Māori scientists say 'slow violence' of racism drives them out of universities

A prominent Māori academic says a group opposed to teaching indigenous Māori knowledge are "spreading a little bit of fear", and their views aren't even "scientifically robust". 

Last week a letter published in magazine The Listener claimed mātauranga Māori "falls short of what we can define as science" and to "accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations". 

The controversial letter came in response to an NCEA working group report, which said "parity for mātauranga Māori with other bodies of knowledge" should be the goal in the Māori school curriculum.

Seven University of Auckland academics signed it - Kendall Clements, Garth Cooper, Michael Corballis, Douglas Elliffe, Elizabeth Rata, Robert Nola, and Emeritus Professor John Werry.

Dr Corballis, whose background is in neuroscience and language evolution, told The Hui he stood by its contents.

"Our main purpose was not to explain mātauranga Māori, our main purpose was to complain about the fact that kids are being taught that science is colonising and evil," he said. "It may have been a mistake to add stuff on mātauranga Māori. We were there primarily to defend science and that's what our article is for."

He went on to say much indigenous knowledge isn't scientific anymore, and criticised mātauranga Māori for promoting "creationism".

Rangi Matamua, a Māori astronomer who in 2019 won the Prime Minister's Science Prize, said Dr Corballis doesn't appear to know what mātauranga Māori even is.

"It is science. I think there is empirical science embedded at the heart of our knowledge systems. It's right across the world for indigenous cultures… it's a systematically compiled knowledge base around a particular subject matter, or it's understanding the behaviour of the natural and physical world through observation and experimentation, and it's understanding the world and our interactions with it. It's all of these elements of science."

Dr Matamua tackled Dr Corballis' criticisms of the Māori creation myth head-on, saying it's not that different to what modern science teaches. 

"If Māori say everything began in a small place with Rangi and Papa and was exploded outwards… that's 'myths and legends'. But when it's a singularity and a 'big bang', it's science. Same as you know, when we say we've got genealogy to stars, they say 'how ridiculous is that?' Now, everything begins its life in a star - every molecule, everything that makes up the entire world. 

"When it's done from a Western perspective, it's scientific truth; when it's an indigenous idea, it's myths and legends. It undermines everything that we do." 

Tina Ngata, Melanie Mark-Shadbolt and Rangi Matamua.
Tina Ngata, Melanie Mark-Shadbolt and Rangi Matamua. Photo credit: The Hui

Sociologist Melanie Mark-Shadbolt told The Hui Māori didn't need "non-Māori, or those who don't specialise in indigenous studies coming in to tell us what mātauranga Māori is". 

"We're used to these kinds of comments. This is why many Māori leave universities - because they get to a stage in their careers where they can no longer handle it. For many of us who have been in universities, it's kind of 'yeah, that's what it's like'. It's a wee bit of the hurt again, that slow violence that happens to Māori academics."

She said her problem wasn't so much with the individuals who signed the letter, but the institutions "that allow these people to operate in there".

"It's great that Auckland University came out straight away and said 'this doesn't represent us'. But it's a sign there are bigger issues, that people are allowed to have these views and they're fomenting away in the university. It is dangerous. It is dangerous not only for current academics but future academics." 

Tina Ngata, a research specialist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, took issue with Dr Corballi's' view that it's wrong to claim science doesn't colonise.

"There's no denying that science has been used in harmful ways. Science has been used to create nuclear bombs, and then apparently that was so great, that person got put on the back of the $100 bill," she said, referring to Kiwi scientist Ernest Rutherford, who was the first to split the atom in 1917. 

"Science has been used also to legitimise acts of war, acts of severe oppression, genocide and eugenics as well. Science doesn't exist within a vacuum."

Neither she nor Mark-Shadbolt work in universities anymore. Dr Matamua  thinks it's "offensive" to dismiss mātauranga Māori as falling "far short" of other science. 

"There is a racial, political, and social agenda by a group of people who are spreading a little bit of fear," he said.

"'Oh my god, these Māori are going to come into our classrooms and replace the periodic table with a karakia, they'll remove the Bunsen burner and put a haka in its place… I don't understand this space, but I'm going to define what it is for this other group of people - in fact, for the entire indigenous world - and tell you it's not science because I don't understand it. It makes me uncomfortable, I think its' mostly voodoo. I don't really know how you got here, but it can't be science - I think you just sprouted out of the ground like kumara.' 

"So not only is it offensive, it's not even scientifically robust. It's a real concern."