Wānanga: The Creative Potential of Mātauranga Māori

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In this monograph, we explore creativity within the tradition and body of knowledge called ‘mātauranga Māori’. We begin by discussing the creation of mātauranga Māori in history . Here we are able to explore a few fragments about knowledge creation that we have discovered through research. This chapter is expanded by a discussion in Māori which is extracted from an accompanying Māori language text called Te Ngākau: He Wānanga i te Mātauranga. These passages focus upon the work of the mind in the creation of knowledge as this is suggested by traditional whakapapa.

The monograph explores the important issue of the creation of mātauranga Māori. The question is complex as it is hinged upon the very concept of knowledge one holds. In many quarters of the Māori world, it is thought that knowledge is not created by human beings because, it is held, that all knowledge is pre-existent in the world. The goal of the knowledge journey, therefore, is not so much the gathering of discrete pieces of humanly created knowledge but rather the ‘ cleansing of the lens of perception’ whereby the world itself seems to speak (kōrero) to those who have the commitment and willingness to hear.

The world becomes a teacher and the human person becomes a repository and ‘mouthpiece’ for the natural world. This is the theory behind the work of the tohunga (sometimes referred to as a taunga atua ‘alighting place of a deity’ ). In this sense, knowledge is not constructed as one builds a house, but rather knowledge and understanding arises in the consciousness of the individual contiguous with the progressive revelation of depth in the world.

To contrast this, however, much traditional knowledge was also ‘created’ through the ubiquitous human activities referred to as the observation of phenomenon, the posing of hypotheses and the testing of theories (although these activities were not described in this way). These activities also took place in traditional Māori culture as all peoples are struck with the need to survive in the environments in which they dwell. Being able to exist in a certain environment – an island world dominated by the sea, for example – requires one to observe that environment constantly (particularly in an oral culture with limited technology) and to create views of it. These views will, in due course, be tested by experience in the environment itself. The view that a certain species of fish can be found at a certain place, or that a certain flower blooms at a certain time of the year or that a certain plant can be used to weave fabrics - these are all views created through direct observation and experience. 

Hence, it is possible to argue that a variety of knowledge creation processes existed in traditional Māori knowledge. Importantly, however, we note the paucity of information about the creation of knowledge in the history of our communities. There are very few references in iwi traditions and histories to individuals acting in certain ways for which it is said that new knowledge is the outcome. (Traditional stories tend to be concerned with rises and falls of mana.) I argue that this does not suggest that this culture did not create knowledge – for all cultures create knowledge. Instead, it indicates the absence of a view of knowledge such as we hold today, an absence of the conscious idea of knowledge as a phenomenon. This is discussed further in Chapter Two.

Chapter Three introduces the idea of the development of a ‘culture’ of mātauranga Māori creativity. For a long time, Māori communities were understandably concerned with the quest for social justice and the desire for cultural revitalisation. For the past 30 years and longer, much energy and time has been invested in Waitangi Tribunal claims, for example, and efforts to revitalise the Māori language. These themes will continue and are being supplemented by a new movement called ‘creative potential’. This is where Māori communities begin to move from ‘deficit thinking’ and claims assertion and into the development of new possibilities. It arises from a new sense of confidence and understanding achieved through the Māori renaissance of the past 30-40 years. Ultimately, the move into ‘ creative potential’ is concerned to bring our people to an experience of their own mana.

The monograph concludes with some thinking about the ‘creative potential’ of mātauranga Māori. By ‘creative potential’ we mean the uplifting of aspects, features and fragments of mātauranga Māori to inspire new creative and innovation activities. A good example of these kinds of projects can be seen in the recent revitalisation of taonga pūoro (musical instruments) and tā-moko (tattooing). There are other creative developments as well which are serving to transform modern Māori culture and that of New Zealand as a whole. These include such things as the building of houses, agricultural and horticultural practices, the use of mātauranga Māori in environmental management and much more. 

A deeper challenge emerging within these creative activities relates to the implications of a mana inspired worldview and ethics and the potential application of values like manaakitanga, whanaungatanga and rangatiratanga in the modern world. This final section presents a range of ideas that require further exploration, challenge and experimentation. It is hoped that these ideas will be uplifted by a range of organisations with an interest in mātauranga Māori, particularly the modern whare wānanga. The purpose of this section is to assert the ‘creative potential’ of mātauranga Māori to make distinctive and meaningful contributions to both our communities and to the world at large.

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Wānanga: The Creative Potential of Mātauranga Māori
By Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Published in 2009 by MKTA
(C) MKTA 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9582955-3-6

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