A University of Waikato-led research project which draws on the “wisdom of the elders” to improve conservation and biodiversity has won support from the prestigious Marsden Fund, New Zealand's funding for ideas-driven research.
“He rongo i te reo rauriki, i te reo reiuru: Whakataukī and conservation of biodiversity in Aotearoa” will receive $345,000 over three years in a Marsden Fast-Start grant, designed to help outstanding young researchers establish themselves within New Zealand.
The interdisciplinary study of traditional Māori ecological knowledge, as expressed through whakataukī or proverbs, aims to uncover the past relationships that Māori have with the environment.
The project will be undertaken by linguist Dr Hemi Whaanga of Waikato’s School of Māori and Pacific Development with fellow Waikato doctoral graduate ecologist Dr Priscilla Wehi, who is now a research fellow at Otago University.
Dr Whaanga will lead the examination of how linguistic cues place the whakataukī in social and historical context, and the multiple meanings that emerge. Dr Wehi’s expertise is in traditional ecological knowledge and its relevance to environmental management. Tom Roa of the University of Waikato will also be closely involved with the linguistic analysis, and the project will later extend to draw from the expertise of other Māori elders.
“Many whakataukī carry conservation messages,” says Dr Whaanga. “For example, there are a number of sayings about the loss and extinction of the moa, which happened in the mid 15th century. For Māori, when we lose a species we don’t talk about it in a Western way. There’s no sense of separation from our genealogy. They are embedded in our whakapapa, so it’s like losing a member of your family. So these whakataukī have become a metaphor for significant loss as in the case of te reo Māori.”
Dr Whaanga says the researchers will draw from linguistics, sociology, history and evolutionary theory, combining Western traditions of scholarship and kaupapa Māori methodologies. “We want to explore the knowledge and understanding of conservation and biodiversity embedded in whakataukī, and investigate the contribution these sayings can make to contemporary issues in language and cultural sustainability, biodiversity and conservation.”
To do this, the researchers will ‘unpack’ the messages in whakataukī through engaging with Māori elders and using linguistic and discourse techniques. They hope their findings will help inspire and promote alternative conservation approaches within Aotearoa New Zealand.
Two other associate investigators will also assist with the project. Dr Luisa Maffi of Royal Roads University in Canada is co-founder and director of Terralingua, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to research, education and policy development around biological, cultural and linguistic diversity. Professor George Appell of Brandeis University in the USA is an international expert on oral literature documentation and methodology.