Home > Our Stories > Whakapapa and a Tradition of Sustainability

Whakapapa and a Tradition of Sustainability

Written by: apreston, Marisa Ross

“Palau? Where is that?” is usually the response I get when I tell people about my triracial background (half African American, a quarter Japanese, and a quarter Palauan). To answer their question, it's an island chain in the Pacific near Guam. Growing up in a military family and moving every few years, I didn’t really have one culture that dominated over the rest. I feel as though I have experienced them all at once, combined with the culture of wherever we were living at the time. However, I do distinctly remember my Mom, who is Japanese and Palauan, telling me stories about her life growing up on both Guam and Palau and some Palauan legends. The legend of the Breadfruit Tree is my favorite. I only know a few words and phrases in Palauan, like “rungalk” (child) that my mom calls me, but I truly want to learn more. Not only about the language but also the islander culture and worldview.

When the opportunity came to spend a summer in New Zealand-Aotearoa, I couldn’t pass it up. During our three-week class period, we got to visit a Māori geothermal site and marae called Te Puia in Rotorua. I told my mom about the different schools for basket weaving, wood carving, and tattooing. Just from that exchange, I learned that Palauans also use tattoos as a way to mark status. The mother in law of one of my mom’s aunts had dark, striped tattoos that ran the length of her body, starting from her neck to denote the high status of her clan. Also, by the end of the 3 weeks, I finally knew how to pronounce words with “ng(vowel)” like “nga” in “kaitiakitanga” (guardianship) and “rungalk,” something that has challenged me for years.

The maraes we have seen around Auckland, in Rotorua, and on Waiheke Island remind me of the Palauan version --the bai, or meeting house. In the Arts and Crafts Institute, the carving school reminded me of the wood carvings we have at our house that one of my mom’s uncles made. They are called storyboards, and they depict legends like the Breadfruit tree as well as other oral traditions. While we stayed at the marae on Waiheke, we were welcomed onto the marae and went around the room giving our whakapapa (genealogies) as well as what mountain and river we associate ourselves with, which is the traditional format for a Māori introduction. Palauan culture has a similar greeting, where when you introduce yourself you say Alii (hello) followed by a description of who your parents are. And instead of a Haka, Palauans have their own war dance.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to intern with the University of Auckland, working on a variety of Māori related projects with my teammates Leonard Calvo, Esteban Salazar, and Chris Ebner under the supervision of Dr. Tūmanako Fa’aui, who is half Tongan, half Māori. My team and I have worked on a scientific literature review about Māori oral tradition and culture and how it relates to natural disasters and phenomena such as tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, and geothermal activity, which brought me back to the memories of my mom telling me the Breadfruit Tree legend. For Māori, Ruāumoko is the god responsible for earthquakes and sometimes volcanism, whereas the taniwha, or sea creature/spirit, causes tsunamis. However, across the different iwi and regions of New Zealand, Ruāumoko’s story has its variations.  After learning about this, I asked my mom if Palauans have gods. She told me that they have more guardian-like figures, and fun fact: my grandfather’s clan had a stingray as their village guardian!

Another aspect that has captured my attention is the two schools of thought that the Māori have, particularly in academia: Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and Western knowledge. Both can be applied to the scientific method, and both are correct even if they do not align with each other. For example, oral tradition says that there was a case of a taniwha in an area, which would mean the area had a tsunami. However, digging up sand cores and analyzing the layers may indicate a storm surge rather than a tsunami. Regardless of whether or not the cores corroborate the taniwha, both trains of thought are correct and give information about what Māori observed and experienced and how they explained it, much like the process for the scientific method. Currently, Māori are making efforts to incorporate both knowledge systems and facilitate the bridging of the systems. These thought processes are definitely something that my “engineering-geared” brain had to deconstruct for a few days.

My teammate Leonard and I have also completed another literature review about community engagement between the Māori and various parties like researchers, governing bodies, and non-Māori people. In this research, I gained a better understanding of the Mauri Model decision-making framework. The life force behind something or its ability to support life is called mauri. When making decisions, particularly involving natural resources, the Mauri Model serves as a tool to more holistically encompass the views the iwi (tribes) have towards a specific change at hand. The framework allows the iwi to weight the impact a certain change will have on their culture, ties to the land, ecological importance, and community. Including these results in legislative decision making ensures that the process does not heavily rely on economic implications and allows the decisions to be more inclusive of the Māori worldview and makes the outcome more sustainable for future generations. This idea brings me to another aspect that I have had to re-examine: sustainability. In our literature review, I came across the distinction between Western and Māori-centric definitions of sustainability, which have their similarities, but what sets them apart is that the Māori view is more aware of the connections iwi have with the land and how they emphasize the need for usability in future generations. Sustainable use for the coming generations is a concept that Palauans share with the Māori.

On our most recent site visit, the four of us traveled to Paeroa to see the marae, Taharua, that is undergoing restoration projects. We got to see how the structure was originally built with its interlocking timber pieces, some of which are original to the 1890 construction! The site managers have plans for expanding the marae complex beyond the wharenui (meeting house). They want to build a wharekai (dining house), wharepaku (restroom) and add a roadway and parking lot. However, the site has an issue with ponding water on the surface of the ground. Suddenly the concepts and solutions I had learned in my classes, particularly hydraulics and hydrology, came into work to come up with a solution. I proposed the idea of a rain garden as a bioretention scheme to help with the water issue. To my pleasant surprise, Jim and Pete were all for the idea! This way, the water could drain naturally, and the managers could incorporate it into the landscape design. Currently Leonard and I are working on the design and cost aspects of the garden in addition to researching other bioretention methods. Leonard suggested a green roof. We are also taking into account any restrictions we have to our design such as tapu (sacred) and void spaces as well as what would benefit the marae in other aspects besides environmental like tikanga (tradition) and the well-being of the hapū (sub-tribe).

Our supervisor Dr. Fa’aui introduced us to the calculation of the Mauri Model, which we will apply to our bioretention schemes to gage the stakeholder perspectives on a proposed solution or reaction. For example, a river has mauri because its waters can be used for drinking and growing food. The Mauri Model contains 4 factors: environmental, economic, social, and cultural, and the importance/prioritization of each factor varies from person to person, showcasing the different worldviews (Māori, non-Māori, different iwi, etc.). Then, with a set of indicators, a proposed solution can be assessed to see if it benefits the community it will serve. Leonard and I have developed a model to distribute to the various stakeholders in the Paeroa community to see if bioretention solutions are a viable and beneficial option for the marae complex.

In the last few weeks, Leonard and I also took up a septic tank project with Dr. Marama Muru-Lanning from the James Henare Research Centre. This project, that we named Kaupapa Takahiwai, seeks to bridge the gap between the experiential knowledge and tertiary education that the university has to create a knowledge sharing relationship that will advance the Māori people and strengthen ties with tertiary education. Leonard and I presented to the Takahiwai community at their workshop and we will be helping Dr. Muru-Lanning throughout the semester as well. It was really insightful to see how the inherent qualities of environmental care were evident in the community’s knowledge of their septic tanks and environmental well-being.

The interactions that we’ve had with the site managers at the marae, as well as faculty at the University, have been incredibly positive and productive. It’s nice to have my Palauan islander connection recognized in another islander culture that isn’t my own; it makes me feel as though I am at home, like I have an underlying connection to these people and the land that they care for. In a way, their natural embrace of my Palauan heritage has given me the confidence to embrace it more boldly as well. The managers and faculty have welcomed us warmly and have been receptive to what our team has to offer, so I hope to return that same openness in learning about the history of their iwi and their feedback for our proposed bioretention schemes and septic tank workshop.

Māori and Palauan culture are rooted in oral tradition. My mom says that because of the nature of how traditions are passed down, the culture is dwindling because the youth aren’t as interested. It’s disheartening, but I think that this internship opportunity has allowed me to ask more in-depth questions about my heritage that have connected me more deeply with my Palauan side and let that connection grow. I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to experience an islander culture, even though it’s not my own, that has allowed me to better understand a worldview that is a part of my whakapapa. I’ve been able to engage with the islander culture on a recreational (with trips to different islands and maraes) as well as intellectual that have combined in such a way that makes me more involved with my own understanding, more connected to my mom and her story, and the Pacific island chain itself, Palau.


Marisa Ross is a senior environmental engineer and energy studies minor.