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.
– Stars affect our mood & energy ❌
– Stars predict prosperity ❌
– Supernatural claims ❌
– Non-secular karakia ❌
– Mātauranga Māori equal to science ❌
– Uniquely Aotearoa celebration ✅
– Time with the whānau & friends ✅
Ngā mihi o te wā.
— Te Henare (@TeHenare) July 13, 2023