Mātauranga Māori

Now that our awareness and understanding of te reo Māori has, on the whole, improved, this article is my sales pitch for us all to incorporate mātauranga Māori into our worldview and decision making, for all of our benefit. 

7min read

Maybe you’ve started saying kia ora or mōrena instead of hello. You might have even ordered a kawhe this morning, and you could have had a kōrero with your barista rather than conversation, and be busy with hui today rather than meetings. We’re all doing the mahi Rāhina to Rāmere, rather than working Monday to Friday. You’ve probably been watching your kids perform kapa haka since they started school. It’s not just people on the news and the radio saying Oamaru and Timaru properly. Progress! I mean, kaneke! We haven’t quite mastered saying Taieri right, but these things take tāima, yeah?

Ears getting jealous? You can listen to this article instead…

OK, tāima for me to stop showing you that I’m able (āhei) to search a Māori papakupu (dictionary – all right all right, I’ll stop now).

I remember being a teenager and being told te reo Māori was a dying language, and that I would be much better off learning Mandarin instead so that I could be a high-flying trader in Beijing. Having just turned 30, I haven’t put in the mahi to learn either, but the good kawepūrongo (news) is that te reo Māori is as popular as ever! Well, maybe not as popular as it was in 1750, but it’s on the rise and not going anywhere. 

You might be wondering about now whether this whole article is just going to be a series of tīahoaho observations on how things change over tāima, and whether you would be better off drinking that kawhe staring blankly into space rather than read on. Well dear kaipānui, 250 words into this beast I’ll get to the point. 

Now that our awareness and understanding of te reo Māori has, on the whole, improved, this article is my sales pitch for us all to incorporate mātauranga Māori into our worldview and decision making, for all of our benefit. 

What is mātauranga Māori, you ask? Well, prepare for an incredibly ill-informed answer from a Pākehā who barely understands it himself. Mātauranga Māori is a Māori way of being and engaging with the world, which uses kawa (cultural practices) and tikanga (cultural principles) to critique, examine, analyse, and understand the world. Like western knowledge and science, it is continually evolving. Where it differs from a western worldview is that a mātauranga Māori perspective means understanding the connections and relationships that a person or thing has with the world around it. The first question from a mātauranga perspective might be, ‘who or what is this thing I am seeing in this world and how do I relate to it?’ Western knowledge’s initial question is, ‘what is the role that this person or thing has?’

How can this help us? Well, let’s take a quick look at a very personal issue, health, and a collective issue, our environment. 


Our current approach often looks at problems in isolation, and then seeks to solve them. Are there plenty of mental health issues out there, with people reaching breaking point without enough help available? Well then, why not increase funding for counselling, emergency psychological services, and train more psychiatrists? A mātauranga Māori approach might ask questions about the conditions that lead someone to that mental state. This could identify the systemic problems that led them there. Were they isolated from society, and/or lacked a community? Is their mental health part of a wider poverty cycle? What is their whakapapa? How can whānau offer support, solutions? There is nothing wrong with looking to increase funding and access to services for issues such as mental illness, or other health challenges. In fact, it is incredibly important, and there will be many out there who have mental health challenges in the absence of material hardship. However, greater use of a mātauranga perspective could allow us to better understand some of the causes and circumstances of poor mental health, and understand what environment can best help people survive and thrive with mental illness, or other health issues our communities are faced with. A mātauranga perspective also sees the individual as part of the collective. As such, if the individual suffers, the collective suffers, so it’s in everybody’s best interest to help the individual where we can. 


Most of us get a bit sad when we hear of yet another species on the decline, and think it looks a bit grim when we see birds dying of starvation because they have a stomach full of delicious plastic. But enough of that wishy-washy hippie environmental nonsense, how’s the GDP looking? I’m not a bird eating plastic, so, while it’s sad, I’m all right so long as I’ve got a job. We really should try a bit harder not to kill everything with a pulse on this planet. We’ll just get the ol’ economy humming, then we can have a real hard look at the environment, OK? Many of us may not have this perspective as individuals, but all too often the Anglo-Saxon institutions set up to look after our interests come at problems from this worldview, and it is how our media, on the whole, frames issues.

Any of us who have tried to come up with our own pepeha (introduction) might understand that for Māori, self and group identity is closely connected to the environment. In your pepeha, first you place yourself by identifying your maunga (mountain), then your awa (waterway), before getting into who your whānau are or what your name is. For Māori, connection to the environment, and as a result the health of the environment, is integral to the wellbeing of the individual and the collective.

By viewing our environment from this mātauranga perspective, we understand that our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of our whānau, friends, and communities, is closely linked to the health of our environment. This might spur a few more of us into action to make positive change, especially those of us with direct power to change laws and policies. Looking at Aotearoa from this perspective, we cannot ignore the health of our land and waterways, even if doing so makes a bit of money in the short term. Your health and my health depend on the health of the environment.

So there you have it–a basic explanation of mātauranga from someone who has no right to be explaining it, and a couple of brief examples of how it might help us all. My wero to you is to learn more about this perspective, and see what you think. Any of us interested in making Aotearoa an even better place to live, whether we are pākehā, polish, palestinian, pakistani, or even a non-p ethnicity, would do well to learn a lot more from those who have called this place home for a lot longer.

Words by Rory McLean
February 2021

issue four playlist


Ideal location: Sweaty Tent
Snacks: Sharing anchovies from the jar with a Twix
Curated by: Barbara Kendall

  • Shame – William Onyeabor
  • Devo Andare – Avida
  • Joppo + Eno – Antena
  • Goosebumps – bar italia
  • Wildegeeses – Michael Hurley
Full playlist

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