Whakapapatia to korero – Connect your talk to the Earth.

That was a beautiful saying my Uncle Rātū came out with one day, when we were at Maraehako talking about a particular speaker on the marae. Their oratory was lovely, all the bells and whistles – but it wasn’t relevant to the context, or the space, or the people. It couldn’t be applied by anyone listening, other than to perhaps replicate those pretty bells and whistle to sound equally lovely anywhere else.

Whakapapatia te kōrero – kaua e whakarangirua

Connect your kōrero to the Earth, lest you cause uncertainty.

Whakapapa is about relationships – it encompasses family but stretches far beyond conventional genealogy. Whakapapa is about joining oneself to Papatūānuku – our Earth Mother who we all come from. Whakapapa is about layers, and layers, of ancestry. Layers of lifetimes spent growing into you. Whakapapa is about authentic connectivity – to space, to place, to the themes or issues that sit before us.

Whakapapa is, so often, the root of a problem, and the source of a solution.

Last year I was honoured to attend the UNESCO World Conference on ESD (Education for Sustainable Development) in Nagoya, Japan. I found it incredibly inspiring in many ways – but also very concerning – and that was reflected in the Secretary General’s address, who noted both the incredible stories that herald a global movement – as well as the heightened urgency, and lack of progress, in too many other spaces. I  found myself often listening to speakers and considering the connection, or lack thereof, to the space and the cause, and hearing Uncle Rātū in my ear  “Whakapapatia te kōrero…”. I wrote a long (as in… 30 page) report to UNESCO on my experience of the conference – and here is my summary conclusion.

The world stands at a precipice, where the coming decade may define the survivability of our planet for the following generation. In a time where the world is consumed by economic crises, and our quality of life is defined by financial market forces – the requisite values for sustainable development – peace, love, understanding, good will – will often take a back seat. Action must be taken, it must be taken immediately, and it must be bold. If there has been an overriding unspoken theme for this conference – it is one of disconnection. There is a disconnect between our heads and our hearts. Involved in the development and implementation of ESD at global and national levels, are many great heads. Heads of state, heads of agencies, heads of fields of study. Each of these people – and indeed you, reading this, will also have a hearth that burns at home – your ahi kaa, that is fed by, and feeds, your family. You will have your home, your special place from your childhood, your precious place of retreat. These places, these people, are our heart. There is a disconnect between our heads, where we are making decisions, and our hearts – the effects upon these places and people.

We speak of the need for innovative means
and heartfelt commitment to reaching a new
space of communication, of principle, of
belief and subsequent action..
Yet we speak of this in distant, third person terms
in a policy, advisory, or conference space. We
present cold, lacklustre powerpoint or prezi
presentations that externalise what we know,
inherently, is an internal issue.
We advocate for sustainable practices to be
manifested by practitioners, students, and the
wider community.
Yet we still create unsustainable waste ourselves.
We advocate for grassroots mobilisation, green
economies and earth‐centered thinking
Yet our economy and governments continue on
increasingly neo‐liberal trends and are a hostile
climate for such ideals.
There is an observable growing divide between
what our governments agree must be done in
the interests of sustainability…
And the allocated funding and service support to
achieve these goals
We understand that those who hold tertiary
qualifications are more likely to participate
politically in advocating for sustainable
And yet the same group are also most likely to lead
the least sustainable lifestyles.

There is, in short, a great disconnect between what we want to see happen, and what we, ourselves, are prepared to do. We cannot hope to protect and provide for our landscapes, whilst avoiding the discussion about our own internal landscape that requires attention. Therefore, let us be bold, and open in our communication. Let us also be honest and frank in our own self‐assessment.

Often the consequences for these unsustainable lifestyles will be felt most keenly by those in low socio‐economic situations, especially the people of the land. As a Māori, I have the privilege of a cultural framework that links me, genealogically, to our Mother Earth. So when I say that I pray for us to restore our inner landscape, I speak of progress being achieved through a re‐membering of our role in nature, and nature’s role within us. An internal restoration project that begins with deep personal reflection – and yes this includes you. If, as policy advisors and developers, we cannot personally and intimately connect to this cause – then we cannot hope to inspire the level of change required to achieve our goals.

Restore your inner landscape

This is not new knowledge, in fact it is ancient, and was well understood by indigenous ancestors, who hold the longest running record of sustainable practice. They who learnt directly from the source, our parent, Mother Earth. This knowledge system has been damaged by the oft‐times destructive education and social systems, but still it survives. I know where you can find it ‐ but we must not seek to drag this into the classroom. We must, instead, bring ourselves to this already existing knowledge system and make all adjustments necessary to receive that which the Earth waits to teach us.

Communications from the Earth abound – whales beach in record numbers, our native species are on a rapid trajectory to imminent extinction, our access to freshwater is declining, while our sea levels and temperatures are rising, and so too are levels of ocean acidification. The most profound harbingers of this message are indigenous – the stories of the people of Kiribas and Tuvalu have attracted a great deal of international attention.


Our waka hourua, ocean voyaging canoes, have circumnavigated the Pacific Ocean, and now seek to circumnavigate the planet, carrying the cry of the oceans, along with potential solutions centred around education, innovation, relationship building and traditional indigenous knowledge. The culture with the longest history of sustainable practice is in Far North Australia. These communities are potentially the world’s greatest resource on sustainable practices – yet they are distracted and burdened by barriers such as access to education, health services, resource depletion, structural racism that extends from a policy and legislative level right down to the classroom, and across to police and justice sectors resulting in high levels of incarceration.

All of this inhibits potentially the world’s greatest advisory resource on sustainability. To return to my own cultural background – the arts of my ancestors clearly articulated our close relationship to the environment, and so this is a discussion about access to our visual heritage. The language of my ancestors was rich in metaphors of nature and our surrounding environment, further underpinning us as tangata whenua – people of the land, and so this is a discussion about access and support for my ancestral tongue. The way in which children were brought into this world underpinned a mothers role as the manifestation of Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) and our dependence upon whenua as the placenta and whenua as the landscape – with the ceremonial practices surrounding this journey reinforcing the powerful role of women in connecting us to nature. And so this is a discussion about the protection, and restoration, of our pre‐colonial practices and perceptions around pregnancy and childbirth.

Robyn Kahukiwa “Te Whenua, Te Whenua, Engari Kaore He Turangawaewae” (Placenta, Land, but Nowhere to Stand)

So can you see, now that when we speak of ESD – for me, we cannot address this issue without speaking to the centrality of indigenous rights. This discourse may not relate to everyone, but if it is omitted, it will be to the detriment of everyone – for the longest running, most effective model of integrated, holistic sustainable philosophy is held by indigenous culture. This has been spoken to by many, many wonderful indigenous contributors in and beyond UN forums, and these contributions deserve a central, privileged space.

This has led me to the understanding that ESD is not being duly valued with an indigenous lens, a concern that was compounded by the lack of indigenous content throughout the conference,  the lack of concrete action to protect indigenous rights around the world, and the lack of consistent, privileged indigenous presence at the conference.

Our communities, of all kinds, are jaded and disengaged. They have seen and experienced the dissonance between our intent and our action. We MUST address our means of engagement. We MUST return with hearts open and minds ready to re‐assess what we think we know. Change is required by all levels, not just in the classroom, but right across institutions – change must happen in this government, in this economy, and most importantly, within ourselves. We must challenge ourselves to think differently, to talk differently, and to effect change in our own personal lives, if we are to advocate for this on a greater level.

Liked it? Take a second to support Tina Ngata on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

7 thoughts on “Whakapapatia to korero – Connect your talk to the Earth.”

  1. Always my teachers said we must speak words that are beautiful to the Earth, the ancestors, and the spirits. Learning to speak is a pathway to learning to care, and to live sustainably. The dominant culture assumes there is no one listening, no living Earth or caring Ancestors.

    1. Absolutely! When you speak into a space, you embed your intent there. That’s why we, traditionally, debate outside of our houses, and why we have specific ceremonial practices surrounding our debates, so that the space can be cleansed by the combined efforts of wind, rain, prayer, and song.
      What you let in your mind is as important as what you put in your mouth, and what you feed to the Earth, you feed to your children.

  2. I too am disappointed in how little gets done with a view to taking care of the Earth, by individuals, right up to governments and big businesses. What are they all waiting for – disaster? Sometimes change has to happen from the ground up, from the people of the earth to the people who are disconnected from it, but calling the shots.
    Whenever I see publicity about maraes working on their sustainability I think of you.
    So, go Tina! It has to be said, just keep going. Your effort is huge.

    1. Thankyou Anne 🙂 the encouragement matters a LOT. And yes, I agree – if the most profound change begins from within, then it definitely follows that the shift required will be bottom up.

  3. Great thanks to you, and to all who continue to live the Earth connection, or whatever part of the connection they are able to maintain. It is a courageous path, a path of the heart.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: