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Existing in Multitudes

Issue 04: Ockham Lectures Pocket Edition

Ka ora te wai,
ka ora te whenua.
Ka ora te whenua,
ka ora te tangata.



Recently at a raranga mahi waananga I thought about the different ways in which knowledge is transmitted.1 Raranga or weaving is almost always collective; it has no monetary value, only your time. Its value is relationships that you form both within yourself and to your tuupuna, atua Maaori and the people who are weaving alongside you. Using the back of a butter knife, I prepared hard flax in a circle of people all connected in some way through whakapapa. I was there because I have become a part of Morgan’s whaanau. On the surface it might seem our connection to one another is random, but the connection spans lifetimes and is inscribed through intersections in our whakapapa. Morgan’s lake Taupoo on his Tuuwharetoa side is the source of my awa, Waikato. One of Morgan’s marae, Kokohinau, is a Kiingitanga marae and I am from Waahi, the home of Queen Te Atairangikaahu.

While sitting and softening flax, I watched the beginnings of a whatake being made. And while I watched, listened and wove, I thought about earlier whaikoorero calling to atua Maaori, tuupuna and acknowledging the sharing of love, connection, mahi and the transmission of the knowledges of our tuupuna. The acknowledgements are made always with an awareness of ways to share the world together and that the non-human is inherently a part of and living in kinship with human bodies. They show a shared responsibility, a sense of care and a relation built around kaitiakitanga. Te ao maaori disrupts all sense of categories and of time. Ko au te whenua, te whenua ko au. Ko au te wai, ko te wai ko au. It is in stark contrast to the commons of imperial violence designed to segregate and separate our bodies, whenua and wai into privatised, commodifiable resources for exploitation and profit; in stark contrast to the separation between mind and body. 

In this essay we do not completely reject western philosophical enquiries, but rather think of ways in which they can be situated in broader relation – like a giant wheke weaving in and out of different ideas – and through a Maaori lens. This is a tool to put things back into place. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has stated, “Imperial overseas expeditions initiated a vast process of displacement, of objects, people, plants, microbes, animals, fueled by an insatiable desire to put everything in its right place.”2 We, like Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones in their essay “Non-Human Others and Kaupapa Māori Research”, seek ways to bring expansive thought together, face to face, in a way where we can recognise ideas from other traditions and perhaps even exchange hau with them.3 This essay considers breathing and thinking together about the complexities and nuances around modes of being, of living with and through everything that is around us, Papatuuaanuku and Ranginui. We also seek to “find ways to allow these traditions to ‘work’ in our work”.4 Indeed, while writing this we considered the ways in which the Treaty could speak and thereby reveal a potentiality that could not be disrupted by colonialism. This was inspired by Hoskins and Jones writing with and through the significance of the moko inscribed on the land deed for Kerikeri by Hongi Hika. This document speaks and breathes a hau that rejects categorisation, that reinscribes the resistance of Maaori to having their world dissected and re-ordered.

While writing this I thought about the words of Queen Te Atairangikaahu in her foreword to Nga Iwi o Tainui by Pei Te Hurinui Jones and Bruce Biggs: 

My people say that the world of all meaning pre-existed before words ever came to be. If words are not the beginning in our sense they are certainly a connection. Not the only one, but a certain route from now to then and into the world of understanding of which the present is our first knowing…5

Atairangikaahu is my whanaunga through my nana Bella. Pei Te Hurinui Jones and Bruce Biggs are both of Ngaati Maniapoto, another of Morgan’s iwi. To have visible roots between our bodies enables us to understand the connection between collapsing the structures of western time and a te ao maaori understanding of the interconnected world. These roots are important – as Simone Weil noted, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”6 What if we thought of the soul as a mauri, something that can transcend categorisation and transmute time? If we begin to think of connections or roots as expansive relations to all things, can we begin to shift our ontology to the world and the relationship we have to this colonised whenua?


Ko au te wai, ko te wai koa au
I am the water and the water is me

When I first learnt that our bodies are made up of 80 percent water it made me think about the aquarium I went to at the Atlantis hotel in Dubai. The Atlantis is an irrational, contradictory and amazing place – as is the entire spectacle of Dubai itself – and it is built on the Palm, a man-made island. The United Arab Emirates is mostly arid desert, but here I was at a five-star hotel that was also a water park, a luxury shopping and dining experience ‘mall’, and an aquarium. I remember being mesmerised by the jellyfish which I found really calming to watch – because they appeared so alien and other, but also because of the ebbs and flows of the water encircling their blobby forms. We often forget that all life, including humans, comes from the ocean. The whakapapa of all bodies is bacteria. We grow in a giant sack of water inside our mother’s wombs. Water not only inhabits bodies but also connects them, because it flows through bodies, species and materialities, linking them for better or worse. The waters of my body speculate about embodied history. Water is taonga, for water holds the memory of all life. This relation to water for Maaori was made clear recently when Kaai Tahu lodged legal action in the High Court at Christchurch seeking a declaration that the tribe has rangatiratanga over all rivers and lakes in its area – virtually the entire South Island. Their claim is centred on addressing the ongoing degradation of awa, roto and moana caused by environmental mismanagement.

Our bodies are made of water but are also made of microbiome, bacteria that reside on or within human tissues and biofluids. These micro-animals live on our bodies, sometimes colonising them, sometimes just chilling inside, but they are excluded from the definition ‘animal’. It’s estimated that the average human body is inhabited by ten times as many non-human cells as human ones.

There are 45 species of coronavirus. The group was first observed and named when June Almeida looked at three of the species through her electron microscope in 1964. She and her colleagues identified the spikes that formed a halo around the virus and noted that it appeared a lot like the sun’s corona. The name ‘coronavirus’ is derived from the Latin corona, meaning ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’, itself a borrowing from Greek κορώνη korōnē (‘garland, wreath’). While researching the etymology of the word ‘corona’ I can’t help but think about sovereignty, of the Crown and of domination. In te reo maaori the word for coronavirus is ‘matekarauna’ – ‘mate’ meaning death and ‘karauna’ being a transliteration of crown. This could be read as ‘Crown sickness’.

As Maaori we have always existed in multitudes, through our relation to whakapapa. When we introduce ourselves we speak to a waterway, mountain and tuupuna alive and dead. The human and non-human, the living and non-living, live and speak. In her short text “Myth, Omen, Ghost and Dream”, Keri Hulme outlined that “we are made of several bodies”.7 The first is the physical body made of flesh. Our bodies were made alive through the hau given by Taane when he performed a hongi to Hinetiitama. The hau brought human beings to life. Hau can mean a breath or essence. We are all born with mana. This can act as a cloak or shield and can be increased or decreased by our own actions.8 There is also of course that which is tapu, meaning restricted, forbidden, dangerous or sacred – for instance the head, which is considered the most tapu part of the body. In precolonial times there were specific tikanga that had to be performed before or after the head came into contact with something else. For instance, a rangatira would avoid touching his head with his hand because this would make his hand tapu. This was true of the tohunga Tuhoto Ariki from Te Arawa, who survived the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886. After being buried alive for four days inside his whare, he was rescued. Upon being taken to hospital European doctors cut off his hair. Tuhoto began to grow weak and then died. The opposite of tapu is noa. Noa is a verb and means to be free from the extensions of tapu, to be ordinary, or unrestricted. Bodies that menstruate are considered both tapu and noa. We all have a wairua and it dances in the shadows, it is a double consciousness, a kind of keehua.9 Our wairua can float through time and go on hiikoi to Hawaiki, while our physical body sleeps.


Double consciousness, opacity and recognition

This idea of wairua as a kind of double consciousness leads me into thinking through Black Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois’ use of double consciousness to describe a source of inward “two-ness” experienced by African-Americans because of their racialised oppression in a white-dominated society. In The Strivings of the Negro People (1897), he noted “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”10 Du Bois came to double consciousness to describe the disappointment of having reached a certain degree of freedom through emancipation from slavery, but yet still not having been able to attain the absolute freedom that was supposedly granted. In his book The Souls of Black Folks (1903), he opens with the phrase “colour line”, borrowed from Fredrick Douglass, to describe the separate but equal treatment of Black people in social and political life. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”11 

However, when thinking through W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness in 2020, I’d like to expand on this idea of being both alien and alien to one’s self as a gift. In conversation with Paul Gilroy, Ruth Wilson Gilmore asserted that this gift of double consciousness, “the ability to be alien to oneself”, “is a good thing not a bad thing, to be cherished rather than mourned”. Gilmore continued, “And in that sense – that sense of being alien to oneself – one already understands that the fundamental unit of society is already two at least, not one, so two as in double consciousness, but that means it has to go out beyond that individual, whether the individual’s a person or a group.”12 This alienness or double consciousness acts as a means of tearing down binaries, to exist instead through different modalities. These modalities can be as expansive as a wairua. After all, our wairua begins its existence when the eyes form in the foetus, and it is immortal. Double consciousness can be a way in which we delineate the possibility of multiple selves that are composed both of this earth and living and non-living entities. Through the ability to see in double consciousness, the mauri of everything can exist in waves. Double consciousness is a way of understanding that categorisation is a form of destruction; destruction is done in the name of progress; and progress is the condition of imperial modernity in that it always needs to be in motion, always in the process of expansion and extraction.13

Another way to consider double consciousness would be to align it with what Édouard Glissant describes as the right to opacity. In his seminal text The Poetics of Relation, Glissant uses the term “opacity” in order to argue that the oppressed – bodies which have been constructed as the ‘other’ – can and should be allowed to be opaque. This opaqueness is in opposition to the transparency demanded by the coloniser who labels the colonised as ‘other’ in order to dominate them. The concepts of opacity, lack of transparency and unknowability together offer a way to reorient how we understand and situate our bodies. Opacity is not obscure and has radical potentiality for social movements to challenge and subvert systems of domination. Glissant observes that we need to “displace all reduction” in order to account for difference as a means of understanding different modes of existence.14 He asserts that “Relation is the moment when we realise that there is a definite quantity of all the differences in the world.”15 Opacity is an unknowability, and thereby a poetics, which must be taken up and protected. Glissant insists on poetics as a means of building new imaginaries, because of a disillusionment with political processes as a means of change. Opacity is a way of dismantling the individual through re-situating the mind in the body and the body in relation to the world.

Recently I read an article discussing Ralph Hotere, who in the early stages of his career was hesitant to be identified as a “Maaori artist”. This was seen as disconcerting by some – did Hotere reject being Maaori? – but this was a misunderstanding.16 Writer Vincent O’Sullivan explained, “if you think of the word ‘Maori’ as a noun, he was absolutely that. But he didn’t like it being used as an adjective to describe his work.”17 As Maaori we have the right to opacity – to exist unquantifiably, to exceed or reject categories of difference, and in doing so to expose the limits of visibility, representation and identity. We are made up of multiple perspectives and parts, including the non-human. This right to opacity, right to reject colonial categorisation, is what the Indigenous Canadian scholar Glen Coulthard argues for in his work Red Skin, White Masks. In the text Coulthard, arguing from Frantz Fanon, explains how colonial recognition of Indigenous peoples always constitutes a “misrecognition”. Colonialism constitutes and categorises Indigenous peoples as “savage”, as in nineteenth-century New Zealand, or “victims”, like in the mid- to late twentieth century, or in more recent times as “beneficiaries” of colonial benevolence. Paakehaa understand Maaori as beneficiaries of Treaty settlements, as beneficiaries of the welfare state, as beneficiaries of Paakehaa technology and modernity. But Maaori do not exist as the passive recipients of Paakehaa benevolence. This is a “misrecognition” that eases Paakehaa guilt. Instead we exist as people who have struggled for what we have, like a Treaty, and not just a people who exist by virtue of sharing land and time with Paakehaa. On this whenua Maaori exist across time, to Hawaiki and to Te Poo, and in relationship with Papatuuaanuku, her children, their children, and through our own whakapapa to the past and future itself. This opacity – an unknowability – is a cherished part of being Maaori.



For Maaori, we exist on this land as double. First, as tangata whenua, and second as New Zealanders. This isn’t an experience Paakehaa can claim. As Manning Clark said in 1988, neatly reversing assimilation doctrines that said Indigenous peoples should adjust to Australian society,no human being can ever know the heart’s ease in a “ foreign land, because in a foreign land there live foreign ancestral spirits”.

We white people are condemned to live in a country where we have no ancestral spirits. The conqueror has become the eternal outsider, the eternal alien. We must either become assimilated or live the empty life of a people exiled from their spiritual strength.18

Clark takes ‘alienness’ and applies it to settlers. The argument is that the settlers, not Indigenous peoples, are out of place and outside of time in their newfound land and societies. As Indigenous peoples we can place ourselves by calling on our ancestral spirits – our wairua – to determine where we fit and how, yet it’s impossible for settlers to do the same. Their relationship to land and time is different – divorced. Does this mean, though, that settlers or Paakehaa can also access a form of double consciousness too? Not quite. Paakehaa unease isn’t a stand-in for Indigenous peoples’ economic, social and racial alienation. Double consciousness is expansive and includes more than the mere feeling of unease. It is a material fact, too. But Clark’s well-meaning poetry does get at a deeper truth: as Maaori we belong to the land through our physical bodies – as water and as whenua (placenta) – and through our metaphysical selves (wairua).

In maatauranga Maaori there are no clean lines drawn between a person and wairua. The veil between Te Ao (the world of light), Te Poo (the world of dark) and Te Kore (the world of nothing) is tissue-thin. The non-living, like the gods, can exist between these worlds. But the living are by and large tethered to the material world, travelling between the living and non-living worlds only as wairua. As Margaret Orbell explains in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Māori Myth and Legend, the wairua can leave the body and travel from place to place, person to person, or living world to non-living world – from Hawaiki-nui (the homeland of great distance) to Hawaiki-roa (the homeland of long distance) to Hawaiki-paamamao (the homeland of far distance). But to do so the wairua must briefly (through sleep) or permanently (through death) leave the body, the thing attached to this world and this world only. Our bodies bind us to this land, but through our wairua we exist as double: of the human world and of the non-human world. 

Strict empiricists might call this hocus pocus or just a pretty story. But wairua exists in a very material sense: that is, as a reminder that you hold and must exercise obligations to the living, to those not yet born and to those dead. As Clark might say, ancestral spirits are watching you, and they’re your reminder that you must discharge your obligations to care for those around you (human and non-human). Our tuupuna always stand with us. When we recite our pepeha, or when a newborn enters Te Ao, our tuupuna all stand to attention, reminding us of where we come from and where we are headed. Of course some Maaori are dismissive of this. Dun Mihaka, the legendary activist, writes much of this off as “stone age thinking”.19 But none of this is any sillier than a German fairytale, or the idea that a benevolent bearded man in the sky exercises divine judgement when we die. Mihaka and other critics miss how wairua exists materially. Our wairua exist as an imperative to care because they survive across time, and they exist as a reminder that we can contain multitudes. Human and non-human. Living and non-living. Spirit and body.


Maaui and the Cartesian split 

Within western philosophy the breakdown of everything into categories was part and parcel not only of the development of the ‘Cartesian split’ by René Descartes, but also the imperial agenda of violent extraction and categorisation of bodies, land and objects. Descartes determined that the mind was separate from the body and not a totality that exists between different modalities. This split came at the beginning of the disruption of the commons in many parts of Europe as it shifted entirely into a capitalist framework during the age of ‘discovery’ and ‘enlightenment’. 

But what does it mean to examine how and why the western Cartesian ontology of time has corrupted our entire relation to the natural world? I mean when thinking about other arrangements of time, such as Maramataka (the Maaori calendar), they are centred on the moon, the tides, weather patterns, plants and through an attunement to the natural world. What about the colonisation of time? The word ‘time’ itself can be traced from the Proto-Indo-European language as *di-mon-, suffixed form of root *da- (‘to divide’). The entwinement between spatial and temporal conquest is responsible for the most durable forms of imperial violence.20 Think, for instance, of the markers of beginnings and endings in disciplines like art history, wherein looted objects taken from colonised peoples (objects which had specific usages, histories and purposes) were not only stolen but their meaning distorted by the imperial drive to categorise and canonise them into a ‘work of art’ separate from the communities they were taken from.21 This categorisation segregated them from the histories and other ontologies of time inherent within non-western cultures.

As Maaori much of our understanding of time and space stems from the stories of the great trickster, Maaui. Stories of Maaui flow across the moana about their mischief and ability to transform into different bodies and creatures. One story of Maaui that centres on time is the story of how they captured the sun, Tama-nui-te-raa. The story goes that Tama-nui-te-raa travelled too fast across the sky, leaving not enough daylight for working, fishing and eating. Maaui suggested slowing the sun down by catching it and travelled east with their siblings to Tama-nui-te-raa’s pit, where the sun rested at night. It took 12 days to reach their destination. Maaui and their siblings quietly crept up to Tama-nui-te-raa’s resting spot, setting a trap. They built a clay wall, gleaned from Papatuuaanuku, to protect themselves from getting burnt. When Tama-nui-te-raa rose the next morning, it found itself caught in the noose of rope they had made. While Maaui’s siblings pulled on the rope, Maaui struck the sun god with the magic jawbone of Murirangawhenua. Maaui ordered Tama-nui-te-raa to travel more slowly across the sky and the days became longer.

A common way to tell stories of Maaui is to label them as explicitly gendered male, but we propose that this demigod was neither male nor female but both, maybe even just gender fluid – Maaui was after all a shapeshifter. The transness we imbue Maaui with can be evidenced by two stories – the first being the masculinist capture of Tama-nui-te-raa, and the second Maaui’s achievement of immortality by being crushed between the legs of Hine-nui-te-poo, reappearing with the moon Hineteiwaiwa in the blood tides of women.22 Both stories have a relation to time, both lunar and solar. Throughout Polynesia Maaui is closely tied to Hineteiwaiwa, as siblings, lovers and as mother and child.23 Menstruation could be described as a river of time, which speaks to our understanding of whakapapa and an entwinement of our bodies back to our atua and cosmos.24

Maaui exists in different lunar and solar descriptions of time. Maaui was able to shapeshift through the world, shifting through gender and shifting through different spaces, never singular and always interconnected with everything. They may have only been gendered male by colonisation. This is evident by the fact that there was no precolonial hierarchy of the sexes in the labour we performed or even in te reo maaori, as both the personal pronouns (ia) and the possessive personal pronouns (tana/tona) are gender-neutral.25 The sex binary – the belief that there are only two inherently opposite sexes – emerged out of nineteenth-century race science. In Kyla Schuller’s The Biopolitics of Feeling she described the sex binary as being unnatural and a political invention based on research by nineteenth-century race scientists, who were invested in identifying presumed anatomical differences between the races in order to justify discrimination. They believed that only the white race could achieve a pure, binary distinction between sexes, and that as a society ‘progressed’ towards civilisation, the differences between ‘males’ and ‘females’ would become more accentuated. Using a racist interpretation of evolutionary theory these scientists sought to define fixed norms and roles for men and women that still categorise and alienate us. This is not a denial of biology, but rather a lesson in how and why bodies have become organised or rather categorised into these narrow binaries. What does this framing of our bodies prevent us from seeing? How could Maaori atua and tuupuna like Maaui be given more autonomy if we reject these confines?

Perhaps we should think through what Carl Te Hira Mika describes as a kaupapa on “non-foundational ground”.26 It is not simply that we stand on Papatuuaanuku, but that underneath our waewae Papa constitutes everything and arises before us. Papatuuaanuku organises us in her construction of us and is in opposition to the so-called solidity or certainty or groundedness of western ontologies of space, bodies and time. A Maaori philosophy of time is nonlinear; it is co-present with all other time.


Plant thinking

What if we thought about time in terms of vegetal or plant life? Although difficult for us to even notice, there is never a moment when plants are not moving – a movement that seems to progress through inertia, producing a timeline completely different to our contemporary conception of time.27 How do we think through the creases we see on a leaf? Before these divisions between our bodies and plants, plants covered the earth and spawned us. Plants began as bacteria too. In his book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, the philosopher Michael Marder charts the harm in the separation of living entities into categories, such as the distinction between animals and plants. Marder has described vegetal life – namely plants – as having a soul. He believes that by leaving plants to their own devices we can observe the different meanings of plant life. Plants exist as things that are embodied and mortal, but also as souls or wairua, embedded within a cycle of life and time that is supported by and grown with other living entities – as in a hive or subtle pace in movement that hums around us, but that our cognitive and perceptual apparatuses fail to register.28 If we break down the etymology of the word ‘vegetation’, we find it refers back to the Middle Latin vegetabilis (meaning ‘growing’ or ‘flourishing’), the verbs vegetare (‘to animate’ or ‘to enliven’) and vegere (‘to be alive,’ ‘to be active’), and the adjective vegetus, denoting qualities of vigorous-ness and activity.29

This led me to wonder whether plants feel pain. While they do not have pain receptors or a brain or a nervous system, they do have an olfactory sense (a sense of smell), and they can differentiate. When you smell fresh-cut grass, this is actually a chemical distress call, used by plants to beg nearby critters to save them from attack. In his book What a Plant Knows, botanist Daniel Chamovitz posits that plants can see, feel and smell. He writes that “Plants can tell when there’s very little light, like from a candle, or when it’s the middle of the day, or when the sun is about to set into the horizon. Plants know if the light is coming from the left, the right, or from above.”30 For some researchers, evidence of these complex communication systems signals that plants feel pain. In 2014 a team at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne found that when a caterpillar attacks an arabidopsis plant it triggers a wave of electrical activity. Yet others argue that there cannot be pain without a brain to register the feeling. Still more scientists surmise that plants can exhibit intelligent behaviour without possessing a brain or conscious awareness. But I would argue that their very rootedness enables plants to a level of consciousness in order to survive. If we are very observant, perhaps we might notice the electric currents coursing through their being. After all, plants are not static, neither is whenua.


Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au
I am the land and the land is me

Almost all struggles for Indigenous sovereignty are centered on land. Whenua means both land and placenta, and a womb is sometimes said to be the ‘soil of Hawaiki’. Our connection to land is embedded in our language, and our alienation from that land is encoded in the colonial society in which we live. For example, nineteenth-century colonialism didn’t necessarily rely solely on the displacement of Maaori and the mass settlement of Paakehaa. Instead it leaned heavily on the conversion of land to ‘property’, a commodity capable of being owned and sold. Colonialism relied on land changing hands. For that to happen land had to be understood as property. 
But what happens when land is understood anew? 

A key part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement between Ngaai Tuuhoe and the Crown is granting legal personhood to Te Urewera, the ancestral mountain range that forms the veins of Tuuhoe’s rohe. Under the new arrangement Te Urewera is recognised by the Crown as holding all the rights and liabilities of a legal person. For the common law, this is almost unprecedented. But under tikanga recognising the land as possessing the same rights as a human is only natural. In fact, a tika or maatauranga Maaori position might go further – land holds greater rights than humans. This is evident in the Maaori legal position that land cannot be owned. You can only exercise rights and, more importantly, responsibilities in respect of it.


The non-human others

Some of the old people say the ruru traces its whakapapa to the underworld. In most iwi tellings when a ruru enters one’s home a death is almost certain to follow. In other tellings the ruru arrives as Hine-ruru, the owl woman, to warn whaanau of one danger or another. It takes a very special tohunga to translate the ruru’s appearance and its language. Some people say the morepork call is a cheerful tohu, but others insist the screeching quee sound is a gloom-ridden tohu. Who’s to know? In our hapuu, though, the ruru is a kaitiaki. Its appearance is always a blessing. When we are far from home its presence is a reassurance rather than a warning. Underworld or not, the human and non-human share whakapapa to the same gods. In this sense the human and non-human are in a relationship with each other. Through descent, yes, and through mutual reliance. Humans rely on the non-human for everything from spiritual warnings and reassurance (the ruru) to material sustenance (the eel, say).

But in the European tradition it’s easier to draw distinctions between the human and the non-human. Humans, not animals, were made in God’s image. Humans, not animals, possess the self-awareness and reasoning faculties that make up ‘consciousness’. So far as humans share a whakapapa with the non-human, it’s at the level of matter. So far as humans share a whakapapa with anything – whether it’s the land or the sea – it’s at the level of matter. Of course, this approach to relationships isn’t exclusively European, and just as importantly it isn’t particularly ancient. The distinction is a relatively recent innovation in European thinking, taking its lead from the Cartesian split, the famous breakthrough in philosophy emphasising the mind and body as separate. This mind-body ‘dualism’ holds that the immaterial mind and the material body are separate (although causally interacting) and the dualist disciples extend the argument to separate the human from the non-human. 

This is a philosophical principle that sits uncomfortably with Indigenous understandings. Even if the human and non-human were not in a whakapapa relationship, or an ancestral relationship, we still rely on the non-human for survival. We rely on regular weather patterns, we rely on a landscape that changes in predictable ways, we rely on resources we can extract, and we rely on animals, insects and others for more than mere ‘food’. Given this, that we ‘rely’ on the non-human, we’re almost certainly in a relationship of subordination. Yet some European philosophical traditions would argue we’re in a relationship of mastery. We act as we like in the world. The devastating consequences of acting as we like, from ocean acidification to desertification, expose that for the useless assertion it is. So far as we are masters of anything, it’s destruction.

This leaves the European philosophical tradition in an uncomfortable position. Must it revisit dualism? For most Europeans and their settler descendants, Indigenous knowledge can come across as folklore at best and stone age superstition at worst. Stories about gods are nothing more than that: stories. But this ignores how Indigenous knowledge, as Anne Salmond and others point out, is an empirical knowledge. Our Polynesian ancestors set sail across the largest ocean in the world, populating its farthest corners and thriving in environments so remote it took Europe almost half a millennium to catch up. This is one of humanity’s landmark achievements and it took a complex knowledge of ocean currents, prevailing winds, storm seasons, bird migrations, the movement of stars and sailing technology to pull it off. In other words, it took empirical knowledge.

The difference with Europe is that Indigenous peoples encode and transmit their empirical knowledge in different ways. The story of Maaui and Mahuika isn’t a mere ‘myth’ or ‘legend’. It contains empirical knowledge, naming native fire starters like the kaikoomako, for instance. The same is true for taniwha, who aren’t merely mythical creatures, monsters from bedtime stories. Instead they exist materially as warnings in dangerous waters. This is how oral narratives work. They hand knowledge and wisdom down from generation to generation. Sometimes they use mythic structure and sometimes not. This isn’t an inferior or superior method for knowledge transmission – though research finds that oral narratives are often just as reliable as written texts – the point is that the knowledge, no matter its form, is still empirical. This is an intellectual admission that Europe and its descendants are often reluctant to make.

But why? The Cartesian split makes recognising this form of knowledge transmission, where the human and non-human interact, neither with mastery or a material advantage over the other, difficult if not impossible. Descartes separates the mind from the body, and later philosophers separate the human from the non-human, preferring to understand connections at the level of matter. But what if our connections are closer than that? First, in a technical sense: we share 60 per cent of our DNA with bananas, as the quiz favourite goes, meaning we share more in common with the non-human than we imagine; and second, we rely on the non-human for sheer survival. Capitalists continue to release greenhouse gases at an astonishing rate. Temperatures are rising and rising as a result. Who, or rather what, can save us? Forests, oceans, soil, and the various ‘carbon sinks’ that literally absorb our mistakes.

Indigenous peoples would immediately recognise this as a relationship of abuse. Europeans and their descendants name it differently, seeing the relationships with the earth and its ability to absorb carbon as instrumental. The earth as means to an end. The Labour–New Zealand First coalition was guilty of this in pitching its plan to plant one billion trees over ten years as an economic development initiative with an incidental carbon credit rather than a necessary act to help restore the unbalanced relationship between the human and increasingly degraded non-human.

Even that binary – human and non-human – is problematic in that it centres humanity and others everything that differs from us. But the distinction only exists because humans have set themselves apart through exploitation. The aim is to restore a just and balanced relationship so the distinction is no longer necessary or useful. This is the meaning behind utu. The common misunderstanding is that utu means revenge, like Te Wheke taking his vengeance against the British Army in the film of the same name (Utu, 1983). But on a proper understanding utu means reciprocity. For every good deed, an equally good deed is owed in return. For example, haakari (or feasts) are often returned in kind. When one iwi hosts a haakari the guest iwi takes its turn next time around. The same is true for bad deeds, in that an equal and proportionate response is owed. An iwi raid on kuumara cultivations, for example, demands a response. Why? Christianity would preach turning the other cheek. This is all well and good, but the reasoning behind utu isn’t about being strictly moral: it’s about preserving balance in relationships. The relationships are between the human – i.e. between individuals and collectives – and the non-human too. For example, if you take a giant tootara from Te Waonui o Taane, perhaps for waka building, you owe a duty of care for that same forest.

This helps keep relationships in balance. This principle governs our bodies too. When we act in bad faith towards another person, or towards a non-human, that bad faith is said to manifest in our bodies through illness. In the old stories people who breached tapu could die if the breach were serious enough. Where the breach was moderate to minor, a person’s mauri was said to diminish in proportion to the mauri of the person or non-human offended against. In this sense mauri is a connective force. Mason Durie translates mauri as vitality, integrity, energy within a person, and most importantly as “the nature of relationships in the wider environment.”31 From this it is clear that mauri cannot be separated out or cut into clean slices. When the mauri of a non-human is diminished, so is the mauri of the human. That diminished state is then constituted in the body whether through illness, death, or some other change that throws relationships out of balance.


The body as an archive

The body is very much an archive. It is inscribed by a need to pass down ancestral knowledge. For instance, I was never formally taught anything about tikanga, but I enact rituals before entering any urupaa based on a set of practices my father must have shown me. These traces of collective memory have been deposited inside of me – they are a vitality, a means of unbounded relation to other bodies.32 You could argue that the surface of our body is too slippery to build an archive, but as physicist Karen Barad has insisted, the practices of being and knowing are mutually implicated. For Barad the separation of epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ontology (the nature of being) is an assumption that creates difference between humans and non-humans, subject and object, mind and body, and matter and discourse. The vitality of the body insists on entanglement with the outside world – it complicates the binary demarcations of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.33 For instance, not only is my body made of bacteria and water, but also of millions of atoms which extend my body into a space far beyond that of my skin. This vitality or relation is not as simple as that which theorist Jane Bennett described as a ‘thingness’. For me it recalls the process of raranga or weaving; for instance, if you take two separate strands and bind them together they have form, resonance, a capacity to hold something and a capacity to be filled.34 Or the process of whatu, where you strip away from the outside and work with the inside to create a form. It’s not the form though that’s important, it’s what it can hold – it’s what can’t be seen that matters.35 For Indigenous bodies, objects or things are not understood as discrete or independent (where one object or quality can be recognised as singular), because of their relationship to the mauri of everything.36 


Coral and concrete 

I waded out into the low tide at Waikouaiti beach. I was careful to place my feet between the rocks and at the edges of coral. It was swarming with kaimoana. I fished out a dozen green-lipped mussels while knee deep in the water. As my hands weaved between discarded concrete overtaken with sea lettuce and purple coral, I started to think about my own body, and how I might contextualise it and the broader histories of the Pacific amidst the complexity of coral and concrete. I started to think about the island Banaba. The first known sighting of Banaba by Europeans occurred on 3 January 1801, when Captain Jared Gardner of the American vessel Diana came across the island. He was followed in 1804 by Captain John Mertho, of the convict transport and merchant ship Ocean, who sighted the island and named it after his vessel. Banaba was later annexed to Kiribati. In 1900, a New Zealander, Albert Ellis, discovered phosphate there. Upon discovery of the phosphate Ellis immediately secured a contract with the ‘king’ of the island, agreeing to pay 50 pounds for 999 years to the natives for the ‘lease’ of their whenua.37 The Indigenous population was taken to Rabi, an island that was 2500 kilometres away and part of Fiji. Phosphate was mined until 1979. Of the island’s 1500 acres, 1080 acres were stripped and became uninhabitable. Meanwhile, 20 million tonnes of phosphate had been “extracted and scattered over the farms of New Zealand and Australia to revitalize the soil for grassland pastures.”38 Now most of the phosphate used in New Zealand is extracted from Western Sahara, an active conflict zone

As I am picking mussels off the rocks, my finger gets cut on a slab of concrete covered in rusted nails and alien microbes. Considering the coral that is feeding my body and the concrete that disfigured my finger, I can’t help but think of the concrete and the coral as two strands of harakeke, bound together, that help narrate the history of and resistance to colonialism. The two strands can draw bodies in relation to one another, demonstrating divides in power and inequality. When I think of concrete I think of militarism, of the imperial agenda of plunder, of the “farce of permanence”, in the words of cultural studies theorist Greg Dvorak. Although the Ancient Romans weren’t the first to create concrete, they were the first to utilise this material widely. When I think of the term ‘expansion’ I often imagine Roman soldiers ploughing fields and filling them with concrete. During World War II the Nazis developed a number of super weapons, like the first jet fighter, the first ballistic missile, the first cruise missile and the first true submarine. Behind each of these super weapons was a mass of super-large concrete. Dvorak, in his essay “S/pacific Islands: Some Reflections on Identity and Art in Contemporary Oceania”, explains that “In contrast to the complexity and resistance of coral, concrete is the stuff of oversimplification: imperial contrivance… the lie that the people who came before were somehow complicit and submissive in their own colonization.” Culturally and geographically, our sense of connection flows through the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next – through stories as well as through genealogical ties to one another. This is like coral, which Dvorak describes as being “organic, migratory, relational, ancestral, rhizomatic”. Coral is a marine invertebrate, “a microorganism that spawns annually”. It releases eggs and sperms into the ocean’s currents, and these baby polyps must navigate the seas, often making long expansive journeys before finding new sites to live and build new reefs. The journey of coral is much like the voyaging of our Polynesian ancestors, building a “genealogical structure out of diverse and disparate journeys, making sense of chaos, growing in deep time over thousands of years, literally transforming from the microscopic to the macroscopic”.39 


The Treaty speaks 

Many Maaori are understandably critical of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process and of the iwi governance structures created by the process. The pro-market policies and corporate models for managing Treaty settlements often tend to institutionalise the inequalities of wealth and political power between Maaori and non-Maaori communities.40 We exist in a system based around inequality, destruction and exploitation of land and people. We must challenge the logic of the market and the myth of infinite growth, of imperial destruction and confinement, and halt the extension of such influences. We must be coral, rather than concrete. Grass growing through roots. Moving like Maaui through the cycles of Maramataka and the tides of Tangaroa. We must reorient ourselves across time and exist in multitudes like our tuupuna. 

By thinking alongside plants, coral and considering how our whakapapa stories may act as a rehearsal for lessons in how to realign our relations to the world, how then could the Treaty speak? Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed in 1840 – do the rangatira’s signatures still speak? Surely they must, for their signature was imbued with their mana. Our tuupuna did not cede sovereignty, they did not diminish their mana by signing. They imbued the marks on the page, their signatures, with their vitality. These signatures are a record of the mauri of the non-living, long-deceased rangatira. These rangatira speak in and through time and offer ways in which we can learn to share this world. To do so, we must reject the enshrinement of inequalities, by shaping a kaupapa that can exist on “non-foundational ground”, that moves, grows and is rhizomatic in its very nature.



The first acknowledgement is to the living and non-living from whose ideas we draw inspiration and insight. The second acknowledgement is to Objectspace, particularly Zoe Black, as well as to the tangata whenua whose land the gallery occupies. The third acknowledgement is to Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones, whose book Critical Conversations in Kaupapa Māori is a taonga and the seed from which this text sprang. The final acknowledgement is to our tuupuna, from whom we draw strength for our mind, bodies and wairua.




Hana Pera Aoake & Morgan Godfery 

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinerangi, Tainui/Waikato) is an artist, writer and researcher based in Waikouaiti on stolen Kaai Tahu, Kaati Mamoe and Waitaha whenua. In 2020 they published their first collection of writing, A bathful of kawakawa and hot water, with Compound Press. 

Morgan Godfery (Ngaati Awa, Ngaati Maniapoto, Tuuhoe, Lalomanu) is a writer, journalist and lecturer based in Waikouaiti in Te Wai Pounamu. He writes a regular column for The Guardian and The Spinoff and is a former columnist for Metro. His work crosses politics, history, memoir and criticism. #TRT




1. This essay was written jointly, but when a first-person ‘I’ appears in the text, it denotes the experiences of Hana.

2. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History Unlearning Imperialism. Verso: London, UK, 2019, 156.

3. Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones, “Non-human Others and Kaupapa Māori Research”, in Hoskins and Alison Jones (eds), Critical Conversation in Kaupapa Māori. Huia: Wellington, New Zealand, 2017, 53.

4. Ibid., 53

5. Pei Te Hurinui Jones and Bruce Biggs (trans., ed.), Nga Iwi o Tainui: The Traditional History of the Tainui People Nga Koorero Tuku Iho a Nga Tuupuna. Auckland University Press: Auckland, 1995, xiii.

6. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. Routledge Classics: New York, 2002, 43.

7. Keri Hulme, “Myth, Men, Ghost and Dream” in Witi Ihimaera (ed.), Te Ao Marama 2: Regaining Aotearoa: Maori Writers Speak Out. Reed Books: Wellington, New Zealand, 1993, 26.

8. Ibid., 26.

9. Ibid., 27.

10. W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Strivings of the Negro People”, The Atlantic, 1897,

11. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches. Johnson Reprint Corp: New York, 1968, 1.

12. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, transcript of “A Conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Gilroy”.

13. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. Verso: London, UK, 2019, 18.

14. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Betsy Wing (trans.). University of Michigan Press: Chicago, 1997, 190.

15. Édouard Glissant in conversation with Manthia Diawara, “Conversation with Édouard Glissant aboard the Queen Mary II, August 2009”,

16. Bruce Monroe, quoting Vincent O’Sullivan, in “Life of an Artist”. Otago Daily Times, 19 October 2020,

17. Ibid.

18. Quoted in Peter Read, “Sharing the Country”, Aboriginal History, Vol. 22, 1998, 94.

19. Dun Mihaka, Ki Te Whei-Ao… Ki Te Ao-Marama. Te Ringa Mangu Books: Wellington, New Zealand, 1989, 75

20. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, 75.

21. Ibid., 75.

22. Ngahuia Murphy, Te Awa Atua: Menstruation in the Pre-colonial Māori World. He Puna Manawa Ltd: Whakataane, 2013, 61.

23. Ibid., 61.

24. Ibid., 61

25. Annie Mikaere, “Māori Women Caught in the Contradictions of a Colonised Reality”, Mana Wahine Reader, Volume 1, Leonie Pihama, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Naomi Simmonds, Joeliee Seed-Pihama and Kirsten Gabel (eds.). Te Kotahi Research Institute: Hamilton, 2017, 137.

26. Carl Te Hira Mika, “The Uncertain Kaupapa of Kaupapa Māori”, Critical Conversations in Kaupapa Māori, Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones (eds.). Huia Books: Wellington, 2017.

27. Hu Fang, “Why We Look at Plants, in a Corrupted World”, Supercommunity: Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood and Anton Vidokle (eds.). Verso Books and e-flux: London, 2017, 307.

28. Michael Marder, Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press: New York, 2013, 19.

29. Ibid., 21.

30. Daniel Chamovitz, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Sense of Your Garden and Beyond. One World: United Kingdom, 2012, 10.

31. M. Durie, “Realising Māori Potential” (PowerPoint slides). Tauranga Moana SENCO Hui, March 2016.

Fig. 1: Hand sewn uenuku. Hana Pera Aoake, 2020.

Fig. 2: Bremner Bay, Wānaka. Hana Pera Aoake, 2021.

Fig. 3: Krill washed up at Edwards Bay in Dunedin, May 2020. Image by Tim Slade.