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Three Months in Aotearoa

Written by: Leonard Calvo, apreston

Håfa Adai! Aloha! Being Chamorro-Hawaiian I’ve heard both greetings fairly often, and in New Zealand, I was used to being greeted in English and Māori from the locals. This summer, I had the pleasure of interning at the University of Auckland’s Civil Engineering department as part of the new study abroad program in New Zealand

Meeting with Māori across the island gave me a fresh perspective on their culture and how that culture interacts with the world around them, and with the natural environment. Saying “Kia Ora” (which translates to wishing good health to someone) has a deeper meaning and implication for Māori and all Kiwis. More than just a simple “Hello,” it is a manifestation of keeping their culture alive by incorporating their language into everyday conversation.

As I met new people and heard their kōrero, or talk, it allowed me to understand Māori people. In Māori culture, there is a term for forging familial relationships, whakawhanaungatanga, which I was able to experience at a few maraes, and tribal meeting complexes. During whakawhanaungatanga, everyone shares their own genealogies and backgrounds so that everyone can find some possible common relations.

Being part Hawaiian and Chamorro, my Māori hosts pointed out our common heritage in Hawaiki, a homeland from which Hawaiians and Māori embarked for their respective islands, as well as the similar lineages of Chamorros and Māori that traces back through Southeast Asia. It was not only a way to welcome visitors onto tribal lands but a way to build a relationship where we as interns and researchers, on behalf of the University of Auckland and Notre Dame, can work together with Māori communities and create knowledge together. It’s all a part of the kaupapa, or principles, that influenced how we did any work with the tangata whenua, or people of the land/indigenous people.

We were prepared to work with engaging Māori communities as we wrote a literature review of seismic activity as it relates to Māori culture. Throughout the weeks, the other Notre Dame interns and I became familiar with Māori oral traditions and histories, such as the god of earthquakes and subterranean fire, Rūaumoko. Writing this literature review made us familiar with Te Ao Māori, or the Māori worldview, in order to understand the Māori relationship with nature and natural phenomena. Cultural understanding is a large part of engaging Māori communities so that we can ensure that their values are respected. The goal of this literature review is to assist the University of Auckland’s Civil Engineering Department and the James Henare Māori Research Center in holding a workshop to engage Māori in earthquake resilience.

We were also fortunate enough to work with a marae, a Māori tribal meeting complex, that is in the process of being repaired after it fell into disuse about thirty years ago. Us Notre Dame interns came up with solutions to foundation issues and stormwater solutions to solve water ponding. This project was very meaningful for me because we were given a role in helping the hapū, or Māori sub-tribe, maintain their traditional lands and cultural practices on that land, such as Māori funerals or weddings.  This resonates with me as a Pacific Islander because of the strong connection Chamorros and Hawaiians have with their land that is tied to our identity.

With the James Henare Māori Research Center, fellow intern Marisa Ross and I created and delivered that presentation to members of a small, predominantly Māori community in the Northern part of New Zealand named Takahiwai, at a workshop held at the University of Auckland. This was a great experience because the people of Takahiwai do not have access to tertiary education, but they know a significant amount about septic systems through experiential knowledge. The goal was to understand a modern sustainability issue and the perspective of the locals, who are known to be kaitiaki, or stewards/guardians of the land.

I chose to go to New Zealand because of the connection I, and all other people in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, feel to the Western Pacific Ocean. To pay respect to a New Zealand rugby legend and prominent member of the Pacific community, Sir Michael Jones, it’s the “Big Blue Continent.” I noticed that both Guam, where I was born and raised, and New Zealand have their own, unique aspects of everyday culture that aren’t noticeable until you travel there and get to live out their culture. Most of what distinguishes the culture today on Guam, New Zealand, and other Pacific island nations from other Western cultures stems from the way our ancestors lived centuries ago, with their love for singing and music, a great emphasis on respect within a family, and our physical surroundings. Island life is associated with being laid-back, but the reality is that island life is more industrious than anything. Island cultures have always been self-sufficient and sustainable, which is evident in the way they see their world. Growing up, I was taught to appreciate and respect the natural environment of my island home because there was only one Guam, which has supported people for centuries.

This is the exact sentiment held by every Māori that I had the honor of meeting on their own whenua, or land. In New Zealand, Guam, and Hawai’i, people that best embody the culture are forward thinking: they want to create things that are sustainable, meaning that their descendants will benefit from it while also not using up the island’s limited resources. Through my experiences across different parts of the Pacific, I can say for certain that Pacific Islanders are focused on maintaining their fragile ecosystems while also caring for the needs of the people.

There is a relationship that Chamorro, Hawaiians, Māori, and every islander has with the air, water, and the land that shapes things that they do. In my case, that relationship is part of what drove me to spend three months in Aotearoa- New Zealand to study engineering in a context that recognizes Māori and Pacific Islanders at large so that I can bring that knowledge gained back to Guam for the good of my island and this “big blue continent.”


Leonard Calvo is a sophomore civil engineering major with a minor in resiliency and sustainability. 


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