More weight for Maori knowledge about Antarctica | Polarjournal
In the middle of New Zealand’s Scott Base Antarctic Station stands the carved figure “Navigator of the Sky” (Te Kaiwhakatere o te Raki) as a symbol of the shares of exploration and travels to the icy south that Maori had undertaken over the centuries. Image: Anthony Powell via Antarctica New Zealand

In the Arctic, indigenous groups and associations have long called for greater integration of local and traditional knowledge into Arctic science and policy. After all, the experiences of the past could be used to better address the now uncertain future. Such statements had not previously been required for Antarctica, as there presumably was no indigenous population in Antarctica. But New Zealand researchers have now uncovered something surprising and have been able to show that the demands from the North also apply in the South.

Two separate studies led by Assistant Professors Dr Priscilla Wehi of the University of Otago and Dr Krushil Watene of Massey University (both in New Zealand) looked at Maori history in Antarctica. It turned out that the Maori lore is much richer and their connections to Antarctica much deeper than previously thought. According to one study in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Polynesian tales and carvings describe voyages of Hui Te Rangiora and his men into the vastness of the Southern Ocean deep into Antarctic waters as early as the 7th century. They report frozen water and mighty white cliffs, which researchers suspect are ice floes and table icebergs or even the steep walls of the Ross ice shelf. Another connection the research team shows is in the lore of Tamarereti’s journey in search of the origin of the Southern Lights and his position today as the patron saint of the Southern Ocean.

But it was not only the early aborigines who made their mark on Antarctica. In the study, the team of authors also elaborates on Maori achievements in Antarctic exploration. For example, the sailor Te Atu, known in English-speaking countries as John Sac, was an important member of the first US Antarctic expedition under Captain Charles Wilkes in 1840. Later polar explorers who came to Antarctica starting from New Zealand also relied on the nautical and nature-related experience of Maori people from New Zealand. However, the researchers also clearly show that these contributions have often hardly been acknowledged. Although geographical places have been named after Maori from time to time (Tuati Peak in the Victoria Ranges, East Antarctica), this was the exception rather than the rule. However, this has since changed and the study also lists numerous research papers by Maori researchers. “The narratives of under-represented groups and their connection to Antarctica remain poorly documented and acknowledged in the research literature,” the team writes in the study. “This paper begins to fill this gap.”

Maori have also left their mark on the sub-Antarctic islands during their travels. For example, on Enderby Island, south of New Zealand, archaeological evidence of Maori presence on the island has been found. Such islands offered enough food like seals and penguins, but also fresh water. Picture: Michael Wenger

In the second study, published slightly earlier in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the authors also point to the Maori’s long association with Antarctica and show how the narratives and philosophy of New Zealand’s indigenous people provide a framework for a way to address the changes in Antarctica. Their demand is also similar to those in the Arctic. “Global conceptions of Antarctica are dominated by colonial narratives,” explains Priscilla Wehi. “On the other hand, an indigenous Maori framework (…) offers transformational insight into true collective management and conservation of Antarctica. Incorporating Indigenous environmental knowledge enhances our ability to understand, monitor, plan for, and adapt to weather and climate variability, but can also offer alternate frameworks from which to enhance practice.”

“We need to be bold and brave in charting a future in which our planet can thrive.”

Associate Professor Dr Krushil Watene, Massey University

Dr Krushil Watene also believes that the contributions from the Maori way of life throughout history can make an important contribution to the future of Antarctica, both politically and socially. For the challenges facing Antarctica and humankind are enormous. “We need to be bold and brave in charting a future in which our planet can thrive,” Dr. Watene explains. “Philosophy generally, and indigenous philosophy in particular, brings important and valuable perspectives through which such futures can be charted.”

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the studies: Wehi, P.M., van Uitregt, V., Scott, N.J. et al. Transforming Antarctic management and policy with an Indigenous Māori lens. Nat Ecol Evol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01466-4

Priscilla M. Wehi, Nigel J. Scott, Jacinta Beckwith, Rata Pryor Rodgers, Tasman Gillies, Vincent Van Uitregt & Krushil Watene (2021) A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2021.1917633.

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