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Indigenous knowledge ‘gives us a much richer picture’: Q&A with Māori researcher Ocean Mercier

New Zealand Maori

Ocean Mercier, a member of the Ngāti Porou iwi and head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Ocean Mercier.

  • The Māori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, have extensive knowledge about oceans and marine environments, which has not always been valued or recognized.
  • In recent decades, Māori researchers and knowledge holders have elevated the position of mātauranga (Māori traditional knowledge) about oceans in academic and community contexts.
  • Ocean Mercier is an Indigenous researcher who works at the interface of mātauranga and Western science, on issues such as marine and freshwater conservation and management.
  • She recently spoke with Mongabay about the benefits, challenges and “crunchy bits” of working across knowledge systems in this way.

Small islands, big seascapes: that’s how many Pacific Ocean nations are characterized. Aotearoa New Zealand, a country about the size of the U.K. but with the world’s fourth-largest maritime area, is no exception.

From some perspectives, this arrangement might feel isolating. But for many of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, the ocean is something that connects rather than separates. Polynesian voyagers used their knowledge of stars, currents, weather and wildlife to navigate across thousands of kilometers to Aotearoa, where they began to establish settlements an estimated 800 years ago, making it the last large landmass to be populated by humans.

Six centuries later, British migrants began to colonize and settle the islands. As these outsiders gained in numbers and power, Māori traditional knowledge, or mātauranga, was denigrated and ignored. Many Māori were dislocated and denied opportunities for kaitiakitanga (guardianship) over the places where they had ancestral sovereignty, while their language was actively repressed in schools and institutions. In the process, much of their hard-won, place-based knowledge was lost and forgotten.

Seascape of Kaikoura, New Zealand. Image courtesy of Bernard Spragg via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In recent decades, Māori academics and community organizers have led the charge to elevate the position and standing of mātauranga within scientific communities. This is part of wider efforts to honor the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s founding document, which was signed in 1840 between a number of Māori iwi (tribes) and the British crown.

Policies such as Vision Mātauranga (2005) were put in place to help encourage the integration of science and mātauranga in research design and funding focuses, for example through the government-funded National Science Challenges. These are 11 programs designed to tackle the country’s biggest science-based challenges — from protecting biodiversity, to building better homes, towns and cities — and they’re all required to engage with mātauranga.

These developments have not been without pushback. In 2021, seven academics at the University of Auckland penned a controversial letter to local current affairs magazine The Listener, titled “In defence of science.” The letter critiqued attempts to elevate the presence of mātauranga in the school curriculum, and said Indigenous knowledge “falls far short of what we can define as science itself.”

However, the practical benefits of drawing from different ways of knowing have become increasingly apparent. Many researchers and practitioners have measurably improved conservation practice by integrating mātauranga into their work, including in the marine space — from using traditional weaving techniques to build biodegradable mussel spat lines, to implementing rāhui, a practice of restricting access to an area over a defined time period to boost diminishing shellfish populations.

Green-lipped mussels. Image courtesy of Adrian Midgley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Ocean Mercier, a member of the Ngāti Porou iwi and head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, sits at the forefront of this movement. She’s leading a research program for the Moana Project, a government-supported initiative that aims to improve understanding of coastal ocean circulation, connectivity and marine heat waves, to provide information that supports a sustainable seafood industry, science research efforts, iwi initiatives and marine management more generally.

The project is centered on mātauranga, and seeks to facilitate productive exchange between Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) and Western science. In the freshwater realm, Mercier is also engaging with mātauranga to map and understand historical and current groundwater flows around the town of Havelock North, where groundwater contamination by livestock feces caused a campylobacter outbreak in 2016.

Mongabay spoke with Mercier to find out more about the world-bridging work she does, and about her hopes for Indigenous knowledge recognition in research and practice into the future.

Ocean Mercier, a member of the Ngāti Porou iwi and head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Ocean Mercier.


Mongabay: How did you begin working at the intersection of mātauranga and Western science?

Ocean Mercier: I did degrees in physics right through to Ph.D. level, and then did a couple of postdoctoral research projects on physics topics, as well as teaching physics to undergraduates. Then I started learning te reo Māori [the Māori language], my heritage language, and I became close with Te Kawa a Māui, the Māori Studies department, through that process. They had a course called Māori science, and at some point they asked me, as someone with a science background, to teach it.

And that was it! I’d been thinking a lot about how to reconcile the world of what we call Western science with the ways that Māori were generating and applying knowledge. This particular course unapologetically called itself Māori science, but that’s been a contentious term — and continues to be for lots of people. I enjoy being in that crunchy part of the discussion: the interface between knowledges and within knowledge systems.

It’s also a really interesting blend of the physical, natural and social sciences. A lot of Māori science is about observation and interaction with the natural world, such as noticing the different ways light behaves through different objects (which is of course physics), and engineering buildings and vehicles (i.e. waka [canoes]) in tune with those forces. I was intrigued by the interface, and also by the conversations where one culture says another culture doesn’t have science, and how that can be presented as a non-contestable assertion. There are all sorts of fascinating discussions in this space; since falling into it, I’ve never left.

Mongabay: What did te reo Māori unlock for you in terms of understanding what mātauranga has to offer?

Ocean Mercier: Well, for instance, whenua is the land but it’s also the placenta; iwi is a tribe, but it’s also the bones of a person. There are all sorts of scalable comparisons being made within the language itself that are not accidental: they’re absolutely deliberate ways of projecting beyond, say, iwi as the bones in this body, to members of an iwi that are similarly connected into one coherent whole.

Ocean Mercier, a member of the Ngāti Porou iwi and head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Ocean Mercier.

So, there are some really beautiful metaphors in te reo Māori that are deep-seated reminders of our connection to the natural world. Sometimes that can become a bit clichéd: “As Māori, we’re intrinsically linked to the natural world.” I read that often, because I examine master’s and Ph.D. theses, and sometimes I kind of feel like, “aw, puke!” I want to see specific examples. There is so much evidence out there that we shouldn’t just take the lazy route and float the cliché without digging into the luscious detail of that statement.

Mongabay: What’s an example from your research of how mātauranga has helped you to better understand specific elements of the natural world?

 Ocean Mercier: Catherine Moore at GNS Science [the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences] is leading the groundwater project I’m involved in, and they have some amazing modeling techniques for imaging what’s underneath the ground. They’ve also got some great measuring techniques: with Uwe Morgenstern’s isotopic dating, for instance, you can measure the age of water, and from that infer how deep it was in the ground when it broke the surface, or how long it had been underground — and thus how healthy it is, and whether it’s safe to drink.

My colleague Dr. Amber Aranui is exploring how mātauranga can be a “third pin” of knowledge in this process: if we rely completely on those first two kinds of knowledge, we’re actually missing some really important pieces of the puzzle: human observations of what’s been going on at surface level. In Aotearoa, those records didn’t begin 70 years ago when councils started making measurements, but hundreds of years ago, because there are Māori stories about how streams and water courses flowed and interacted. That’s giving us a much richer picture, through the social history of interactions with waterways and springs and other water sources that are connected to the underground — a picture that those first two scientific techniques would be quite anemic without.

A lot of the work in this field is about recognizing mātauranga as another data source to fill in gaps and deepen time scales, and I think that’s making a huge contribution.

Mongabay: How are you working with mātauranga in the Moana Project? 

Ocean Mercier: Our He Papa Moana team within the project are bringing different iwi interests together around the oceans, and deepening our connections to the moana [ocean] wherever we’ve got representation from iwi within our team. We’re particularly inviting [team members] to think about this idea of Māori as oceanographers, and the ways that our ancestors observed the oceans, currents and winds, and understood their impacts on marine life, its movements and food chains in the marine environment.

Aotearoa New Zealand ocean seascape. Image courtesy of Frindo Kveiks via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

For instance, we’ve got a Ph.D. student who’s investigated the way that climate change is impacting upon modern expressions of traditional navigation, in terms of things like reading environmental signs. We also have a central relationship across the project with the Whakatōhea iwi, and we’re exploring with them how to bring traditional understandings into their modern-day aspirations, such as for their mussel farm. Can they support the farm, not only with Western science, but also with their own knowledge that’s of this place and this region, and that has built up over the many hundreds of years they’ve been there?

We’re also working alongside Te Tiro Moana, a group who have sensors on boats that are measuring water temperatures at different points, and we’re in a position now to be able to predict the arrival of marine heat waves. That tells us something about where fish might be when it gets warm, which is relevant to Māori interests in the marine economy. But we’re also very concerned about the health of our moana, so we’re looking for ways that the mātauranga which we’re building in and building up can support better outcomes for ocean sustainability.

Mongabay: What are some of the “crunchy bits” of this work?

Ocean Mercier: Definitely what’s been coming up in The Listener [since the publication of “In defence of science”]. There are points in that letter that I agree with, and ones I don’t agree with, but it’s caused heaps of debate: everybody who’s written back to the editor since then has had a clear opinion on what’s right.

That’s certainly a crunchy space to be in, especially when it’s a non-Western knowledge system under the microscope. If we think about the microscope as a metaphor — as a tool of a particular type of science, and a particular approach to science — it may not be the most appropriate way to look at mātauranga. Debate in the letters to the editor section is not necessarily mana [prestige, honor, spiritual power] enhancing for Māori.

I’m interested in the ways we can do science that enhance our knowledge — and our ability to turn that knowledge into practical, useful things. But some of the crunchier discussions at the interface really cut across that and get in the way, on a general level but also on quite a personal level. They can be hurtful, and undermining of mātauranga — especially when it’s coming from a place of not really knowing.

Haunui waka journey from the corridors of Satawal and Guam to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga up to Hawaii, across to Rapanui and finally down to Aotearoa. It is part of a conversation about reviving traditions and knowledge of Pacific ancestors. Taken at the Festival of Sail, 2011 in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of Michael R Perry via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What might help researchers to approach mātauranga in ways that uphold its mana (honor)?

 Ocean Mercier: I’m working with Melissa Robson-Williams and others based at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research on a proposal at the moment about how we govern knowledge. We talk about governing land and waterways and communities and so on, but we don’t necessarily think about governing knowledge. And we’ve got lots of mechanisms for putting a value on knowledge so we can commodify and trade it. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because that’s how a lot of us make our money.

But we’re interested in exploring what our current knowledge system looks like, and how much space is really there for mātauranga: Will we always have a Western science-based knowledge governance system, that other systems — whether it’s mātauranga, or the arts and humanities — will only ever kind of be a plugin to? Or can we imagine a different model, which doesn’t have one particular knowledge system as the supreme arbiter, judge and container for all the others; where they don’t have to contort themselves to fit into its box?

These are the sorts of questions that we’re posing: If we were going to assume dual knowledge systems, how would we reconfigure governance so there was comfortable space for both, and not just one system sucking the other into it? We want to find a good governance space for mātauranga to sit within, so it can retain its own mana, and work from a position of strength and flourishing with other knowledge systems.

Mongabay: What are your hopes for the trajectory of mātauranga in Aotearoa into the future?

Ocean Mercier: It needs more support to flourish, and it needs to be supported on its own terms. We have to sit down and think about what that looks like, and be real: if what looks best for mātauranga is not business-as-usual — and I’d very much doubt that it would be — then we need to be open to some pretty radical changes, to make sure that mātauranga has the space and spaces that it needs. Because as a society, we need everything, really: we need all the help we can get to protect our environment.

Mongabay: Any suggestions or advice for Indigenous researchers and knowledge holders in other parts of the world?

Ocean Mercier: When possible, the resources do need to go to the knowledge holders that have the genealogical connection with that knowledge. Otherwise, it will lose its mana. So when we say we need resources to support local knowledges, that doesn’t necessarily mean building another library: it usually means supporting this person or that community. Those communities are the libraries of that knowledge, so supporting a knowledge industry or a knowledge economy for Indigenous peoples must have people at its center.

The banks of Lake Kaiwai are ringed with a variety of wetland species native to New Zealand, including kuta, one of the plants studied. Lake Kaiwai is a source of many natural resources that are highly valued by the indigenous Māori people. Image by Matthew O. Bond.


Banner image: Ocean Mercier, a member of the Ngāti Porou iwi and head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Ocean Mercier.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We discuss what seashells can tell us about the state of the world’s oceans, and we hear about the challenges facing the Philippines’ marine protected area system. Listen here:

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