Indigenous Polynesian Awareness: Water from the Cosmos to the Classroom

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This is the tenth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

Once I happened to be sitting in a circle of people who included Tangata Whenua, the people of the land of Aotearoa New Zealand.  ‘Māori’ according to renowned Kaumatua (Elder) Dr. Te  Huirangi Waikerepuru means a person; ‘Tangata whenua’ refers to the people of the land. One of the Western people in the room asked Tengaruru Wineera, Head of the Māori Department at the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki “what do you want from us?” Tengaruru’s reply was “we want to know where you are from.”

I am an eighth-generation descendant of the island of Hitiaurevareva, which is the Tahitian name for the island colonized as Pitcairn Island. My descent is from Tahitian tapa makers, which we call ahu. Consequently, I am of Moana culture, and Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) is my turangawaewae, the place from which I emerged and to which I will return. An important research focus is on traditional Polynesian navigation and engaging in art science projects in multicultural contexts that include working with Indigenous Peoples and Westerners. As someone from Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, water is a natural oceanic home, and some of my most significant experiences occurred in and around water.

An Indigenous or Moana culture appreciation of Wai or water/flow sits in marked contrast to much activity in the West. Water in the West is used to dump pollution in, and carry that pollution down rivers to the sea. Due to the resource exploitation component of Western industries, the basic approach to water has been to thrash it and trash it. Farmers in many countries allow additives they put in the soil to increase productivity, to pollute waterways.

This situation is further exacerbated in academia. An issue in Aotearoa New Zealand is that academic approaches are frequently framed by Western notions. The national population is 17-20% tangata whenua, and 17% is the figure in Taranaki, the region where I taught at the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki. What has become critical in tertiary education here in Aotearoa is to make teaching and learning appropriate to Māori and Polynesian peoples, as statistics show that these peoples are disadvantaged by the current system.

While there have been gains, 2006 census figures show1 that 13.1% of Māori had a tertiary qualification compared to 25.2 of the total population. By 2018, the figure had grown to 20.7% of Māori compared to 34.6% of the total population. So, while numbers have grown, the gap between the total population and Māori has increased from 12.1% in 2006 to 13.9% in 2018. The issues are complex and interwoven but it is important educators take on board built-in biases in education, and move to counteract them.

In general, there is a heavy bias in tertiary education that does not support and uphold indigenous ways of knowing and practicing. Wai (water or flow) as a subject was put forward as central by Dr. Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru in keynote speeches, at ceremonies, and informally. This context is important to Māori.

In terms of providing a staircase to professional activity for students after graduation, at the same time as introducing Wai as a theme in classes, I was collaboratively organizing with Trudy Lane artist residencies, workshops, and symposia (Solar Circuit Aotearoa New Zealand or SCANZ) around the theme.  This meant that highly successful student projects could result in an invitation to participate, which was a success for several students, particularly Māori. Subsequently, thinking about Wai or water/flow has led to its prominence in my creative practice, research, and intellectual life.

Wai, water, flow: Dr. Te Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru

Dr. Te Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru2 is nationally and internationally renowned for his support of Indigenous issues. He was also a keynote speaker at Solar Circuit Aotearoa New Zealand in January 2011, at SCANZ2011: Eco sapiens, organized by Trudy Lane of Intercreate Research Centre. In his keynote he spoke of the importance of Wai, emphasizing flow and making reference to Wai o Tapu – Sacred Water. He also discussed the myriad ways we experience water and flow – the waters of birth, Rūaumoko or Earthquakes, or rain falling from the clouds and flowing down mountain rivers to the sea.

The words of Dr. Waikerepuru within the Aotearoa New Zealand landscape. Image courtesy of Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, Australian artists who attended SCANZ2011:Eco sapiens.

Dr. Waikerepuru is not the only Kauamatua (Elder) to emphasize flow as the key to Wai – other holders of traditional knowledge also do.3 This sense of Wai includes volcanic activity, electricity, geological forces, and the hydrological cycle which incorporates the breath in Māori cosmology according to Dr. Waikerepuru [personal communication]. In cosmology, he spoke of4 Wai occupying the same level as elements of the Universe such asTime, Space, and Energy. As a consequence, for some Polynesians, experiencing rain can be a direct connection to higher levels of the Universe.

According to Western Science, after hydrogen and helium, water is the third most abundant element in the Universe, most of which is frozen as ice, endorsing water as a significant element.5 So there are indeed very good reasons, according to both Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science, to highly regard water.

There are just a few subjects capable of bringing together Indigenous Peoples with those from the West, bridging cultures as well as art and science.  In terms of the assignment for classes, Wai became a theme for Critical Studies, where students made artwork and wrote a paper about it. I could be confident that regardless of whether students were Tangata Whenua or European, or any ethnicity for that matter they would find some access point to the topic that could be personal, cultural, artistic, or scientific. Below is a work by Vallance Wrathall, a young Tangata Whenua artist who was later asked to participate in SCANZ. It can be said though, that regardless of the way students decided to focus on water or their background, there are abundant offline and online resources at reputable sites to assist with researching their topic.

What is central to the notion of Wai is the degree to which it is interconnected to everything else, and the degree to which an appreciation of Wai, water, or flow is shared among Indigenous Peoples worldwide. It is important that we engage with Indigenous groups in projects and invite indigenous leaders into the lecture theatre to talk about and endorse indigenous approaches. Guided by Dr. Waikerepuru, a pinnacle of activity was reached with SCANZ2015:water and peace which saw the participation of Lee Joachim, representative of the Yorta Yorta people from Australia; Stacey Aglok MacDonald and Jesse Tungilik, Nanavut Inuit; Sandy Sur and Prim Rose Wari of Vanuatu; with local indigenous artists particularly Te Matahiapo; Nina Czegledy and Tracey Benson were co-ordinators of this interaction; and the project included participants from the West. The sense of interconnection brings me back to Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the great of the ocean of Kiwa) and the interconnected way I walk with my people and tupuna (ancestors) in daily life. I am now completing a Ph.D. at Auckland University of Technology where traditional navigation has formed an important context for bringing Indigenous Practices and Western Science into the dialog. This is critical to resolving climate change. The practices of Kaitaikitanga (care, for the environment and people) are an essential component of tackling the environmental crisis we all face. It is important now to understand and endorse indigenous approaches as the future of our coming generations depends on them.

Te Wai Rua (The Two Waters) 2015. Artwork courtesy of level 6 student, Vallance Wrathall.


1. Stats NZ Tatauranga Aotearoa. Education outcomes improving for Māori and Pacific peoples.
2. Te Ara The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Dr Huirangi Waikerepuru CNZM (1929–2020).
3. Carl Mika. (2019, p 21). When ‘water’ meets its limits: A Māori speculation on the term wai in Dutkansearvvi dieđalaš áigečála Volume 3, Issue 2. ISSN 2489-7930
4. Te Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru. Te Hihiri o Te Taiao.
5. Phillip Ball. H2O: a biography of water, (London: Phoenix 1999).

Feature image: Small volcanic islets off the coast of Ngā Motu New Plymouth, similar in structure to the volcanic Hitiaurevareva (Pitcairn Island). Photo by the author.
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Pasha Clothier is a descendant of Pitkern-Norf’olk culture which settled Hitiaurevareva (Pitcairn Island) in 1790, and Norfolk Island in 1856. They identify as mahu and have presented works in public space 110 times in 17 countries, with 26 publication credits. Pasha is a PhD candidate at AUT in Aotearoa New Zealand and is a recipient of the Vice Chancellor Scholarship. Core subjects include traditional Polynesian navigation, the Indigenous/Western knowledge boundary and combating climate change.

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