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Thomas Cranmer: Ardern makes second attempt to reach Antarctica

It's unclear why Ardern wants to skip Parliament to visit Antarctica but it does bring to mind last year's research regarding Maori voyages and the little noticed response from Ngāi Tahu.



For reasons known only to her closest advisors, the Prime Minister seems intent on missing this week’s sitting of Parliament in order to travel to Antarctica - a place described as “the coldest, windiest, remotest place on Earth” by Antarctica NZ general communications manager Megan Nicholl. According to Grant Robertson, the man who deputizes for Ardern during her absences abroad, “it's the kind of visit the New Zealand Prime Minister should make”.


For the rest of us, we are left to scratch our heads and speculate. The stated reason of marking the 65th anniversary of Scott Base seems, on the face of it, a tenuous excuse to make a very climate unfriendly return flight on a C130 Hercules particularly at a time when there are so many pressing issues on the domestic political agenda.


Commentary yesterday, including from Bryce Edwards, offered alternative interpretations of events, including pointing to the increasing number of rumours circulating in Wellington that Ardern will step down before the next election, and possibly before Christmas. Does the Prime Minister foresee defeat at the next election, and is she about to emulate an exhausted and dying Captain Oates when he left his tent for a final time and remarked to Scott, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”?


We simply do not know. Amongst the briefest of statements on the trip Ardern did say: “Antarctica is part of New Zealand's heritage and future and we're committed to its protection as a natural reserve for peace, science and co-operation”.


New Zealand does indeed have strong connections with Antarctica and it was those historic connections that made global news last year.


Last June, RNZ reported “Māori among first to see Antarctica, research suggests” and the Herald reported “Polynesians first to discover Antarctica, not news to Māori”. This was quickly picked up by the international press including the Guardian, CNN, NBC and the Smithsonian. The NY Times carried an article titled, “The Maori Vision of Antarctica’s Future” which proposed that “Maori may have been first to reach Antarctica, in the seventh century. But the past matters less than what lies ahead, Indigenous scholars say”.


This avalanche of press was set off by research led by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu which focused on Māori connections with the frozen continent. University of Otago associate professor and conservation biologist Priscilla Wehi, the project lead, said Māori links with Antarctica went back to the seventh century.


The researchers studied oral history - which Wehi said had often been overlooked - as well as more recent written literature to uncover Māori ties to the ice. This oral history included Polynesian narratives originating from Rarotonga of the voyages of Hui Te Rangiora and his crew on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea.


In reaching their conclusions, the researchers placed reliance on their belief that the name Te tai-uka-a-pia denoted the frozen ocean, with pia meaning arrowroot, which they suggested looked like snow when scraped. Amongst other things, the research paper and accompanying press omitted to explain exactly what the Maori connection to this voyaging was given that it related to early seventh century Polynesian history and therefore predated the arrival of Maori to New Zealand.


Even allowing for modern techniques, this voyage seemed at odds with what I had studied in my Maori Studies degree many years ago when we traced and dated Lapita pottery as a means of tracking the migratory voyages of Polynesians eastwards.


If the theory behind the research seemed questionable, the goals of the researchers were more obvious. The NY Times noted that after the first study had been published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a second study was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which looked ahead, proposing an Indigenous framework to manage and conserve the southernmost continent.


The NY Times remarked: “the authors hope to apply to Antarctica the Maori principle of kaitiakitanga, the concept of guardianship and stewardship of the environment. Their suggestions include getting more Indigenous voices in Antarctic governance and granting Antarctica legal personhood”.


What happened next is quite remarkable but has gone almost entirely without comment in the New Zealand media.


Nā Dr Michael Stevens, Emeritus Professor Atholl Anderson and Professor Te Maire Tau on behalf of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu issued a blistering response to the research titled “ ‘Our ultimate duty’ Defending the integrity of Maori tradition”. Their article deserves to be read in full in order to grasp its full impact - but it excoriates the Antarctica research paper.


It rails against “‘the surge of mysticism’ that fills too many of our books, libraries and museums, and a great many heads of the great unwashed.” And in answer to the question “what is to be done?” resolves:


First, apply scholarly standards to Māori tradition and history which ‘is, at root, the only weapon we have with which to defend the integrity of the Māori memory.’ Second, while it is a ‘difficult task … to prevent rubbish from being published,’ when it occurs ‘it behoves the academic community and the tribes to denounce it very clearly as such, and if possible, to prevent its ongoing dissemination.’


The Ngāi Tahu scholars then took direct aim at Wehi and her co-authors:


Written by a senior academic at the University of Otago, Priscilla Wehi, and six co-authors, this article advanced several spurious claims. Chief amongst them was that Polynesian explorers, beginning with a navigator named Hui te Rangiora, journeyed from Rarotonga into Antarctic waters ‘and perhaps even the continent likely in the early seventh century.’ The authors’ evidence? Their own inferences drawn from 1890s English translations by Percy Smith of Rarotongan narratives recorded in the 1860s. As we noted, with characteristic restraint, the authors presented this “traditional” material without nuance, qualification or critique, and based extraordinary claims upon it without commensurable evidence. For example, how the extreme practical difficulties of sailing a Polynesian waka to and through subpolar westerlies might have been overcome.


The authors concluded in sensible fashion: “In summary, we think the Hui te Rangiora narrative is more mythic or legendary as an origin story, than historical as a voyaging narrative”.


Sadly, this was not the end of the matter. Why has the public not heard of the Ngāi Tahu rebuttal? Why are the original domestic and international news articles still online without correction or at least some modification?


As Ngāi Tahu point out - at the time that the original research paper was published the media coverage was, unfortunately, uncritical and celebratory. They note “news outlets throughout New Zealand and around the world lauded the prowess of pre-modern Polynesian voyaging and the capacity of indigenous knowledge to survive colonial marginalisation and speak truth to patriarchal Western power on the dawn of the Anthropocene of its own making. A year later, the original article has been viewed nearly a whopping 19,000 times: a career-enhancing statistic by any measure.”


“How did the Royal Society respond to our request to publish a critical response to Wehi et al? To put it politely, utterly inconsistently with academic conventions, the principle of open debate, and the society’s stated aim of advancing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude was unexpected, especially by Atholl and Tipene, a Fellow and Companion respectively of the Royal Society.”


“It was only our dogged determination that led to the eventual publication of our reply in September 2021. This has been viewed little more than 450 times, bringing to mind the quip of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that ‘A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.’”


The article goes on: “The society has also attempted to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people’ and ‘blend’ mātauranga Māori and Western science, which are suspiciously treated as bounded. No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand’s universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection.”


It concludes by asking: “With that in mind, what repercussions befall Wehi et al? Well, in November 2021, the Marsden Fund – administered by the Royal Society – awarded her and the University of Otago $660,000 for a project entitled Kaitiakitanga and Antarctic narratives. This aims to bring ‘ancestral methodologies, from pūrakau (stories) through to traditional and contemporary visual and sensory transformations of Māori knowledge, to bear on the urgent need for future reimagining of human and planetary futures.’”


Notably Wehi also now co-heads Te Pūnaha Matatini - the New Zealand Centre for Research Excellence, having taken over from Shaun Hendy. TPM has recently been successful in its bid to be funded by the New Zealand Government’s Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) in the recent CoRE round. From 1 July 2021, the Centre’s funding will rise from $2.1 million per annum to $4 million per annum through to the end of 2028. In its announcement, the TEC singled out Te Pūnaha Matatini’s contribution to the COVID-19 response through its modelling of infection spread.


Te Pūnaha Matatini incoming co-directors Priscilla (Cilla) Wehi, a Conservation Biologist with Manaaki Whenua Landcare, and Murray Cox, a Professor of Computational Biology at Massey University, were delighted to hear the news.


“It is amazing to be leading such a strong cohort of researchers who can cross disciplines and address the complexity of systems,” said Cilla. “These ways of thinking will provide real traction in addressing some of the huge problems we are facing globally, and stimulate innovation.”


It is utterly baffling how the original research paper on Antarctica could have been accepted so unquestioningly and then for there to be no follow up by the media when Ngāi Tahu issued its rebuttal.


The article ‘Our ultimate duty’ is superb in every respect and deserves to be read and considered by as large an audience as possible. It articulates a viewpoint which I think would find widespread support throughout the country, and would be an important contribution to the debate surrounding Maori tradition and scholarship.



Thomas Cranmer is a pseudonym. You can read Cranmer's substack here


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