He aha te kai o te rangatira? He korero.

September 14

One by one, we awoke for our final morning together in Aoetearoa. While packing my things, I reflect on the wharanui (carved houses) itself, the stories it tells, and its representation of Māori sovereignty.

Interior of the Hairini Marae.

The history of the Hairini Marae was displayed all around us within the wharenui. Poupou (carved wall panels) represent actual ancestors and tell the history of those who first came to Aoetearoa. Photographs of more recent ancestors line the wall – their lives’ histories emanating from the prints into the room; their spirits offering protection and guidance. This was absolutely one of the most amazing places I have ever been privileged to sleep. Not only is it a sovereign space where Māori are empowered to accurately represent themselves and their past through carvings, but it is also an environment that fosters language revitalization and kinship.

He aha te kai o te rangatira? He korero. What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication.

While we ate breakfast we shared stories of our own. Some of us took one last walk around the town, enjoying some of the finest weather we had during our whole trip. We quickly cleaned up the Marae before we took two taxi-vans through town to catch the InterCity bus to Auckland.

At first glance, the asthetic beauty of the place is without measure. Rolling hills, clouds resembling castles, sheep resembling clouds. After closer inspection, a story emerges. As an ecologist/naturalist in training, I had about five hours to observe the landscape and interpret this story.

An altered landscape. A lone tree is left to tell the story of the forest that once adorned the hillside.

Mankind’s impact in Aotearoa and North America closely resemble one another. The land nearly unrecognizable in terms of its ecology before European settlers carried out the land acquisitions in violation of the Waitangi Treaty meant to ensure Māori sovereignty over land rights. I see pastures where sheep and cow roam, streams in which farmland runoff flows among the trout, hawks surveying for creatures now too easily spotted in a clear-cut forest. As I read the vegetation regimes and typography like brail beneath fingertips, I imagine the past as three chapters.

In the first chapter, before mankind had set foot here, the pages tell of a primeval wonderland where ferns the size of trees (Ponga) tower over flightless birds the size of giraffes (Moa). In the second chapter, the land is inhabited by Māori 800 years ago. It is the Aoetearoa of richly gardened landscapes where mankind interacted with its soils, flora, and marine life in near-perfect harmony. In the third chapter, the settlement of Pākehā (non-Maori) Europeans who confiscated ancestral land, clear cut forests for timber, channeled and dredging waterways, and even gave everything a new name.

Our host tells the story of his people and the land. He aha te kai ō te rangatira? He Kōrero. (What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge, it is communication.)

The next chapter of Aoetearoa is being written, and the future of Māori sovereignty is more promising than it has ever been since European colonization. It is Te Reo week (Māori language week), where events all over the country are promoting language revitalization and ancient stories. Land rights are slowly being regained through storytelling within the treaty claims process. Indigenous leaders of tomorrow are carved by the stories told by elders and the land. The responsibility of these leaders is to remain steadfast in a world where colonization remains vigilant.

As we share our final meal, I am surrounded by friendships. Koha (gifts) are given out in the forms of bracelets, woven blankets, and laughter. This has been a truly transformative  and enlightening experience that I will never forget. I am filled with joy. I am filled with knowledge. And boy do I have stories to tell.

–Steve Guardi

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