Te Ao Mārama—The World of Light
Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, could no longer bear living in the dark between his mother Papatuanuku and his father Ranginui. He braced himself against her body and pushed with his legs against his father—light flooded into the world.
– Māori Creation Story
Indigenous belief systems see the land as an honoured being in and of itself. Māori recount this connection to the original “Atua”: Gods through whakapapa genealogy. Traditionally, the mapping of this lineage was taught to children chosen pre-birth from the star houses—intricate memory patterns woven together through storyline, an advanced technology of its time—this knowledge was known by the Tohunga Elders of the tribe. Today, Indigenous communities are utilising the digital realm as a tool to reconnect, defend, and regenerate their communities and the environment. Indigenous networks, web-based platforms, and data sovereignty collectives are increasing—platforms such as the Āhau | I am’ a Māori initiative document family genealogy, preserve whakapapa, and share cultural records and narratives. This is significant because much of our histories and knowledge have been lost due to colonisation assimilation and with each elder that passes, stories disappear.
‘Ko au te maunga, te maunga ko au’ I am the mountain and the mountain is me’.
– Māori saying
Our ancestors would wrap the bodies of the dead and place them in a sacred cave, and the body would break down and become the body of the mountain. To place oneself in the landscape is to stand within the living mindscape of the Ancestors, to be inherently bound by these Ancestral connections to place, the seen and the unseen, the physical and the metaphysical—from the awe-inspiring mountain ranges, to the microscopic biology maintaining the soil. The daily rituals of life, every song, chant, and prayer, acknowledges the interconnection of life and regenerates that connection. In return, nga whenua (the land), Papatuanuku (Mother Earth), sings back through the life force of every living being—this is Mauri. The kaitiaki (guardians) work is to preserve, protect, and enhance the Mauri; the life force of a river, a stream, tree, animal, person, or community. Through this reciprocal engagement, we increase our mutual mana, our authority, and respect.
Ka ora te whenua, Ka ora te tangata
When the land is well, the people are well.
– Māori proverb
When we are living within the cycles of nature, we are healed; to live this authentic truth, interconnection and communication with the natural world is imperative. Indigenous creation stories, oral histories of vivid and lyrical first imagery, share the origins of the symbiotic relationship between human and nature. Since colonization, these stories have been relegated as “myth” and by doing so, the wisdom held within them has been negated. Indigenous Traditional Knowledge systems require practising daily rituals of spiritual interconnection with the natural world. In the not-so-distant past, practising this Ancestral methodology meant sustaining ridicule, torture, imprisonment, and death. We endured a living sentence of disconnection, distraction, and assimilation, educating away from connectedness and wholeness with the land; a slow and painful intergenerational disintegration of the sacred thread as it was erased from collective and tribal memory.
In Aotearoa, New Zealand, First Nation Māori visualise time as a perpetually unfolding spiral, one in which we all coexist within the past, present, and future, known as “Te Aho Tapu,” the sacred thread that binds all living beings. One need only to watch the unfurling fronds of a fern tree to understand this concept from Ancestral Knowledge baskets and the correlations made between nature, learning, and survival. The stories of tribal injustice and loss were maintained by collectives of Elders who recounted the living memory within tribal communities. This has become the way of the past, knowledge recounted through oral storytelling; using this method, genealogies could be traced through time.
The histories of the Māori land wars have not been taught in schools, therefore many Māori and non-Māori do not know the true histories of Aotearoa and the land they live on. Storytelling through film, like the documentary Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka, helps to reveal these true histories. Released in 2012, the documentary recounts the tragic story of Parihaka, a Māori settlement founded in 1860.
Māori came to Parihaka from all over Aotearoa; those who were disposed of their land due to the first arrivals from Europe. Founded by the spiritual leaders and prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, Parihaka was known by Māori as a place of peaceful resistance. Unfortunately, Māori politicians who were educated by new western systems were eager to keep up with the influx of trade opportunities from Europe and believed spiritual leaders inhibited progress for Māori. The Tohunga Suppression Act was formed in 1907 to prevent Māori Elders practicing Wairuatanga spiritualism for health and wellbeing (this was not repealed until 1962). The Government knew there was no plan of war within the Parihaka settlement, yet they charged Te Whiti with sedition, and he was arrested along with many of the men from within the Parihaka settlement and imprisoned in the South Island. On the 5th November, 1881, the women and children of the settlement sat quietly waiting as 1600 troops marched on to the land. The children stood together and sang, holding white feathers of peace, as the troops of mostly volunteer European men approached. The people who had peacefully sought refuge in this sacred place were brutally attacked and murdered.
Living proof of the impact of this dark time is depicted in Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka as the film tells the story of the emotional journey of a group of children, direct descendants of Parihaka, as they retrace the steps of their Ancestors to the South Island prisons. Stories like this represent the consequences of historic injustice, and they visualise the intergenerational trauma experienced by contemporary indigenous communities. The viewer shares in the experience and emotion of discovery, growing an empathic understanding of the genetic history carried by the descendants today.
“One need only to watch the unfurling fronds of a fern tree to understand this concept from Ancestral Knowledge baskets and the correlations made between nature, learning, and survival.” –Tanya Ruka, Photo Credit: Alyssa Bardy, Chicory Wild Creative
Whakapapa Genealogy and the Power of Connection to Place through Story. Te Urewera Act 2014.
Three Notes of Background to this Act:
(1) Te Urewera is ancient and enduring, a fortress of nature, alive with history; its scenery is abundant with mystery, adventure and remote beauty.
(2) Te Urewera is a place of spiritual value, with its own mana and mauri.
(3) Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.
– Te Urewera Act 2014
When the first influenza pandemic hit Aotearoa in 1918, over nine thousand New Zealanders died. Two thousand five hundred were Māori. Rua Kēnana, a Māori prophet of Ngāi Tūhoe nation, experienced prophetic dreams. Because of these dreams, Rua Kēnana led his people into the Urewera mountain ranges to Maungapohatu in order to escape the manipulation of the Crown’s governing representatives. In 1863 the Land Confiscation Act had been introduced to punish tribes who were deemed to be engaging in “open rebellion.” This meant that many disposed Māori were now living in areas that created greater health risks such as undesirable swamp lands. This made the people more susceptible to the diseases and viral infections that arrived with the coloniser. As a matter of convenience also reducing Māori populations and competition for prime land and resources. Maungapohatu was a place of healing and spiritual restoration. Rua told the people who returned from colonial settlements to clean themselves down, including their clothing and baggage. Because of his dreams, Rua Kēnana was aware of the devastating effects of viral infections. In 1916, two years before the pandemic reached its height, the police raided the community of Maungapohatu. Rua and his brother were both arrested for sedition. This was a systematic response to extinguish groups of Māori who refused to abide by British rule.
Almost nine decades later in 2007, the Ngāi Tūhoe nation was again raided under claims of terrorist activities. Women and children were detained in their homes without food and water. This was also the home of renowned Māori activist Tama Iti who was arrested along with other family and members of their community; effectively this was an excuse to exercise power over Māori communities and significant leaders who were deemed a threat to the Government. The head of police later apologised as their operation was found to be unlawful, unjustified, and unreasonable. The tribal member’ story of this time has been powerfully recounted in the 2011 documentary Operation 8.
Shortly after in 2014, the Te Urewera mountain ranges were finally acknowledged as a legal entity in and of itself, and the Tūhoe nation were legally recognised as an integral part of the cultural heritage that lies within the land. Tūhoe are the original Kaitiaki (guardians) of Te Urewera.
Te Kore—The Nothingness and Potential
“When working with the plants and trees ask before taking and most importantly wait for the response. While waiting, check the environment it is growing in, does it look healthy? Does it look thirsty? Is it being swamped and overrun by weeds? Can you help the plant to thrive before you borrow from its life force?”
– Wikitoria Rangitakina Harris Ruka (Grandmother teachings)
Te Kore is the Nothingness, the first entity; the great darkness where potential and the moments of becoming dwell. Living within a dark world of land confiscation and extractive industrial agriculture, Māori are now unable to eat ancestral wild foods as 99 percent of the rivers in New Zealand are deemed unsuitable for swimming due to environmental pollution. During the COVID-19 lockdown levels of 2020, the “Mana Rakau Save the Trees” movement was formed in the urban area of Auckland city in an attempt to stop the destruction of 100-year-old native trees, felled to make room for more housing developments. Before human arrival, Aotearoa was 80 percent covered by lush dense forest and shrubland, stands of Kahikatea and Kauri Jurassic giant trees capable of growing up to 80 metres tall. Mana Rakau, these ancient trees that occupied the landscape for 160 million years, are sacred to Māori nations. Today, New Zealand has a total of 10.1 million hectares of forests, covering 38 percent of the land. Of this, 8 million hectares are native forest. One tree in particular, aptly named Tane Mahuta God of the Forest, is the tallest living Kauri tree left in Aotearoa at 166 metres tall, still standing in Waipoua forest on the tribal land of the Ngapuhi nation. On tribal conservation land, this tree lives within a protected zone—however, in 2008, due to changes in climate, Kauri trees started to die in northern regions of Aotearoa as a result of Kauri dieback disease. If the landscape is sick and dying, we too are sick and dying.
“To sleep is to visit the place of the in between, Te Ao Wairua, the spirit world, dreamscapes are the realm of our tupuna ancestors, intuitive communications and inspiration are born here”.
– Wikitoria Rangitakina Harris Ruka (Grandmother teachings)
Māori have a framework and methodology when it comes to connection with the land, Kaupapa procedures and principles known as Tikanga the “correct way,” the empathy that is felt for the land is an intrinsic responsibility. An intangible connection that is experienced in the physical body. Over the decades many families have either been removed from tribal and ancestral land, or they have been forced to move to cities and countries far away to find work. The knowledge that would have been taught through daily ritual and practice is no longer available. This has caused a devastating disconnection that not only affects the lives of those who are no longer living on ancestral lands, but it also impacts negatively upon the lives and minds of those who remain.
The Māori word, Hinengaro is translated as “the mind,” connecting the unseen processing of daily events translated to our Wairua spirit, it has a direct correlation to our physical wellbeing. Mental health issues are prevalent within our Indigenous communities, due in part to the consequences of the original disconnection from the land and belonging with the cycles of the natural world. Māori youth suicides are some of the highest rates in the world and it is of vital importance to increase opportunities for youth to reconnect to the Ancestral Knowledge missing from today’s contemporary world. The Māori word for computer is Rorohiko; to break this word down, Roro is brain and Hiko is to flash like lightening and to stimulate. Exploring the stories of our land through powerful and fully immersive sensorial experiences brings to light an opportunity for Indigenous youth and our next generations to reconnect to Wairuatanga and the spirit of the natural world. By sharing stories and experiences through digital media, we cultivate empathy, which in turn grows understanding, and through understanding we evolve our own connection to place. For Māori, this is an emotional connection in the same manner as the love of a treasured Grandmother.
Ask a Grandmother and she will tell you quite simply, the land whispers stories of healing and regeneration for those who are prepared to learn and listen. This knowledge is translated from dreams, floating unfettered across the mindscape of living memory. The stories of resilience, survival, and strength are an ineffable presence within the land and its people, illuminating the hope within a perpetual unfolding creation story.
 In 2000, one of the most important filmmakers in New Zealand, Barry Barclay, coined the term the Fourth Cinema, recognising Indigenous films, animation, experimental video, and art films as an entity in and of itself. Alongside Merata Mita, they were the forerunners of Māori filmmaking. Merata is a legendary Māori filmmaker well known for ‘decolonising the screen.’ Powerful documentaries such as Bastion Point: Day 507 depict the eviction of protestors during the struggle for land rights, and her 1988 film, Mauri, explores the cultural tensions and changing ways of life in a once thriving, now dwindling, East Coast town in New Zealand of 1952. This was the first time a Māori woman’s perspective was visually represented on screen; she used film to explore themes of identity and the connection of Māori to the land. Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018) is an intimate and poignant documentary directed by her son, Heperi Mita, relating how she became the first Māori woman to write, direct, and produce a film. Aotearoa experienced a devastating loss when Merata passed away in 2010.
Indigenous film festivals such as Māoriland held annually in New Zealand and ImagineNative in Toronto are increasing the popularity of Indigenous film and art. Global festivals such as this continue to grow interconnection and global storytelling networks, mapping pathways of freedom for the Indigenous mindscape. Not unlike Te Aho Tapu, the sacred thread that connects every living being, intuitive digital systems, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning are capable of past, present, and future operations. Progressions into the world of virtual reality help the conscious mind to connect to the liminal world of Te Ao Wairua, the place of spirit, through immersive imagery and storytelling. Innovations such as the Fourth VR, a mapping resource gathering together Indigenous virtual reality stories, was created to maintain Indigenous visual sovereignty and ignite the imaginations of Indigenous youth. Whakakitenga, released in 2020, is an immersive virtual reality experience that recounts a fictional story of Ngāti Toa tribal leader and warrior, Te Rangihaeata, as he realises the full implications of British colonial intent. The imagery is alive as the viewer experiences the heightened sense of awareness between Te Rangihaeata and Te Ao Wairua as he is forewarned by messages from supernatural beings of the spirit world.
Special thanks to Samantha Butwell for her work on this series.