Māori Environmental Knowledge

Through participatory based interviews and workshops, representatives from the tribal groups Ngāti Pare (Coromandel) and Te Whānau a Apanui (Eastern Bay of Plenty), demonstrated an intimate understanding of weather and climate in their respective localities. Analysis of the key themes from these exchanges revealed three principal strands of weather and climate knowledge.

NIWA’s Maori Research and Development Unit recently completed a pilot programme to examine Māori environmental knowledge (MEK) of weather and climate. Through participatory based interviews and workshops, representatives from the tribal groups Ngāti Pare (Coromandel) and Te Whānau a Apanui (Eastern Bay of Plenty), demonstrated an intimate understanding of weather and climate in their respective localities. Analysis of the key themes from these exchanges revealed three principal strands of weather and climate knowledge. These include:

  • The naming and classification of local weather and climate phenomena,
  • The oral recording of weather and climate based events and trends,
  • The use of environmental indicators to forecast and predict weather and climate.

The first strand of knowledge features an extensive use of local weather and climate terminology to define the clouds, the direction of local winds and different styles of rainfall. Elders from Te Whanau a Apanui shared a long list of local words to describe different styles of rainfall – from severe rain (Awhaa) to light misty rain (Kohukohutere). Local weather and climate knowledge was also captured in local place names and the division of the seasons. For example, Te Whanau a Apanui has long held that six seasons characterise their local climate. These names and classifications represent an acute awareness of local weather phenomena, and ultimately help to make decisions about the timing, safety and viability of various activities.

The second strand of knowledge represents a valuable source of information on past weather and climate conditions in New Zealand. Knowledge of this kind was incorporated into stories, songs and family histories – and can provide detailed observations of natural phenomena over many lifetimes and in all seasons. For Ngati Pare there is a strong historical recognition of decreasing frost occurrence across their tribal boundaries as well as an increase in the number and severity of storms. These observations of local weather and climate variability are often consistent with the oral histories recorded by other Māori across New Zealand.

The use of environmental indicators to forecast changes in weather and climate is the third strand of Māori environmental knowledge. This knowledge strand reflects the traditional Maori worldview that all things are connected and that subtle linkages in the natural world can reveal a great deal about weather and climate. The table below shows a selection of environmental indicators used by Ngati Pare and Te Whanau a Apanui to forecast weather and climate. Note that while the indicators are most useful in their respective localities, many of them are shared by different iwi in other locations. There are many more indicators used by other iwi and hapu across New Zealand.

The Māori environmental knowledge (MEK) revealed in this programme shows significant convergence with western scientific understanding of weather and climate. This common ground offers a basis upon which MEK and western science can be brought together to generate new information and understanding. While western scientific knowledge of weather and climate has demonstrated significant skill and continues to improve, there exist opportunities to enhance scientific capacity and meet the challenges of future weather/climate change by attending to the insight offered by MEK.

Name Indicator Expected outcome Iwi / Region
Kākā (Native parrot) Kākā begin acting up, twisting and squawking above the forest A storm is on its way Ngāti Pare
Koekoeā (Long-tailed cuckoo) The koekoeā returns Improved weather is on the way Ngāti Pare
Moehau (Mt Moehau) The shapes and colours of clouds above and below Moehau Rainfall, winds (calm periods, squalls) and snow Ngāti Pare
Ngā ngaru (Waves) The sound of waves hitting local rocks Rough or calm weather conditions are expected Te Whānau a Apanui
Pareārau (Jupiter) The shimmer of Pareārau is light and misty A wet month follows Te Whānau a Apanui
Pīpīwharauroa (Shining cuckoo) The return of pīpīwharauroa The beginning of warmer weather Ngāti Pare
Pōānganga (Clematis) Periodic blooming A warm season lies ahead with gentle breezes Te Whānau a Apanui
Ruru (Morepork) The shrill cries of more than one ruru can be heard at night Rainfall is approaching Ngāti Pare
Tihirau (Mt Tihirau) The clouds in the sky above Tihirau Approaching rainfall or storm Te Whānau a Apanui
Whakaari (White Island) 1. The plume lies to the left
2. The plume is stretched intact across the horizon
1. Rainfall expected
2. Fair weather is expected
Te Whānau a Apanui