In some respects, it doesn’t matter what the original reason was. Intention is one thing. Impact is another. Even if we take the charitable interpretation that “Maori” is a shorthand geographic description it still reduces an Indigenous people to their “geographic range”, as we might do for any other animal or object of study, which, incidentally, was part and parcel of the Enlightenment-era taxonomic project.
My grandfather was born in the 1930s and I still remember stories about how he was beaten for speaking te reo at school. His experience was not unique. But, apparently, throughout his time and even before, what was and wasn’t appropriate usage of the te reo was being determined in research institutions, places where neither Māori or Māori knowledge were welcome, by people who weren’t Māori.
As a museum volunteer, I had the opportunity to attend a Ngāti Kuri hui with the Natural Sciences team at Waiora marae in Te Tai Tokerau. One night, the whānau collected in the wharenui to discuss what name may be appropriate for a new species of seaweed that had been discovered in the area.
Image: Kaumatua Wayne Petera speaking at the Waiora Marae in Ngātaki
The discussion was facilitated by scientists but I remember the museum team collectively standing back, as multiple generations of Ngāti Kuri did what only they could do, debate what name would best suit a species endemic to their rohe. Whakapapa, tikanga and toi raranga were the considerations of that day, living knowledge systems that are almost wholly alien to modern science but that embody centuries of natural history observation and of environmental philosophy, passed down from generation to generation to generation and then shared with those who were present.
Image: The oceans around the top of the North Island have some of the richest seaweed diversity in the country. NIWA scientist Wendy Nelson and Kaumatua Wayne Petera examine a piece.
Through the haphazard adoption of te reo into scientific names, we as a nation have missed out on countless opportunities for genuine connection across knowledge systems. We all stand to benefit from a science community that creates space for marginalised voices but making up for lost time is going to take a lot of frank conversations and probably a thousand pots of tea. Still, it’ll be worth it in the end.
Image: The species name for Golden kiwifruit (Actinidia chinensis) indicates that the species originates in China; AK355285.