Māori knowledge and methods are increasingly being incorporated into New Zealand’s conservation practices. In this story, we meet researcher Dr Priscilla Wehi who uses both mātauranga Māori and western science in her research into Aotearoa New Zealand’s ecological past.
This is part of the series In Her Nature: New Zealand women changing the way we connect with the world around us, meeting New Zealand women working at the intersection of people and nature. These stories are a feature for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020.
Dr Priscilla Wehi describes herself as curious, a conservation biologist who enjoys talking about poetry as much as zoology and linguistics as much as ecology. Her research is transdisciplinary, weaving together mātauranga Māori, biology, chemistry and culture to learn more about the world around us.
“I think the beauty of mātauranga is that it’s another way, a very powerful way, of linking people to places, to practices and to a deeper understanding of the world that we live in. If I was to think about mātauranga and a way of describing it to somebody who’s not a scientist, I would go back to somebody like Hone Tuwhare, to a poem that he wrote on rain,
“I can hear you making / small holes in the silence / rain”
When I think about both the work that I do as a conservation biologist and the work that I do in relation to mātauranga, it’s about listening very carefully to the world and hearing the small holes. Then, it’s about testing my ideas.”
Listening to those ‘small holes’ has led Priscilla to explore physical evidence and cultural practices to provide a window into Aotearoa New Zealand’s ecological past to help build a future where people have a strong connection with nature.
“A lot of mātauranga is about transmission of knowledge that can help future generations to live sustainably and well. There are a lot of interesting conversations that you can have by moving backwards and forwards between mātauranga and other disciplines.”
She studies the “the intersection of ecology and language and how that works together” and for the past few years has been investigating whakataukī/ancestral sayings and what they can tell us about the spread, rise and/or decline of native species. Alongside specialists in linguistics, te reo Māori and biological computation, she explored whether the extinction of the moa could be tracked through oral history traditions and whakataukī. They found that there are many whakataukī relating to moa, particularly in relation to its disappearance. Read more about this research and the findings in this article.
Most recently, Priscilla has been looking at a species that arrived alongside Māori, the kurī or Pacific dog. Used for hunting, food and fur, they were widespread across the country before European arrival but had become extinct by the 1860s.
A few kahukurī/dogskin cloaks remain, and Priscilla has been sampling and analysing hairs from some of the kahukurī held at Te Papa Tongarewa. A mass spectrometer is used to analyse the numbers of light and heavy forms of elements such as carbon and nitrogen in the hairs. By analysing these numbers, she may be able to establish where a kurī came from, what it ate and even maybe where it travelled during its life. At the same time, she is exploring oral traditions and whakataukī about kurī.
“So we start to weave a really interesting picture, using both cultural knowledge – the stories about that cloak, that kahukurī – and the stories about the kurī themselves that we put that together from scientific information that tells us the detail of those dogs’ lives, what they ate and their movements. And from that, we start to build up a really intricate woven picture that together becomes the story of that cloak.”
Priscilla believes that the integration of mātauranga and western knowledge makes her work stronger and hopes that this will impact on future scientists, too.
“Mātauranga has led me to look at the world in a different way and to see things I hadn’t seen before. If my work encourages people to go out and to think about the world in a different way or to learn more about scientific processes, for me, that’s a win.”
Read about Amber McEwan’s research on whether mātauranga Māori could help save New Zealand’s freshwater mussels.
Read Scientists and tamariki working together – one of the PSP Ahi Pepe MothNet project goals is to connect with mātauranga Māori.
Project Mātauranga is a television series that investigates Māori world views and methodologies within the scientific community. Preserving harakeke taonga covers the work by specialist textile conservators at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa when faced with rapid deterioration in the harakeke kākahu.
The article Working as a scientist provides a brief overview of some of the many scientists featured on the Hub. Use it to discover some of the reasons people choose a science-related career and some of the things you can do if you are curious to begin a career in science.
This article was written by Anastasia Turnbull.