional “ways of knowing” as superstition.

  2. What about the Moriori way of knowing, does NZ push that too? I guess that will somehow be somewhat difficult.

    1. Lest readers are confused, the Moriori were a Maori people which settled in islands east of NZ proper. They were pacifists. They were invaded in the 1830s by mainland Maori and obliterated.

  3. The author of the Guardian piece has a degree in creative writing so she would be an expert on what constitutes scientific knowledge…..

  4. My own elementary school experience in a yeshiva, long long ago, focused on Torah study, which we might call Mitzvaranga Megilla. Alas, none of this Way of Knowing helped any of us to understand the movements of fish and eels, or learn when to plant yams, let alone how to navigate to Antarctica. Inexplicably, the many Israeli innovations now used worldwide (e.g., drip irrigation, the flexible stent, pressure bandages, the Iron Dome missile defense, the Intel 8088 and other microprocessors, instant messaging, the USB flash drive) owe nothing to Talmud/Torah, but rather are part of what the Guardian calls “northern hemisphere traditions”. Ver volt dos geglaibt!

  5. It is NOT ‘fine that Matariki is a national holiday’. There is already a holiday called ‘Waitangi Day’. There’s a holiday called ‘Anzac Day’, which commemorates a failed invasion of Turkey in 1915, as well as ‘Queen’s Birthday’/’Kings Birthday’ holiday.

    There is NO holiday to honour the Asian ethnic or Pacific non-Maori migrants to NZ, who comprise 16% and 11% of the nation respectively. Our tax dollars go to supporting maaori edu-crap, while maaaori tax dollars never support anything asian.

    1. Yes, Ramesh (I looked up your house when you wrote the address here), I know it and the area well. I partly grew up on Arney Cres,Remuera.

      I am in 100% agreement with you regards the bonkers situation in my former home. I remember in the 1980s it started and was all about “Bi-Culturalism” – to which I wondered about the Chinese and less numerous then Indians I knew! The 80s were NOTHING like now, more than other countries even and I’ve lived in Australia, Japan and the US for long periods. NZ is in a league of its own.
      Cheers to PCC(E) though for keeping me informed. I rely on it.


      1. Arney Cresc is pretty posh. Why don’t you DM me on FB, or ask Dr Coyne for my email address, if you want to read the 5 thousand word letter of complaint I wrote last week to the Minister of Arts & Culture? It was about the Labour govt’s anti-Asian culture attitudes and excess promotion of maaaori culture. ( By law, all ministerial letters have to be read and acknowledged, at least by some bureaucrat in the Ministry.) I attached to the email a letter of thanks from the Epsom branch of the Labour Party in 2020, for my ‘generous financial contributions’ — this was so that my complaint couldn’t be dismissed as penned by a political enemy!

  6. Anzac Day commemorates Australians and New Zealanders who have died in all the wars in which they have served. While it originally commemorated the battle at Gallipoli, it is now a commemoration of all military service by New Zealanders and Australians and includes Asians as well as members of all other groups. It is not a “group” holiday.

    1. That’s right, Anzac Day is not a ‘group holiday’. So where’s ‘Samoan/Tongan Day’, and ‘Asian Day’?
      Yet another case of Whites and Maori ‘deciding what is important to commemorate and valorise’.
      For important holidays, why not 1. Maori Day [ ex-Waitangi Day ]
      2. White Day [ ex-Kingi/Queenie Day].
      3. Asia-Pacific Day [ instead of redundant maori new year ]
      And while we’re at it, 4. Secular Day [ ex-Easter Monday ].

      1. I doubt that commemorating those who have served in battle is a particularly “white” thing. More than 16,000 Asians took part in the Gallipoli campaign. But I will leave it at that.

      2. Form a political party and get the law changed. In the meantime, your ignorant comments re ANZAC are offensive.

  7. Again, thx for posting this, I’ll read its full horror later.
    In the meantime, do appreciate that The Guardian is about the lowest rag about, treacle for middle aged alcoholic British women with high neurosis: anxiety they can’t control. Which isn’t their fault for being at the bottom half of the IQ distribution, drunk and beset by woke fanaticism, etc.
    It is an embarrassment. Long ago it USED to write about decent international affairs.
    non-woke lefty, fmr Wall St. trader, lawyer. Current dog owner:

  8. The Guardian wasn’t the only paper joyfully touting the recently-coined myth of Hui Te Rangiora’s journey to and from Antarctica, mind, but here is a particularly egregious publication of it; particularly egregious because it is included in the ‘instructional series’ of the NZ school journal: Hui Te Rangiora: The Navigator by Sandy Morrison. The blurb states: ‘Long before the tūpuna of Māori settled in Aotearoa, people sailed across the Pacific Ocean using their knowledge of the stars and nature to find their way. One of those people was Hui Te Rangiora. Nearly 1,500 years ago, he made an amazing journey deep into Te Tai Uka a Pia (the Southern Ocean), where nobody had ever been before.’

    When I wrote questioning the publication of this myth in its ‘instructional’ series, someone in the bowels of the school journal told me that the “story was subject to a consultative process”, those consulted being the Ministry of Education, the author, “a third party provider who edits and curates the School Journal”, and the trustees of Te Awhina Marae with whom the text and “copywright” [sic] sits…

    A pity the Ministry didn’t consult Dr Michael Stevens, Professor Atholl Anderson, or Sir Tipene O’Regan (or JC Beaglehole’s public lecture on his voyages) whose excellent appraisal of this myth has received such scant attention in the press that the Ministry can unblushingly foist it on school children as history.

    Let me quote further from their reply: “This story is one of many accounts of an aspect of the history of Aotearoa New Zealand… The Do [?] practices of the ANZH curriculum document invite kaiako and ākonga to understand that every story will have multiple perspectives…. and students therefore become critical interpreters of stories and experiences of the past.” Yet when I was at primary school and learnt the history of NZ, (?from an AH Reed publication written by Sir Percy Smith???) I read that Kupe discovered NZ in 800AD, and seeing the large white cloud shrouding the Southern Alps, named it Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. Reading this story did not make me a critical interpreter of stories and experiences from the past – how could it? It was not until I was an adult that I heard of anthropological research that discredited it.

  9. ”… Our books and teachings only survived because our old people were stubborn enough to move them around to different places so they couldn’t be tracked or found.”

    And the old people were so good at this that these books can’t be tracked or found even today. Impressive.

    The boilerplate claim that “science is only now catching up to what the ancient wisdom of (insert religion or spiritual system) already knew” is usually accompanied by the implicit or explicit assertion that people who believe in these systems are better. They’re more loving, more sensitive, more in tune with nature, more relaxed and happy and mentally well-balanced than the nasty, narrow, rapacious attitude of the modern West. They become this way by following the better system.

    I think it’s this last part that’s really being sold. Introducing MM or similar into science will presumably help solve practical problems by giving scientists the gentle and motivated personality that’s the foundation of all discovery. Open hearts and open minds figure out how to stop Global Warming by returning to the simple truths of nature.

    1. Reminds me of my hippie days in the 60s and 70s when “we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Also see my general comment below.

  10. I used to read The Guardian so much that I felt guilty about not subscribing (it’s free, but they periodically remind you how many articles you’ve read.) No longer.

  11. Interesting guy, Rereata Makiha, as a bit of Googling shows. Nothing to do with science, of course, just the usual politics mixed with interesting or sad nonsense. But the Maori “Calendar”? He says that’s nonsense! There are 500 of them, he says, so good luck teaching that. Again, the local, bordering on solipcism of the iwi. These guys should take credit for inventing Post Modernism. Here’s what RM said t

    Q: So, we have the maramataka, the Māori calendar. But that’s not actually what maramataka is, is it?

    No. It’s not. The actual term is “ngā taka o te marama” and “taka” is the reference to a repeating cycle. And the “marama” is the moon, so that’s talking about the repeating cycles of the moon. There’s no such thing as a calendar. Not to us, anyway. So “ngā taka o te marama” is the repeating cycles of the moon. Our old people just used “ngā tohu o te taiao”. It’s only recently that we started to talk about “the Māori calendar” — which doesn’t actually make sense. Because there’s over 500 of these calendars. We have over 500 different types of maramataka from the different areas right across the country.

    As for me, I’m weary of the constant mythical/fictionial talk of the Vaka/Waka navigators. Sure, they did amazing stuff over some hundreds/thousands of years. What is not ever mentioned or speculated, in my experience, is the huge loss of life over those years. Guys like this act like the Maori just knew where NZ and the South Pole were when they set off with their amazing MM Waka Navigator system. Doesn’t work like that. They did have sophisticated experience and traditions based on trial and error. But like all maritime explorers throughout history, there was a massive sacrifice of life, and I speculate that since many of the Polynesian trips were whole family groups (iwi, sorry), the death toll was even more tragic than say, the loss of life with European explorers, which was significant.

    One more thing, and I gotta look this up. The grandfather (?) of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who wrote Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999) about NZ issues, was one of a group of 5 old timers who reconstructed MM, or so he said in an article I need to recover. (My memory isn’t nearly as good as the Maoris). He said their culture, MM, was lost, taken away from them by the colonizers (he didn’t mention lost books, whew) and so he gathered his buddy eminences together and they have put it back together — one hopes they wrote it down this time….

  12. I say let us fall into an intellectual dark age for maybe up to a decade, then when the affects are felt we’d have a new enlightenment.

    1. And what about the children who are at school now, being bombarded with this and other woke nonsense and missing out on a proper education?

      1. Good point. I totally agree with you on that. The thing is I fear we have to have a dark age and a new enlightenment.

  13. (This comment is also tangential to Sastra’s above.) The thought just popped into my head that humanity has begun to bifurcate into versions of H.G. Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks, the Eloi being the Woke and the Morlocks being rapacious capitalists. I’m not sure where the MAGA cultists and other stans of strongmen fit in this scenario. Perhaps humanity is trifurcating…

    1. Upon further thought, I neglected to account for a fourth strain in my fantasy, namely, the rationalists/skeptics. So humanity is at least quadrifurcating…

  14. Hi Jerry.
    Yesterday I submitted an article on another piece, this time in the New Zealand media (Graham-McLay, 2023):

    I have commented there on The Guardian article too and will send the link when it gets put online. Here is what I have said in relation to The Guardian piece:

    “. . . the blind ambition of activists today knows no bounds. They will harm our children through degraded education and are doing harm already to science and community relations.

    Nevertheless, it is good to see that Matariki has been covered by the New Zealand media and in the media of other countries. For example, The Guardian of 13 July 2023 features an article of interest – Indigenous renaissance: Māori hope Matariki holiday will help cement status of local knowledge (Graham-McLay, 2023).

    Here, we are told that the festival of Matariki marks the mid-winter rising of a particular constellation – the Pleiades star cluster – and signifies a time of beginnings and endings, coming together, remembrance of the dead, and traditionally, the planning of crops and planting. We agree that this is a delightful and very charming idea, and all of us should remember those once close to us, but who are no longer with us.

    The article informs us that Māori leaders are hopeful that the country can learn more of the celebration’s ancient roots, in which the positions of the moon and stars are the foundation for understanding almost every aspect of the natural world.

    “This knowledge system explains weather patterns, understanding environments, planting patterns, and understanding nature and the movements of fish and eels,” says Rereata Makiha.

    We agree that the country can learn more of the celebration’s ancient roots, but those of us who have undertaken advanced degree study in geophysics and astrophysics, as I have, can assure the casual reader that the positions of the moon and stars are most certainly not the foundation for understanding almost every aspect of the natural world. Indeed, traditional knowledge may record and help to understand weather patterns and environments, planting patterns, and to understand nature and the movements of fish and eels. However, no traditional knowledge provides much explanation as to how and why such phenomena occur and, unfortunately, whatever scientific understanding is present within traditional knowledge falls far short of explanations provided by world science.

    We are told that many New Zealanders are hungry to know more about the Māori understanding of the country’s land, skies, and seas. Fair enough! Many of us really are keen to learn, but draw the line at taking any form of traditional knowledge as equal to science.”



    1. Are many New Zealanders actually hungry to know more about the Māori understanding of the country’s land, skies and seas?

  15. I just wanted to stimulate some non-conventional thinking about Maori and their burning of New Zealand’s forests. Deliberate burning not only cleared land necessary for horticulture in the only way they had before steel axes. It also kept the forests away from their settlements so that when unexpected fire broke out, they had a burned off fire-break, or at least an avenue for escape. Remember no indigenous people had any way to extinguish a blaze bigger than a cooking fire.

    There is some respect now for the idea that suppressing forest fires as we have been doing for 100 years to protect an economic resource allows the fuel load to build up in the forests, especially from dead falls, so that when fire starts it becomes a large conflagration. This is aggravated by the collapse of the demand for newsprint, the only thing (other than toilet paper and cardboard) those northern boreal trees are useful for. Far fewer trees are being cut and dragged out to paper mills.

    Native people in the Americas say that their traditional prescribed burns reduced the danger of really large firestorms that threatened their very lives. There is some interest in having another look at this approach in the spirit of reconciliation — one that professional foresters know about — but the pushback is that people who build houses in the woods expect the province to send airplanes to put fires out, not start them. And the tree huggers think every tree is sacred. Woo is not the exclusive weakness of indigenous people. But this is the kind of practical knowledge that is part of Mātauranga Māori and is worth a look. When to catch eels, when to burn the forests.

    With global warming, the trees and soil are drier. Insect pests like pine borer beetles don’t freeze to death in the milder winters and can kill entire forests in a couple of years. The standing pitch-laden dry softwood burns explosively. It might be that controlled burns just can’t be done in this kind of environment — they’ll all become uncontrolled and require the hard slog of firefighting we’ve been seeing this spring.

    But I just don’t want the Maori to be criticized thoughtlessly for burning so much of New Zealand’s forests. Just because we associate preserving forests with environmental stewardship doesn’t mean people for whom forests were a nuisance and a danger had to think the same way. It also must be admitted that replanting forests to mitigate global warming runs up against the reality that if you have a lot more trees, a lot of them are going to burn.

  16. Already in an ancient Eskimo legend it was written: “don’t eat that yellow snow’
    (Frank Zappa)

    1. “(MM, of course, also contains tradition, spirituality, legends, ideology, spirituality, and morality.)”

      That’s not got much spirituality in it.

  17. These are mythologies- which “marginalized” and colonized indigenous peoples everywhere (Australasia, Africa, Americas, etc.) have for centuries found comforting, uplifting, validating. They have very little practical application to modern day biology, geology, medicine, physics, etc., as indigenous scientists know. Indigenous geologists do not believe in the creation myths that Matauranga-like “just-so-stories’ dictate, but they understandably don’t want to publically repudiate their native culture.
    These beliefs do contribute to some degree to a general anti-science or epistemological relativism that pervades “woke” critical theory discourse, but their main damage seems to be in early-grade scholastics.
    Can we get to a world where we tolerate this kind of sentimental nativist mythology being “taught” (as what?) in the primary grades while at the same time allowing real science education to happen? Or is it to be a war?

    1. It gets worse, I’ve heard claims that NZ schools are going to drop teaching reading/writing/maths because these things are ‘Colonialist’. I wonder just how much attention at these ‘Maori Schools’ to literacy/numeracy…

  18. Thanks to PCC(E) I have been made aware of the rise of MM in NZ for a while so wasn’t surprised to see The Guardian article, just that it took them as long as it did to jump on the Mātauranga Māori bandwagon (although according to the Guardian website’s own navigation bar, the “World” is divided into Europe, US, Americas. Asia, Australia, Middle East and Africa, so they may not be endearing themselves to Kiwis.)

    I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help thinking that, given the numbers involved, this story below might be of even greater concern than the assault on rationality in New Zealand:

    Population of New Zealand: 5.1 million
    Population of India: 1.4 billion

  19. Here is a different approach: one that does work to incorporate modern science and indigenous knowledge. Yes, it still talks of water as a “living thing” but this is expressed more in the context of cultural values and a framework for action, while the assessment of the status of the water is firmly in the framework of modern scientific data collection and analysis. Not perfect, but it shows that there is a middle way.

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