Author Archives: Steve Guardi

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

Steve Guardi

August 28, 2017

After completing an associates degree in my home state of Illinois at McHenry County College, I chose to serve for three year with Americorps. AmeriCorps is a civil society program supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations, and other donors engaging adults in public service work with a goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” First as a tutor and mentor for eight grade students in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles with City Year, second as an environmental restoration crew member working alongside a diverse cohort from around the globe, and finally as a volunteer specialist with Earthcorps in Seattle where my team lead over 10,000 volunteers in Puget Sound parks and natural areas.

Here I can be seen leading a youth group at a special event where the 51st United States Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel serving in the administration of President Barack Obama, was digging in the dirt alongside us.

Currently, I am completing my first bachelors degree in Conservation Science and Resource Management and this study abroad course will allow me to see how environmental justice and Sovereignty is managed with indigenous cultures in another part of the world. The Maori people of New Zealand have produced environmentally charged and intimately mystical novels that had inspired me to visit their world for many years. So far, I cannot formulate words to express the deep gratitude and sense of awe as I participate in culturally immersive events both ancient and inspiring.

I hope to bring the knowledge I gain back to North America where I will be better equipped to build bridges between the US government and tribal nations, ultimately protecting human rights and preserving functional ecosystems and sacred ground. Following this experience, I will act as a UW Bothell Study Abroad Ambassador.

In my spare time I enjoy riding my bike, hiking, and playing video games. I am also a musician with roots in the Chicago-land underground music scene where basements, roller rinks, and youth centers were venues for expression, community building, and hearing loss in the sprawling rural/suburban McHenry County.

Te Ara Wairua (The Spirits Pathway)

August 26, 2017

The group awoke to the gentle knocking of Rihari, our Māori guide, upon the inner wall of the carved house’s facade. As the eyelids peeled open, the sounding of sleeping bag zippers bounced off the walls where framed photographs of ancestors oversaw our slumber. As is customary within the Marae, Rihari lead us in prayer spoken in his native tongue of Te Reo. Though I could not understand the spoken words, I felt the weight of its meaning like gravity turned upside down within me. The energy brought me briskly to my feet, and I exited the house to bask in the glow of the new rising sun.

Sunrise at Roma Marae.

One of my main priorities of engagement for this program is to interact as often as possible with our Māori hosts, and I was pleased to be met with openness and enthusiasm by Rihari as we discussed matters of farmland conservation, youth engagement, and his 25 year career serving in the military alongside US troops in Vietnam and elsewhere. We spoke for close to twenty minutes, before he ushered us in for our communal breakfast.

Now, these meals are not simply people running through city streets with paper cups and egg mcmuffins as Americans have normalized within the rat race of capitalism; the vibe was that of ceremony and community. Our hosts included the Queen of the tribe, and they had been preparing for what I can only assume as long as an entire UW class period to fill our bellies with subsistence and WONDERFUL taste. And can you guess who was first to Eat? Of course, us. The guests are expected to serve themselves first from a 30 foot table brimming with something for everyone until their wrists give way beneath the weight upon the plates. After we’ve seated, the Queen, Rihari, and others members of the tribe follow, organizing their plates with humble portions.

I greatly value these meals. It is in those times when I bond with my UW classmates. Three days ago we were nearly strangers. Today, I could tell of their own tribal affiliations, genealogical makeup, and top five favorite movies of all-time. Following the meal, Rihari lead us once again in prayer, where we responded with a Māori song we have committed to memory in the interest of cultural immersion.

After packing up our gear and putting away the bedding provided to us, I once again had the privilege of sharing conversation with a Māori host – this time with Haami who is the chairman of the tribe consisting of 30,000+ members. All I had to do was ask him to tell a bit of his life’s story, and his response was a thoughtful oral history of where he began, where he’s been, and where he currently finds himself. I am choosing to keep that gift for myself.

Following a visit to their art center, Te Whare Whiri Toi, and a dizzying bus ride through the Northland countryside, we found ourselves atop what is considered to be the most spiritually significant place for Māori. This place is Te Rerenga Wairua, or Cape Reinga.

This northernmost point of the island is where Māori peoples spirits leave the material world to descend into the underworld (reinga) by sliding down a root into the sea below. The spirits then travel underwater to the Three Kings Islands where they climb out onto Ohaua, the highest point of the islands and bid their last farewell before returning to the land of their ancestors, Hawaiiki-A-Nui. Haami shared an anecdote where those who came to say their final farewells to the deceased had observed footprints in the sand where the dead walk. The path that they travel is distinct, even mapped out precisely by chief orators.

Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) is the beginning of the spirit’s pathway, leading to the ancestral home of Hawaiki.

Through an ecological lens, this landscape fascinates me. The soil, formed from underlying serpentine rock, has toxic levels of saline elements. It lacks others like calcium and phosphorus, which help plants grow. So the Cape is a strange heartland of dwarf plants, many found only there. This is also a meeting point for the Tasman Sea (to the west) and the Pacific Ocean. The result of their meeting is a unique swirling of currents, or the creation of life, between the male sea Te Moana Tāpokopoko a Tāwhaki and the female sea Te Tai of Whitirela – the beginning of it all.

The rest of the day was spent connecting with more amazing folks. Professor Chris Teuton and I spoke of our backgrounds, interests, literature, and how to improve memorizing ability with the “memory palace”. Dani, Racquel, Nathan, and I discussed racial and gender injustices. A group of us played a game. Some of us took advantage of the trampoline overlooking the bay, imagining what it is to fly. I hadn’t finally laid down to rest until 1:30am after extensive talks with Eunice, Dani, David, and Matt about our lives, dreams, and how or heritage influences our world views. And here I sit in our rental house, listening to the laughter of blooming friendship, the howling of the wind, and a very full dishwashing machine.

–Steve Guardi