could indigenous people’s wisdom of land and environment offer solutions to the human impact on the planet today?               

Category: ArchitectureNew Zealand

An article from Pete Wynyard, Senior Associate, NZ

Introduction- Who am I

Te hei mauri ora 
Ko Mataatua te waka- my ancestors come here from Hawaiki
Ko Nga Puhi te Iwi- my tribe is Nga Puhi
Ko Ngati Manu te Hapu- Our lands are of Ngati Manu
Ko Pomare te Tupuna- My ancestral chief of our lands is Pomare
Ko Taumarere te awa- our river that sustains life
Ko Tapuiwharawhare te maunga- beneath this mountain is where I connect to this land
Ko Puketohunoa te pa- this is the name of our village
Ko Te Karetu te marae- this is our home
Ko Te Hurihanga toku papa rawa ko Tiri Aroha Mare toku mama- these are my parents
Ko Joanna Hampton te whaea- this is my wife
Ko Tane raua ko Tia raua ko Pai nga tamariki tane- these are my 3 sons
Ko Peter toku ingoa- I am Peter Wynyard
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa- Greetings to you all

The beginning – Earliest Māori

The first settlers of Aotearoa New Zealand were Polynesians who arrived  in several waves of waka hourua (twin hulled ocean going vessels) from early 1300’s from Hawaiki (Hawaii). And over several centuries in eventual isolation these first settlers formalised the distinctive Māori culture. Although this early history of Māori settlement is supported in archaeological and genetic evidence, for Māori it exists in our oral traditions embedded in whakapapa passed down from one generation to the next.


Whakapapa describes traditional matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). Whakapapa is connections, from genealogy that traces us to our ancestors, to our connections in the physical world (land, sea & sky), the seen world (all living things) & unseen world (spiritual). My ancestors believed everything was relational and interconnected, that we (humans) are not the centre, nothing exists of itself, everything is interdependent. It is with this understanding of connections that Māori describe manaaki (to cherish, conserve, sustain), manaaki whenua (in relation to the land, plants, animals, water & people) and kaitiaki (guardianship) or kaitiakitanga (guardians). If you look through this lens then you will understand Te Ao Māori, the Māori world view of all things.

Whakapapa at its basic level is deeply connected to the environment.

Matauranga Māori put people and the environment as equals because whakapapa describes both as fundamental to living and thriving. If the environment is healthy, so people are healthy. Through this thinking early Maori strived for harmony, being co-operational and complementary in action. Embedded in maanaki and kaitiaki bequeathed in whakapapa would support how those first peoples that arrived and settled Aotearoa New Zealand successfully adapted into a much cooler temperate climate with an unfamiliar and diverse ecosystem from what they understood in Hawaiki.

Arrival of Europeans

On 13 December 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman would be the first non-Maori to discover Aotearoa and remarkably would never set foot on land. He gave the name Staten Landt, later conferred as New Zealand. It would take another 127 years for James Cook arrival on 6 October 1769 as the next European to visit. Cook would return twice more circumnavigate and mapping all of Aotearoa New Zealand. These first encounters by Tasman and Cook with Maori were relatively brief and limited to simple exchanges of communication and trade between 2 cultures. It is not until early 1800s that Maori would experience regular visits by European. Initially by sealers & whalers then missionaries and eventually larger numbers of English looking to permanently settle Aotearoa New Zealand bringing commerce, trade and Christianity to Māori. From this moment, what it was to be Māori would change forever.

Te Tiri o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi- 1840) and the Māori land wars

This is New Zealand’s founding document, intended as a partnership between Māori and the British Crown with the intention to protect Māori interest from the encroaching British settlements. Primarily for Maori it was to guarantee rangatiratanga (independence/chieftainship) over their lands. Although it was intended to create unity, different understanding of the treaty, and breaches of it, would cause major conflict between Māori and the Crown converging to the Māori land wars of 1843 and 1870s. These wars would eventually result in vast tracks of Māori owned land being confiscated by the Crown. These land holdings were either owned by the crown or were on sold to private landowners depriving Maori from its lands. In context of whakapapa, for Māori being dispossessed from there lands would begin the decline of Māori as a culture.

Māori today

The impact of 150 years of colonisation for Maori has been brutal and swift. For a people so deeply connected to the land, sea and sky the confiscation of their land and its resources would see the vast majority of Maori immigrate from family strong holds and tribal communities into the cities and towns scattered across the country. The disconnect for Maori would have a profound affect to its cultural identity where today the majority of Maori are unable to speak in reo Maori (Maori language) or have any understanding of whakapapa linking them back to their cultural origins. The consequence for a people comprising only 16.5% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population continues to see Maori misrepresented in poor health statistics likely causing premature death, higher suicide rates, lower achievement in higher education, higher imprisonment per capita, higher unemployment statistics or likely to be employed in lower skill employment and lower rates of property or home ownership.

I am one of those many disenfranchised Maori however I am fortunate to witness a desire for change driven by a political will to accept and redress the negative impact colonisation has caused for Maori. This has been driven by many generations of Maori fighting for recognition that we are Tangata whenua (people of the land).

Rejuvenation of an indigenous culture

Redress for Maori refers in honouring the partnership committed between Māori and the Crown under Te titiri o Waitangi by our forebearers in 1840. So, a little more than 20 years ago the Government formed The Waitangi Tribunal, a standing commission of enquiry mandated with making its recommendations back to Government on grievance claims brought by Māori relating to legislation, policies, actions or omissions of the Crown that are alleged to have breached the promises in Te titiri o Waitangi. Recommendations included the value of the claim, typically in cash, reclamation of land and ownership of natural resources. Settlements have helped restore an economic base for Iwi to grow wealth where Māori now enjoy a $42b total Māori economy (continues to grow). Iwi are now a major contributor to there local and extended regional economies. It is directly by this economic strength that has allowed Māori to reinvest and rejuvenate its cultural identity and through whakapapa reconnect to our ancestral and environmental knowledge.     

Recently the tribunal supported Māori’s claim that Te titiri o Waitangi was intend as a partnership between Māori and the Crown, in that the tribunal also accepted ‘in partnership’ included co-governorship. With that the tribunal recommended a co-governance system for the implementation and management of Aotearoa New Zealand’s natural resources. Despite this generating huge concerns amongst non-Māori and mistrust of Māori intentions in the ability of managing those resources, co-governance has been in practice successfully for the past decade in all facets of resource management at local government and national government level.

Cultural values in today’s world
As awareness to climate change and sustainability intensifies the world is increasingly looking toward indigenous cultures, values and sustainability practices for solutions. Why, because almost all indigenous people are deeply connected to their environment through sharing of knowledge passed down inter-generationally practicing sustainability and protection of resources. This practice is termed ‘circular economy’ and for today’s world it addresses the lifecycle of production & consumption in a sustainable manner which involves sharing, reusing, repairing to increase further value and recycling to reduce waste using materials sustainably with minimal or no environmental impact.

Application of cultural values in Architecture 

The New Zealand construction industry contributes up to 25% of total carbon emissions accumulated throughout the life cycle of a building, from extracting or harvesting and transporting materials that are produced and used in the buildings to disposal of waste generated in construction through to the energy and maintenance of the building required for the buildings inhabitants and up to the eventual end of life decommission and discarding of the building into landfills.

We as the Architect not only design the look and function of a building, but also how the building is built, what the building will be built from and consider how the building’s energy needs are met. So, if our architecture is to include a cultural narrative – from a Te Ao Maori perspective – where people and environment cohabit in harmony or as equals means at a functioning level, our designs are not just intended for the greater good of people and environment but would extend to all living things.

At a simple and esoteric level, we are the front-line advocates to ensure we design from a sustainability blueprint using nature and environment as its core principals where our buildings educate and enhance how humankind perceives the planet and where we fit in as equals.    

In New Zealand, Marchese Partners, and other there are architectural firms, are exploring how Te Ao Maori values can be translated to enrich current sustainability design practices. How buildings and landscape connects people and environment that through behaviour and action the ecosystem can flourish.     

Contact Pete Wynyard in our New Zealand office if you would like to know more.