What the Maori people of New Zealand can teach us about our relationship with the natural world
I thought I knew natural beauty before I visited Milford Sound, New Zealand. It’s impossible not to be floored by this spectacular fjord, with rushing falls, glittering waters and imposing glaciers forming an impossibly dramatic landscape.
On an uncommonly sunny day (Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world) I took a guided tour through the fjord on a kayak, drifting lazily across the tranquil waters. As we paddled, our Maori guide, Tai, told us of the indigenous history of the area.
Milford Sound was regarded as quite the haven for the Maori peoples of New Zealand. Abundant with fish, resources and boundless beauty, the Maori people who settled here saw the area as a vital source of life.
The Maori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, and like many Maori names, it’s born from mythology. According to legend, a Maori named Maui brought a piopio – a type of thrush – with him from Hawaiki. But Maui, proud and ambitious, challenged the Goddess of Death, Hine-Nuie-Te-Po, to a duel, with the prize of eternal life for all humanity up for grabs. Maui lost the duel, and his life, and his tiny thrush flew south to mourn and cry, ultimately giving birth to the waters of Piopiotahi.
Isn’t it fascinating the amount of indigenous cultures across the globe that place animals and nature as a fundamental part of human existence rather than something abstracted from it? In Europe, Dutch philosopher Rene Descartes famously stated ‘I think, therefore I am,’ suggesting that our minds our separate from our brains, and we are separated from animals and plants in that we have a soul. This was supported by the bible, in which animals were created by God for the use of human beings.
However, if you look to the indigenous cultures of say, America, Australia and New Zealand, a very different picture of the natural world begins to form. Like the Native American and Aboriginal peoples, the Maori people of New Zealand see themselves as one with the land and the living things that inhabit it. All living creatures are members of the same family; therefore, reciprocity of respect is essential. Blessings (karakia) are spoken before cutting down a tree or taking fish from the sea.
And this extends to many locations around New Zealand. The native animals – particularly birds – are intimately tied to locations, and the stories passed down through the generations of Maori settlers.
Sadly, as Tai listed off the fascinating Maori legends of the surrounding area, he would remark casually on each animal’s extinction. Piopio: extinct – the Huia: – a revered and sacred bird with beautiful tail feathers – extinct, the south island snipe: extinct. These birds may be lost to history, but they are kept alive through these vibrant stories.
When Europeans arrived on these shores they brought with them a hilariously misguided attitude to animal populations. First, they grew bored and wanted to hunt, so they brought over rabbits. But the rabbits bred (as rabbits do) and their population soon became out of control. So they brought over stoats to control the rabbits…See where this is going? Unfortunately, the stoats actually preferred the native bird population. Soon, this influx of European mammals completely decimated this delicate ecosystem.
Turns out the Maori people were correct: it’s a truly interconnected world, in which the birds, trees, rivers, fish, rodents and, yes, humans, are all delicately dependent on one another.
And looking at the future of our species, this holistic attitude towards nature could do us a few favours. As we walk blindly into a climate disaster, as we hear that 60% of animal populations have been wiped out since 1970, as we continue to drill for oil and deny the science of global warming, we’re again denying our place within the natural world. We’re denying the impact we’re having and seeing nature as a resource to be exploited rather than a fundamental part of our existence.
Soon enough it won’t just be animal populations that face extinction. Like Maui, we’re banking on immortality, and challenging the goddess of death to a duel. And, like Maui, we may find that our pride comes before the fall.