How learning te reo Māori is the doorway to understanding traditional Māori knowledge

It's said that Te Reo is the doorway to understanding traditional Māori knowledge.

Many believe that by learning Te Reo, one realises how the language is interconnected with the natural and physical worlds and can gain insights into solving our climate issues.

It's a language derived from the natural world. Māori language expert Joe Harawira said Te Reo is interconnected with the rhythms of Mother Earth.

"Te reo Māori he reo i ahu mai i a Papatūānuku. Kei roto i to tātou reo ngā whakaaro nga mātauranga ngā mōhioranga," he said.

"The Māori language originates from Mother Earth. In our language, it expresses our way of thinking, our indigenous knowledge systems and our perspectives."

Since the two cultures met, Pākehā have described the Māori worldview as myths and legends. But many Māori believe Western science is slowly catching up with their worldview.

The Māori creation story is better known as the big bang theory. The God of the forest Tāne Māhuta is the giver of life. He gave humankind their first breath - the story telling us that trees give us oxygen.

"I think where people get tripped up is they are used to seeing information in a certain way. Well we've just codified it in ways that make sense and for us to be able to pass it down through the generations. It's simple as long as you look at it through the Māori world view and not try and explain it through a science point of view," said Dr Dan Hikuroa, earth systems scientist and senior lecturer at Auckland University.

The traditional knowledge celebrated most recently in Aotearoa New Zealand is Matariki. It's a small part of the navigational star systems Māori and Polynesians used to traverse the Pacific. 

And it's still leaving scientists perplexed.

"It really astounds me that we get this announcement, 'Oh science has discovered this and science has discovered that and we come from the stars'. Well, you know, our mātauranga tells us that and there's atmospheric rivers in the skies. Our mātauranga tells us already," Dr Hikuroa said.

And it's mātauranga Māori - the natural resource management systems commonly used by Māori - that are now most keenly sought after, such as rāhui, a temporary closure of an area sometimes to allow resources to restock. More recently, there's the use of uwhi, which are woven flax mats to eradicate invasive weeds in lake beds.

And Māori aren't the only indigenous people putting millennia-old traditions to great use. Aboriginals have revived their fire management techniques to protect Australian landscapes ravaged by fire.

Dr Hikuroa's Te Reo journey took a back seat while he became an earth systems scientist, but when he attended ecology and Māori society lectures with Michael Walker and his father the late Dr Ranginui Walker, he realised the two subjects worked together perfectly.

"It was only through Te Reo that it enabled me this new way of seeing and knowing and being," Hikuroa said.

While Star Wars has the force, Māori have the mauri, which is the life force or essence.

"And when the mauri is thriving you can sense it, you can feel it, it's tangible," Dr Hikuroa said.

Dr Hikuroa said he experienced the mauri at Waikoropupū Springs in Golden Bay.

"Just standing there, there is a sense you get that's beyond anything the sciences enable me to understand, but in a mātauranga Māori sense I understood," he said.

"That's an example where I can weave together science and mātauranga."

Gerrard Albert was the lead claimant for his people when Te Awa Tupua the Whanganui river was recognised as a legal person back in 2017.

"The Te Awa Tupua legislation talks about Ngā Pou o Whakamārama ki rō wai, the spiritual elements that reveal themselves at times and give us guidance and enlightenments and how we need to provide for that resource," he said.

It became the first river in the world to have this landmark status and other nations have followed suit to protect the environment.

Albert said the language of the coloniser places the human as the most important entity in the universe and is full of terms the planning world uses to manage the environment.

"So we practice resource management, but the resources don't need management, the people need management and that's what we've grown away from," Albert said.

The Māori worldview on humankind's true place in nature is captured in a proverb: E rere kau mai te awa, mai i te kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa. Ko au te awa ko te awa. The river flows from the mountain to the sea. I am the river and the river is me.

That interconnectedness with nature is the basis of Te Reo.

How learning te reo Māori is the doorway to understanding traditional Māori knowledge