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On Kaitiakitanga By Kahu Kutia ( Ngāi Tūhoe )

Words by Kahu Kutia ( Ngāi Tūhoe )

Treasures with stories, the work of Raukura Turei

He kōrero tēnei e pā ana ki tēnei mea te kaitiakitanga, me ōna whakaaro nui i te ao whānui, te ao pākihi anō hoki. E whai ake nei ko ōku whakaaro noa iho e pā ana ki taua kaupapa. Ko aku tino taonga te herenga o tēnei kōrero. E mihi ana ki a tātou.

Kaitiakitanga is often thrown around within commercial and business sectors as a buzzword. A generic hall pass in to all conversations about sustainability. The catalyst is of course the issue of climate change — an increasingly observable and alarming reality for us all. But I have found that dwelling in the general, in the macro of a concept does not spark any kind of joy, connection, or hopeful action.

How might we bring conversations about kaitiakitanga back to their origins? How might we reconnect?

Me pēwhea rā tātou e whakahoki i ngā kōrero kaitiaki ki te pū o tōna whakaaro? Me pēwhea tātou e whakahonohono anō?

Creating my own sense of kaitiakitanga has inevitably come back to connection and relationships. It’s hard to connect with and feel a duty of protection to a stranger, and if the earth itself is a stranger, that is just as true. For me, as Māori, as an artist and maker myself, kaitiakitanga has become about intimacy.

Knowing the answers to questions like:

What stories can I tell about where this object came from? How was this object made? What moon phase were the materials harvested under? How was the health of the stream that trickled nearby?

I ahu mai tēnei taonga i hea?
Ko wai te kaihanga?
He aha tōna whakapapa?

Storytelling helps us understand how to harvest sustainably from the earth's finite resources, and make objects ethically.

At a wānanga in Ōtepoti earlier in the year, I sat with Raukura Turei ( who is also featured in this issue ). We marvelled at the beautiful bluey-grey aumoana clay she had gathered from the takutai, on the shores of her own whenua. The clay telling part of her story, and became a treasured material for her own incredible artworks.

At the end of that weekend together, Raukura gifted me a piece she had created. On the front, her signature patterned daubs of whenua. Precious golds and browns. On the back, she scrawled a note to me. Describing all the places that earth had come from. I love this piece for how it connects me to Raukura, to this space we shared together over a weekend with other talented art-makers and friends, and to the different places where that earth was harvested for art-making.In a general sense, kaitiakitanga means the practice of guardianship, or protection. A kaitiaki might be a person who cares for you. It might be the taonga you wear or keep in your pocket when you have a big day ahead of you.

In the context of sustainability, it also means our duty as guardians and protectors of the earth. The understanding that the earth can and should endure long after we do, a long-held Māori worldview which is encompassed in this whakatauki:

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua
/ As man disappears from sight, the land remains

When I consider kaitiakitanga in relation to stewardship, and to businesses like Yu Mei, I come back to the stories we tell about materials.

When we can tell the stories of how objects are made, we honour the makers, the places the materials came from, the processes through which they were made. We understand how that object connects us to the environment around us. And we contradict the unsustainable capitalist mode of production that divorces an object from the way in which it was made. We tell stories.

In my house, the treasures I am most proud of are those whose stories I can tell. Like Raukura’s artwork, hanging in my hallway. Or the pūtōrino given to me by my dear friend Isaac Te Awa. Carved by him in native Tōtara wood, lashed with aka kiekie, and decorated with Tōroa feathers bound in twisting silver muka. Treasures like the autumn playlist full of special songs that my partner made just for me when we first started dating. Or the chocolate-brown jumper in my closet that my grandmother hand-spun and knitted herself with wool from my brother's favourite pet sheep.

In reality, yes, there are many different facets to kaitiakitanga, and people will have their own interpretations. This is an important part of it as well. But in the face of a future that can feel increasingly overwhelming to think about, there is nothing more important than hope and connection. And finding joy in the protection of our humble home planet.

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