He Au Honua is an Indigenous Research Conference which was held over four days in Maui, Hawa’ii In March 2019. The conference drew together many Indigenous nations committed to the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge from across the world. A central focus was how we could learn from one another as communities reclaiming our practices and identities across the different spaces.  Three of our kaimahi attended this conference as part of their professional development, here are some of their learning and reflections.

The practice of connection across Te Moana nui a Kiwa

Speakers emphasised that just as colonisation was a disconnection from our languages, practices and lands, it is also a process of disconnection of relationships. These relationships include our relationships with nations from across the Pacific, furthermore, with our environments, natural world and with ourselves. Returning to the ways of our ancestors entails the need to re-establish our collective inter-connectedness and consciousness, reasserting our relational ways of being across the Pacific, furthermore, with all that is around us. Through doing so, we restore mauri and wellbeing and foster a collective force against colonialism and better reconnect with sovereign ways of being. Importantly, through learning about other Pacific nations, understandings about te ao Māori became more apparent as commonalities within our languages, oral stories and traditions were uncovered and reinforced.

Hīkina te ahi kōmau kia pūkauri ai te ahi

One speaker centralised the above to contextualise Indigenous political participation within our respective ancestral homes. The kōrero used fire as a metaphor to conceptualise ways forward to reinstate and reconnect with sovereign ways of being. Specifically, hīkina te ahi kōmau kia pūkauri ai te ahi speaks of lifting the smouldering ashes to ensure that the fire burns fiercely. The smouldering ashes, as shared by the speaker referred to ongoing colonisation, which needed to be lifted to enable ahi kā, referring to the ability to live as tāngata whenua, as descendants of atua, lands and our natural world.

Marae were explored as political sites of authority and Māori governance which sustained the fire and nurtured the healing properties of the fire, te kura o Mahuika. While the concept of governance is commonly rooted in western systems, the speaker indigenised this concept through positioning marae and our ancestral homes as political sites in which our systems can be navigated and managed. The importance of ahi kā was explored as well as roles in which the home people who kept the fires burning within our ancestral spaces enabled the collective to live as Māori.

Many speakers discussed that as Indigenous peoples we are traversing two worlds. While participating across these different spaces is a means to bringing about change, speakers emphasised the need to continue to replenish and heal our relationships as we seek to move forward. Through doing so, we can better explore localised solutions which are not derived from neoliberal and western frameworks and instead activated from our homes, peoples and lands.

Women as water protectors

One presentation that stood out to me centred on the role of wāhine as guardians and protectors of our waters. She contextualised the role of indigenous women within the sacred connection we share to the spirit of water, particularly through our role as child bearers which validates our particular responsibilities to protect and nurture water. This is sacred connection is reciprocal and is maintained by spending time managing the lands and resources of our people not only for livelihood activities, but also for cultural and spiritual practices.

We as indigenous people continue to demand our rights to water be upheld, but the disrespect and degradation of our lands is mirrored by the experiences of indigenous women who have unique responsibilities to care for our whenua. The speaker explained how decades of irresponsible oil exploitation has left her local waters contaminated with heavy metals and therefore unusable. This discussion reminded me that indigenous women have always been present in the socio-economic resistance against extractive projects but our struggles have not always been validated. Pua Case is one of the leaders in the Ku Kiaʻi Mauna movement and stood up to tautoko the kōrero. She shared the journey of her whānau and their long-standing petition against the Thirty Meter Telescope being built on Mauna Kea and explained that their voices are seldom heard. She shared how there was a lack of female representation in both indigenous and western organisations, whereby being a woman, poor, and indigenous is a triple discrimination which serves to delegitimise us from our rightful role in protecting our whenua.

I, like many audience members, drew parallels from this presentation to our own struggles back in Aotearoa. This conference coincided with the terrorist attacks on the various Muslim mosques around Christchurch. While challenging to be so far away from home, it was comforting being in a space to reflect and learn from others fighting similar battles, and this enabled me to draw the connection between patriarchy and land threat. I came away from He Au Honua more connected with other indigenous women who are on the frontline defending their territories and communities and I was reminded of the urgency for indigenous to continue organising and taking on leadership roles to protect our whenua from continued threat and dispossession.