In Langscape Magazine Articles

Ancestral Sayings and Indigenous Knowledge: Learning from Māori Oral Tradition

December 08, 2019

by Hēmi Whaanga and Priscilla Wehi


Indigenous knowledge

An adult tūī vocalizing with feathers fluffed out, Te Puke, North Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Photo: Raewyn Adams, 2012 (from “New Zealand Birds Online”; reproduced with permission)


E koekoe te tūī, e ketekete te kākā, e kūkū te kererū
“The tūī chatters, the parrot gabbles,
the wood pigeon coos.”

(A saying for “It takes all kinds…”)


As a young child, I often sat at the window of my house peering out at the roses, manicured lawns, and hedges, listening to introduced birds like the sparrows and blackbirds as they fluttered through their days. These first memories of nature were blueprints that have remained ingrained in my mind’s eye as an adult. I rarely saw and experienced things Indigenous. I rarely heard the chatters of tūī (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), the gabbles of the kākā (Nestor meridionalis), the coos of the kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). They were as scarce as a kōtuku of a single flight:

He kōtuku rerenga tahi i te tau
“The white heron of a single flight in the season”

(A familiar saying used for a rare visitor,
often one of importance)

Our kin, the birds, now fly with a new plumage, a new label, new names, and a new meaning for us. They are often mentioned in the same breath as “under threat,” “rare,” “endangered,” “at risk,” “prohibited.” These were not the words I grew up with when I listened to my father recalling his childhood — hunting, interacting with, and gathering the descendants of Tāne (the god of the forest) and Rehua (the star also known as Antares, the deity of wisdom, medicine, and well-being and the sign of summer and its many species). As a child I carried many rare and endangered birds crumpled in my pocket — that is, in the form of the colonizers’ banknotes with which I would go buy bread and milk at the local shop.

My father would share the blueprints of his memories and those passed to him by his parents and their parents — by my ancestors, my tīpuna. Our physical and cultural landscape had dramatically changed since the time of my tīpuna. Our trees now lined the walls and halls of our colonial houses. I would watch and listen, yearning to see through his mind’s eye and that of my tīpuna, to feel and hear their stories, the songs, the poems, our history, our ancestral sayings, my Indigenous language.

Koia tēnei: ko te toroa noho au, e tangi
ana ki tōna kāinga; e mihi ana
“This is a fact: I live like an albatross, crying out to its nesting place and greeting (you in sorrow).”

(A saying used to refer to the confiscation of lands and the displacement of Māori from their homes)


The tūī was my friend growing up. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in our forests when I was a child, particularly in the summers, and that was where my love for the world around me grew. We would walk past the filmy ferns, glittering with water after rain, and feed the parrots or kākā outside our house on sugar water, similar to the honeydew that they love to lick in the forest. My godfather could mimic the calls of many of the birds, like the chattering of the parakeets or kākāriki overhead. But even living in a small city during the rest of the year, there was opportunity to observe and interact with some of our native birds.


Indigenous knowledge

Cilla Wehi with her pet tūī . Photo: Hamish McAllum, circa 1982


Once, a baby tūī fell from its nest in our garden, and we couldn’t put it back. The nest, and its tree, was too high. So, we fledged the baby tūī; it lived in our house, and we spent the early summer hunting for grubs to feed it. I tried to teach it to talk, but lacked the skills of previous generations of Māori who taught these birds to speak, with their magnificent powers of mimicry. Finally, we took our pet to a wildlife sanctuary to be a wild bird once again; it was illegal for us to keep our tūī, as with all other native birds. I never saw it again. Yet, every summer when I see the male tūī puffing its chest, and chasing the other males away from its territory of flax nectar, I am reminded of “our” tūī.

The details of tūī’s life are recorded in whakataukī, ancestral sayings that act as a repository of ecological knowledge, and in the many names that describe the changes in their body shape, form, and behavior.

He ua kōwhai
A kōwhai shower

(A saying that describes a spring shower, at the time of the kōwhai blooms, and signals the appearance of the tūī as well as the availability of some food sources)


Fast forward 40 or so years to the present, and our journeys and blueprints have changed drastically, as have the blueprints of the communities we grew up in and the cultural blueprints of this land. The history, language, songs, and wisdom of our tīpuna are no longer lost to us. We appreciate and value our place between Ranginui (Sky father) and Papatūānuku (Earth mother). Working closely with like-minded scientists, friends, colleagues, respected leaders, elders, experts, and practitioners has allowed privileged access to the knowledge and science, to the many stories, songs, poems, history, and ancestral sayings of our tīpuna, and has brought a deeper respect for collaborations and collaborators.

Whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō koutou.
“Seek after learning for the sake of your well-being.”

When we now hear the chattering of tūī, we recall its role in whakapapa (genealogy) and mythology, the many names it carries: its male form kōkōuri, kōpūrehe, kōkōtaua, and tute and female form kōkōtea and kouwha. We associate it with the star Rehua, and Tāne’s ascent to seek knowledge and understanding for his kin. We see the whetū (star) affixed to its neck that brought tūī a voice: a gift from Rehua to remind us of the origin of tūī and other birds. We cast our minds to kōkōuri and kōkōtea, the celestial sacred pools of the Magellan Clouds that have the same names as the male and female tūī.

Tūī are highly prized birds in Māori society. Along with the kererū and the kākā, they were harvested in great numbers, sometimes tamed and taught to speak, to recite mihi (formal speeches), karakia (incantations), and whakataukī (ancestral sayings), hence the whakataukī:

Me he korokoro tūī
“Like the throat of a tūī

(Said of a gifted orator or singer)

Words like ecosystem, biodiversity, global warming, climate change, and extinction are now part of our vernacular, our everyday language. They now form layers in our blueprint of understanding — our mind’s eye. Thus, many human questions are now no longer framed inwardly, focused on individualism, on small things. We have a deeper appreciation of our impact on ecosystems, and now we collaborate to seek solutions to these global issues. Where can we seek answers to these global issues to guide future directions, future generations, future blueprints? Can the teachings of the past provide guidance in our quest for solutions to local and global problems? Are there clues in Indigenous knowledge, in our oral traditions, in our ancestral sayings?


Indigenous knowledge

Rehua (Antares) reflecting in Lake Tarawera with Mount Tarawera in the background, North Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Photo: Erica Sinclair, 2016


For the past 10 years, we have sought to unpack some of the critical messages in oral tradition, in whakataukī. These sayings contain a wealth of material about Indigenous science, ecological knowledge, and the ways in which our tīpuna formulated, tested, and modified their knowledge according to ecological, environmental, and societal changes over the past 600 years. These sayings remain an important method for transmitting critical intergenerational information about all aspects of life, including traditional knowledge, tribal memory, historic events, behavior, and personal achievement.

Ehara i te mea poka hou mai, nō Hawaiki mai anō
“It is not something of recent origin
but a tradition from Hawaiki.”

(This saying refers to the source and destination of life. In some traditions, Hawaiki is perceived to be a physical place from which the Māori people first emerged before arriving in Aotearoa/New Zealand).

Much of the elders’ wisdom about the ethics, philosophy, and straightforward tactics for how best to live in a dynamic balance with the environment, plants, and animals is rapidly being lost through the combined impacts of urbanization, abandonment and/or prohibition of customary uses of plants and animals, and the depletion of ecosystems. Humankind is at a cultural, linguistic, biological, and spiritual crossroad. The many paths to our future are riddled with choices.

Ahakoa whati te manga, e takoto
ana anō te kōhiwi
“Although the branch is broken
off, the trunk remains.”

(The loss of a branch does not destroy a tree whose trunk consists of solid heartwood. Misfortunes will not ruin an individual or group if the foundations are strong.)

In order to solve real-world problems, we have to engage with all forms of knowledge, language, and science to control deforestation, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, adapt to climate change, and halt ecosystem degradation. We need to work closely with the local communities that are most affected to devise new observations and new whakataukī that embrace these local and global concerns. We also need to foster the kaitiaki (environmental guardians) of the future, our kaitiaki wherever they may live, with the principles of sustainability in mind. In our changing world, we need kaitiaki in urban areas and on farms, in global fora and in our homes.

Humankind is at a cultural, linguistic, biological, and spiritual crossroad. The many paths to our future are riddled with choices.

Stories are like ecosystems, with a community of meanings, interpretations, and systems interacting with their physical, cultural, and spiritual environments. As Indigenous Peoples have realized, all parts of the story matter. The observations in whakataukī may change, but the principles beneath endure.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua.
“People pass on, but land remains.”


This story first appeared in Langscape Magazine 5(2), Winter 2016, pp. 56−59.


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Hēmi Whaanga is Associate Professor in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao (Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies) at the University of Waikato, Aotearoa/New Zealand. He has worked as a project leader and researcher on a range of projects centered on the revitalization and protection of Māori language and knowledge. He affiliates to Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu.

Priscilla Wehi is a conservation biologist at Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, New Zealand’s government terrestrial ecology institute, and also parents three children. She is a 2014–2020 Rutherford Discovery Fellow with interests in human–nature relationships and stable isotope ecology. She affiliates to Tainui, Tūhoe, and Ngāpuhi through marriage..

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

  • reaffirming cultural identity;
  • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
  • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
  • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

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