An indicator is something that can be measured or monitored. We use indicators to see changes or trends in things ranging from an individual bird species to large systems like rivers or repo (wetlands). The change can be positive – as with local tūī populations – or it can be negative and cause harm to an organism or an ecosystem – as with koi carp.
Māori have monitored their local environment for centuries. Mātauranga Māori and interdependent relationships with the local environment enabled Māori to detect small changes in resources used for sustenance and wellbeing. Traditionally, Māori used the term tohu to indicate a signal or direction of change.
What is a cultural indicator?
A cultural indicator is a marker or signpost for local Māori. It is a relevant and meaningful tohu that can be used to show change within the context of both Māori values and the wider ecosystem. Cultural indicators are developed from localised knowledge in collaboration with whānau, marae, hapū, iwi and kaitiaki communities.
Cultural indicators are woven throughout te ao Māori. They generally link back through generations and whakapapa to Papatūānuku and Rangi-nui through important atua Māori. They reflect important Māori values and define the tikanga and kawa for local area restoration, planning and management of resources.
Cultural indicators are often founded on generations of mātauranga Māori. They have local context and meaning and can strengthen and maintain the reo for a community regarding resources, species, customary use and the management of resources. The indicators represent important Māori values, such as taonga species that are highly valued by mana whenua.
Cultural indicators also recognise the significance of rangatiratanga. They affirm and strengthen the value of local knowledge and expertise, and this creates new levels of ownership and community application.
Māori are increasingly interested in combining mātauranga Māori and locally based cultural indicators with scientific indicators. The goal is to find effective ways to include them into regional and district monitoring and planning.
Nature of science
Mātauranga Māori reflects the place, time, values and understandings of Māori. This has parallels to the nature of science. Scientific knowledge is influenced by the society and culture in which the science is conducted.
Declining species impact more than ecosystems
Tikanga regarding the gathering of food and other resources is handed down to each new generation. Embedded in these practices are stories and broader environmental management systems unique to whānau, hapū, iwi and their respective rohe. When plant and animal species decline, the use of traditional names for valued plant and animal species also declines across each generation. This can lead to a gradual knowledge loss of the origin and purpose of the name. In some cases, the name of the plant or animal provides clues to a whakapapa (connections between and within species) that can also become hidden as the name disappears from the local reo.
Examples of cultural indicators
Wātakirihi (kōwhitiwhiti, watercress, Nasturtium officinale, N. microphyllum) is a highly prized food source. It grows in wet areas like repo and small creeks. Changes to land use have affected water quality and impacted habitats where wātakirihi grows. Sedimentation can smother wātakirihi beds. Contaminants such as E. coli in farm run-off can make wātakirihi unsafe to eat.
Traditional harvesting practices encourage long-term sustainability of wātakirihi beds and potentially reduce the risk of bacterial diseases like E. coli. It is just as important to protect and support the intergenerational transfer of traditional harvest and preparation knowledge as it is to protect the wātakirihi beds.
Kuta (paopao, ngāwhā, giant spike sedge, Eleocharis sphacelata) is highly valued as a weaving resource. Woven gently, the kuta stem holds air, which provides warmth and softness – an important quality for tāpau (kuta mats) used for sleeping mats.
New materials have replaced many of the items once made from kuta, but a living repository of traditional ecological knowledge relating to kuta continues to be passed down from older generations. Kuta, like other native plants, is under threat from land use changes. As a result, some kuta harvesters, whose traditional harvesting sites have been lost, need to travel to access plant material and may intrude on sites traditionally harvested by others. This is a significant issue for hapū with limited traditional harvesting sites. To ensure the mana and knowledge of kuta use continues, it is important to nurture existing pā kuta, preserve the connection with harvesting sites and celebrate the mana and
Harakeke (New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax) was integral to customary Māori life, whether for medicinal uses or for creating the many domestic items crucial for day-to-day living. Today, harakeke raranga (weaving) tikanga and techniques are being revitalised and are flourishing on the marae and in wānanga.
Harakeke is found throughout Aotearoa in repo, along awa and in coastal estuaries – although in reduced numbers compared to earlier times. Fortunately, it is a popular plant for riparian planting due to its robust nature and ability to improve water quality.
These articles provide more in-depth information about cultural indicators:
- Indicators for cultural resources by Garth Harmsworth (Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Raukawa)
- Te huakita o te wātakirihi – bacterial quality of watercress by Lorraine Dixon (Ngaati Whaawhaakia)
- Harakeke weaving people together by Sue Scheele (Manaaki Whenua)
- Kuta – the giant of freshwater habitats by Mieke Kapa (Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato)
Thank you to the editors and contributors of Te Reo o Te Repo – The Voice of the Wetland for permission and support to adapt this publication, and funding from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and MBIE’s Unlocking Curious Minds initiative.