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Are We Using The Word Kaitiaki Appropriately?

For Conservation Week this year, I wanted to bring to light a topic that has long played on my mind. For someone who grew up speaking Te Reo Māori and working my entire career in conservation, the use of the word Kaitiaki has not quite sat right with me.

Kaitiaki is often the word given to someone who is considered a protector – either of a person, something of value and/or the environment and its resources.

In the conservation and sustainability sector in particular, the word has almost become the default title of those whose main work is to protect the natural environment.

However, despite dialect variations, the actual meaning of the word has become somewhat diluted due to its misuse in the mainstream arena. As is the case with many Maori words, its overuse has created generalisations, and as a result cast aside the wider meanings and usage of the word. Furthermore, there are many out there that argue its use as incorrect or reflective of only some dialects.

Growing up, I do not remember hearing the word Kaitiaki – especially in relation to protection of our whenua. It wasn’t until I heard Kevin Prime – a well-respected Kaumātua from Ngāti Hine – speak about how they didn’t have a word for Kaitiaki when they were younger, I realised I wasn’t alone. For Matua Kevin and his whānau, conservation of natural resources was just something you did; it was part of everyday life.

Indeed, when I asked my dad about this, he said they never used words like Kaitiaki, conservation or sustainability. However, from sunup to sundown, his whole life on the farm in the 50’s and 60’s was all about conservation and sustainability. His daily routine back then would astound most of this generation who strive to have less impact on our whenua.

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So, if our older generations weren’t using the word Kaitiaki in the way it is used today, what happened?

First, let’s look at the word. According to the online Maori dictionary, the word tiaki is a verb and means to guard, keep, protect, look after while the prefix “kai” denotes the verb as a noun with a human agent.

In Ngāti Porou, they use the word Kaitieki. I would imagine that there are probably many more dialect versions across the country. For my people in Te Arawa, we use the word hunga tiaki. Kaitiaki to us is more linked to atua and guardians who protect something 24/7. The hunga word for us denotes the human element.

This notion of a Kaitiaki being a guardian is shared by other Iwi. For some, a Kaitiaki can mean the guardian of a realm, as in Tane Mahuta – the kaitiaki of the forests which in this discussion, makes sense. Moreover, Kaitiaki can also be a taniwha like the ones of the Waikato river that are on every bend of the river.

I have heard some Iwi say that someone can be a Kaitiaki only when they are in the act of protecting something, thus it becomes a mantle. This mantle can be shared by a whānau who take turns carrying out the responsibility e.g. Ahi kā as kaitiaki of the marae.

Other Iwi and hapū have different words altogether for conservationists. I have heard some people from Tuhoe describe land protectors as matemate-ā-one, meaning a deep affection for one’s land. Whereas some hapū have flipped the whole notion of humans being above the environment and considered a protector when in fact the environment protects us and therefore call themselves taurima of the environment.

As you can see, the word kaitiaki can mean a many number of things to many different people. I would labour a guess that most people involved in conservation in Aotearoa will have a very specific view on what the word kaitiaki means; and therein lies the problem.

While Te Reo is in the midst of a resurrection, its mainstream use comes at the risk of devaluing its richness. Most Reo speakers would love to hear more Reo being spoken and seeing more kupu (words) being used, but not at the cost of limiting the depth and meanings of the words.

Quinton Hita put it far more elegantly in a recent Facebook post when he surmised that once our kupu are out in the world, “nuance goes out the window, and people grab on to the most sensational meaning.”

The use of kaitiaki in mainstream has a long and interesting history. In the late 1800’s, land surveyors were shocked when informed by tangata whenua that lands of interest were owned by whole sub-tribes and deemed it communism. Even more bizarre to these land surveyors was when tangata whenua would identify a certain species of plant, lizard, bird, or insect as the Kaitiaki of that whenua.

In following years, “Kaitiaki o ngā Māori” was also the informal term given to the first Ministers of Native affairs. Followed soon after was the newly formed police officers being called Kaitiaki. Perhaps a constant use of the word Kaitiaki in mainstream – throughout our history – is for nurses.

Finally, we end where we started, the use of Kaitiaki in conservation. During my career and perhaps my journey with Te Reo, there has been a debate simmering away; can non-Māori be kaitiaki? Based on its simplified meaning there is an obvious case for its use in this context. However, some opponents (or proponents, depending on how you see it) argue that kaitiaki can only be those that whakapapa to the whenua.

For me personally, I don’t mind what people call themselves; so long as they are protecting our whenua and have a greater understanding of the title they are wanting to use. I can say that I am happy to avoid its use for now as, even after all these years, I am still learning that it means something different to all Iwi within Aotearoa.

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