Mana whenua – Indigenous research and belonging

Recently, I attended a lecture by Dr Keanu Sai of Hawai’i who wrote his PhD on the illegal annexation of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Keanu challenged the use of the term indigenous to describe native Hawaiian as it means ‘original peoples’ and Polynesians original homeland Hawaiiki has not been found, but we travelled back and forth across the Pacific in sailing canoes and eventually settled many islands, so were essentially migrants. However, over the millennium we have attained Ahikaa, right of occupation and customary use of the land. I had a little debate with Keanu about the fact that some of our Taranaki oral traditions say there were people here who predated the waka people and so could argue that some of our ancestors were already here and whose historical narratives state that as the tangata whenua, the people who belonged to the land.

When Europeans arrived, they quickly moved to establish an agreement with the mana whenua, the chiefs who held authority over the land and that is when a treaty was drafted and taken around the country to be signed by as many as would agree. It took Williams and Hadfield many days to convince the people of Kapiti coast to agree to sign Te Tiriti. I spent some time in the library and discovered that nine copies of Te Tiriti were signed by Māori ancestors including my own Te Atiawa tupuna from Te Tauihu and Waikanae. I saw a tupuna name I recognised from our whakapapa. So through a quick search found out today that one of my tupuna signed the Williams copy of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I was quite surprised about that and so have shared it on my Whānau Facebook page and shared the link so that others can also share in this knowledge. Further investigation led me to a scanned version of the Treaty with the original signatories’ marks and so I looked at a small piece of family history, the squiggly mark of Koinaki on paper, something that Hoskins and Jones (2015) described as having ‘thingly’ power. That squiggly mark looked like the one above it and it seemed to me that each chief made a similar mark to the ones that preceded them and that few of the marks resembled handwriting, nevertheless their inherent mana spoke to me across time.
This is what it means to me to be an indigenous researcher. Indigenous in the sense that I know where I come from and who I am descended from, and where my landmarks and places of belonging are, and that resources and knowledge is openly shared for the benefit of the collective. Knowledge belongs to the collective and this includes whakapapa that Russel Bishop states “is not to be collected and maintained for oneself, but is collectively owned for the benefit of the whole group. Whakapapa is a rediscovery of identity and of one’s place in the world, Whakapapa is fundamental to a Māori world view” (1996).

Tame Iti shared his view at a recent talk at TedX: “Mana comes from knowing where you come from, knowing who you are and connecting to your land. Mana grounds you, it makes you solid, mana roots you to the past, present and future.” Knowing who we come from and where we come from is important in the scheme of things because so much of our cultural identity is tied up with the land. Ancestral sayings refer to landmarks and boundary markers are usually recognisable landmarks like mountains, rivers, cliffs and bluffs or rocks.
Mana is described as personal prestige, power or authority. The authority of a chief was tied up with the land and their peoples’ identity was linked to the ancestor whose authority was spread across the land like a kākahu (a garment worn as protection from the elements, but also symbolically representing the land). Artist John Bevan Ford of Ngati Raukawa became famous for his drawings of old kākahu (flax fibre cloaks) in the British museum, draping them across rolling hills, restoring them to the landscapes from where they originated. So kākahu as a metaphor indicates the relationship or linkages between mana, whenua and being cloaked by the land. For the past year or so a group of wahine have been meeting once a month to learn to weave kākahu under the tutelage of Hinekura Lisa Smith at Tutahitonu marae at the University of Auckland Faculty of Education in Epsom. I started a small piece that will be finished eventually to cloak my family.

I had developed a framework to present my thesis and the waharoa was the first structure in the schema of the thesis. For many years I have returned to one of my marae at Waitara and never once stopped to take a long look at the waharoa – gateway that was also carved by Bevan Ford. I came across an article online at Te Ara Encyclopedia about the making of the gateway and the story of the enchanted dart. This historical narrative or Pakiwaitara eventually informed my interpretive analysis for my findings.
Up until that moment I had been looking for the interpretive lens for my findings and it was standing in front of me the whole time. What I appreciate the most is that the gateway links me to my whakapapa, it links me to the land, the places, and the journey along the west coast from Awakino to Waitara. As I travelled along Highway 31 from Ngaruawāhia to New Plymouth, I read the names of the places that the dart traversed guiding Wharematangi home. In my research, I was reconnecting to the land, to the ancestors and to the marae, through the Pakiwaitara the historical narratives and through research, I found my way home.

Ruth Herd from Te Ati Awa is completing her PhD through AUT with a focus on Taiohi Māori youth and gambling.


  1. Abigail McClutchie

    Thanks, soon to be Dr Ruth Herd for your insightful contribution to our K.I.N. blog. What I loved about this blog was the connection our research has to developing ourselves, knowing ourselves, connecting and identifying ourselves with the landscapes and the responsibility to share the knowledge with others. Your writing style using various metaphors and story telling was very powerful and I can’t wait to read your PhD to learn more about the framework you developed. Isn’t it funny how sometimes the things we look for the most are there in front of us all the time! Glad you found your way home. We just never know when some thing we do or share helps someone else in their journey.Thank you again for contributing your knowledge to the research whanau.


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