Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Indigenous values and GIS: a method and a framework

Motueka River. Image - Adrienne Farr

Abstract In New Zealand, geographic information systems (GIS) are becoming increasingly important in all areas of resource management and environmental planning. There is growing interest among the Māori , the indigenous people of New Zealand, in the use of GIS to help them achieve some of their goals and aspirations. This article describes recent efforts to identify Māori values which are part of Māori traditional knowledge (maatauranga Māori ). It then presents a method and framework for incorporating these values into GIS tools.

The Māori , the indigenous people of New Zealand, make up 14% of the country's total population of 3.7 million. Close to three quarters of Māori (Hapi 1996) have a strong sense of belonging to regional or geographically concentrated iwi (tribes) and hapuu (sub-tribes). Land, water, and air are central to Māori life and values, and they regard themselves as kaitiaki, or guardians of all natural resources (see figure 1 and figure 2). The rights of the Māori people to their lands, estates, forests, fisheries and everything else they hold dear, including language and natural resources (see figure 3), are laid down in the Treaty of Waitangi (1840). According to present legal requirements, Māori values must be taken into account in land-use planning. However, the scarcity and sensitivity of the information on Māori values, as well as the issue of confidentiality, have made it difficult to meet these requirements.

This, in combination with the need to record vast amounts of spatial information related to historic land grievances, has led to a growing interest in the development of GIS tools geared specifically to the Māori .

GIS and indigenous knowledge

The advantages of using geographic information systems (GIS) and knowledge-based systems (KBS) to document indigenous knowledge have been described by Tabor and Hutchinson (1994) and Gonzalez (1995). Applications at the local level have been documented by Lawas and Luning (1996), while Marozas (1991) has examined how GIS are being used in American Indian land and water rights litigation. Madsen (1994) has provided interesting examples of the potential power of GIS and remote sensing for the exploitation of indigenous peoples, particularly by non-indigenous groups. Examples from both New Zealand (Ihaka M, pers.comm.; Māori GIS Conference 1996; Harmsworth 1995, 1997a, b) and Canada (Anderson et al. 1993) demonstrate that where indigenous peoples develop and employ GIS tools, they are able to add their own cultural imprint to existing applications. Moreover, such tools complement the indigenous knowledge systems traditionally used to store and transfer knowledge and information, whereby an important role is reserved for the relationship with individuals, places, cultural activities, experience and the spoken word.

Maatauranga Māori

In a traditional context, maatauranga Māori (Buck 1949; Best 1924a,b) can be defined as 'the knowledge, comprehension or understanding of everything visible and invisible existing in the universe' (Williams 1997). Maatauranga Māori , which involves observing, experiencing, studying, and understanding the world from an indigenous cultural perspective, is often equated with 'wisdom'.

In Māori society, the transfer of knowledge has always involved expert individuals, tohunga, and institutions, waananga. The tohunga were trained to accurately recall elements of knowledge and to organize them systematically, for purposes of further dissemination (Williams 1997). Under the influence of the European colonists, this system gradually declined and the recording, collection and dissemination of maatauranga Māori increasingly took other forms, such as written textual documents, archives, drawings, and paper maps. This process was promoted by the authorities, culminating in the Tohunga Suppression Act in 1907, which essentially prohibited tohunga from making use of their skills. Over the last 20 years, however, the Māori have begun to realize what a wealth of knowledge is in danger of disappearing forever on the death of Māori elders. These kaumaatua have reliable traditional knowledge related to cultural activities and experiences associated with specific local areas or sites. Thus there has been a resurgence of interest on the part of the Māori in recording traditional knowledge, particularly at the local or community level, and using new technologies to make aspects of traditional knowledge available to future generations is seen as an attractive option. In the last ten years, as access to computers has increased, they have taken an interest in developing computerized databases to store and organize information on Māori values and maatauranga Māori .

Māori values

The expression 'Māori values', which is generally used interchangeably with the term maatauranga Māori , is defined as 'instruments through which Māori people experience and make sense of the world' (Marsden 1988). However, in the present study we found it useful to use the term Māori values as a subset of maatauranga Māori , in order to emphasize the special relationship which Māori communities have, or have had, with specific sites or areas and, where possible, to identify such sites and areas. Māori values are described here as historic, cultural, spiritual, and biophysical; often they are expressed in a spatial or geographic context.


Harmsworth, G. (1998) Indigenous values and GIS: a method and a framework Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education (Nuffic), 6(3).