We cannot protect our moana if our waka cannot speak to it

By Vivien Whyte (she/her)


Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. The great ocean continent. For those of us who live with it, our connection with the ocean runs deep. It connects us, nourishes us and safeguards our wellbeing. The title of this article comes from a kōrero delivered by two leaders from the Pacific Youth Council, Karalaini Basaga and Fredrica Nagan, who came from Fiji to talk in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. For Pacific nations, the oceans have always been our way of life. However, as climate change threatens the world in new and unprecedented ways, those in the Pacific have been left without a voice. We descend from voyagers and navigators who travelled on different waka to make our way across the ocean. It is these waka – our intergenerational knowledge and lived experience – which give us the tools to protect the moana. This way of knowing has been passed down through our reo, yet we find ourselves in a position where our voices are diminished. Whispering. Barely able to combat the loss of ocean biodiversity, or keep the moana healthy.


The United Nations has marked 2021-2030 as the ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’, with the ‘Decade for Indigenous Languages’ beginning a year later. I sat down for a kōrero with two UNESCO Aotearoa Youth Leaders, Ethan Jerome-Leota and Adriana Bird, to delve deeper into this and unpack what the ‘decades’ mean for their mahi.


Ethan proudly hails from the mighty Waikato. He was brought up there, eventually studying law at the University of Waikato. Now he’s a legal advisor for Waikato-Tainui and is this year's Youth Chair for New Zealand’s National Commission for UNESCO. He grew up next to the Waikato River. His iwi, which is named after the river, believes it is their tūpuna. “It has a mauri, a life force and it’s a living being. It’s not just a body of water - it has feelings from the way that it flows to the different areas it flows through.”


Adriana speaks passionately about the ocean. She was brought up at the beach at Mount Maunganui, where she hails from Ngāti Ranginui. Her core family comes from Ōpōtiki and Ōhope where she descends from Ngāti Awa, Te Arawa and Tainui iwi. She has a law and environmental science background and works for the Ministry for the Environment, working in Māori policy and partnership. Adriana says that all aspects of her well-being - physical, mental and spiritual - have always been associated with the ocean. The activities she can do in the ocean brings her joy - it's "hauora that comes with connection to the environment."


While other UNESCO branches around the world may view ocean sustainability and revitalising indigenous reo as separate issues, UNESCO Aotearoa is taking a holistic approach. Recognising that these are closely related is rooted in the heritage and knowledge of Aotearoa and is an essential part of their mahi.


To ground himself in this holistic approach Ethan comes back to his pepeha. “When I say Taupiri te maunga, Waikato te awa, Tainui te waka, Waikato te iwi - it's not necessarily me saying I come from that river or that mountain. It's really about my collective responsibility to look after those things.” He says that focusing on your identity and values keeps you grounded and reminds you why you do what you do. Introducing oneself through your connections to te taiao is an incredibly strong showcasing of how te reo Māori is entwined with stewardship and looking after the environment for future generations. As Adriana puts it, “Through something as simple as introducing yourself through your maunga, your awa... we use language to show that connection. And I know that’s a theme across many other indigenous languages too.”


The idea that these things are intertwined and encompass multiple things at once forms the foundation for how the UNESCO Aotearoa Youth Leaders plan to tackle the ‘decades’. To be a kaitiaki of te taiao means so much more than being guardians of our environment. As Ethan puts it, “when we talk about the reo, we are talking about culture, identity, the whenua and the oceans - including our collective responsibility to care for the environment.” In Aotearoa, mātauranga Māori and indigenous ways of being have been protecting te taiao for centuries. And te reo Māori can articulate our obligations to the environment in a way that could never be translated into English. In that way, our indigenous languages are essential in protecting the ocean and empowering tangata whenua to continue doing so.


Adriana is on a personal journey of reclaiming her reo. “I am reclaiming my connection to my culture and that connection to the environment.” She says that over the years, she’s felt that connection grow stronger. “I can articulate it better through that language” In Aotearoa, this is a story echoed by many. Adriana says, “there’s a lot of us going through that reclamation of self and identity through learning our reo. I think that is important, and ties into how we kaitiaki as well. Through it we can speak to our ancestors.”


Both Adriana and Ethan imagine a future where future generations won’t have to deal with the same struggles and problems as us. Or else, that they will have the foundations and resources to flourish. For this, we need a holistic approach. Ethan says we can’t just think about what’s right in front of us. Coming back to his pepeha, “You don’t wake up and say ‘well, I’m just going to focus on my hapu. Whatever happens with my iwi, maunga or whanau, I can’t deal with that now’.” For him, it’s a reminder to not work in silos. “That’s a very colonised way of thinking. These issues are interconnected and it’s really important for us to ensure that we aren’t just trying to fix one area.”


The world is stealing from our moana and its future. While New York may erect a global-warming doomsday clock, time is already up in Oceania. Our environment and oceans need us to be vigilant and act now. But without knowledge or language to guide us, safeguarding our moana is impossible.


I’d like to thank Adriana and Ethan for their time, reflections, whakaaro and stories - it was so beautiful to kōrero with you both.