Teaching Indigenous Knowledge in the Science Classroom (Part 2: Myth vs Science)

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Welcome back! This is part 2 of a video discussing the teaching of indigenous Maaori science in New Zealand classrooms. If you haven’t seen part 1 yet, go check that out first so you’re not lost! Link is below. 

In my previous video I talked about the letter “in defense of science” that actually agreed with the New Zealand government, that science has been used as tool to aid in the subjugation of indigenous people worldwide. Now let’s talk about their other claim: that m?tauranga M?ori is fine as “culture” but severely lacking as “science.”

As I understand it, maatauranga really does encompass the entire base of Maaori knowledge. So, as with Western Christian culture, that means there ARE myths and legends in there that are not empirically true. Again, I’ve combed through the New Zealand government’s documents and I cannot find anywhere that they advocate for teaching those myths and legends in the science classroom – only statements like this, found in the slightly more detailed initial recommendation from early 2020

“Ensuring that, where possible and appropriate, te ao Maaori and maatauranga Maaori are built into achievement standards for use across English and Maaori-medium settings. That might mean:

Having Maaori-centred contexts for exemplars and assessment resources (eg, local iwi history).

Designing more inclusive standards and assessment resources that allow for diverse cultural perspectives on what’s important (eg, considering community or hap? impact, not just individual user needs).”

“Where possible and appropriate.” That sounds good to me!

If you take the letter-writers’ word for it, of course, nowhere in science class is maatauranga appropriate. Is that true, though? The Maaori arrived in New Zealand from other islands in the early 1300s, using oceanic canoes and navigating via the stars. Considering that the Polynesian people all told settled New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui across 5,000 miles of ocean, either they had an incredibly detailed knowledge of the stars, tides, waves, construction, birds, and marine life or they are the luckiest humans to ever exist, just flopping around the Pacific for a thousand years as birds drop fresh fish into their mouths until they eventually bump into a volcano here and there.

But no, in fact they used trial and error and the scientific method to develop canoes that could travel vast distances, fishing methods that allowed survival for long stretches at sea, and a compass that was divided into segments carved onto the canoe, allowing navigators to find their way depending upon the movements of the sun and stars.

Once they reached New Zealand, the Maaori could only survive through the scientific method. Whakaotirangi was one of the first to settle the islands, and she brought important seeds with her to ensure survival. But the climate was colder than where her people came from, so she traveled around experimenting with plants to find food and medicine, eventually building a garden of species advantageous to human survival called Hawaiki Nui.

These aren’t myths or legends – they’re tales of science and human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds, just as valid as tales of other important scientific breakthroughs like the development of vaccines or the internal combustion engine.

Maatauranga isn’t just relegated to the ancient history of science, either. I stumbled upon this great response to the “defense of science” letter by Scott Hamilton (I assume the figure skater) that describes a New Zealand doctor in World War II turning to the Maaori for help fighting dysentery in Allied soldiers:

“For centuries Maaori had used koromiko to treat stomach disorders. The plant’s use was part of rongo Maaori, or Maaori medicine. Knowledge of koromiko and other flora was passed on at whare waananga, traditional schools. Downes remembered how the M?ori soldiers had made tea from their dried koromiko, offering some of the brew to Paakehii comrades. The Anzacs had reported that the tea calmed their stomachs, preventing diarrhoea.”

Hamilton goes on to describe the importance of Maaori sailors in that same time who had the ability to “read” the ocean, and how their canoes proved more adept at navigating tricky areas than the rubber rafts given to American GIs. 

He concludes with this paragraph, which I think is just so perfect I will read it in full:

“Today, the Indigenous scholars of the Pacific draw on traditional knowledge as well as the research traditions of the West. Like Rupert Downes in 1942, scientists continue to find value in traditional plant knowledge. Last November Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, a scholar at the Scientific Research Organisation of S?moa, made news around the medical world when she published a study showing that the leaves of the matalafi tree, which grows in yards across the country, was as effective as ibuprofen at reversing inflammation. In an interview, Molimau-Samasoni said that her study had proved the “scientific merit” of the traditional healers who had used matalafi for centuries. Samoans have also traditionally used matalafi leaves to chase ghosts away. Molimau- Samasoni is not planning to investigate this practice. Like her Western counterparts, she is able to distinguish between the supernatural and scientific parts of her culture.’

And there it is: “where possible and appropriate.” No one is claiming that one entire culture beats Western science and medicine! All they’re saying is, “Hey, we have thousands of years of knowledge based on empirical research that has by and large been buried. Why don’t we try teaching high schoolers about this?”

Students (and scientists, and everyone really) around the world would benefit from this knowledge, but it is particularly necessary in New Zealand. Time and time again research shows us that people feel more engaged in an activity, more interested in learning, and more inspired to pursue a career when they can see themselves represented in those things. Brave outliers forge the first path, and then it gets easier and easier for even marginalized people to think “oh, yeah, I can do that!” So imagine you’re a Maori teen. If the only way you see your culture represented is in art or dance, you’re more likely to think that that’s where you belong, and conversely that you do NOT belong in science and technology. And that is BONKERS, considering the incredible breadth of scientific knowledge your ancestors built to maintain and pass along down through the generations. The ONLY reason you now think you don’t belong in that space is because European colonizers did everything in their power to stop that unbroken line of history through things like the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, which threatened fines and imprisonment for “Every person who gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition or credulity, or who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events, or otherwise.” That sounds rational and well-intentioned until you realize it was used to stop the sharing of traditional medicine, which was at the time losing its efficacy due to the arrival of new diseases that came with European colonists, making previously effective medicine seem like quackery. Almost like that’s happened before. Repeatedly.

On that note, it’s worth hammering this home: this isn’t just a problem for New Zealand. Colonizers have done this to indigenous people all across the globe, including right here in my lovely state of California. Northern tribes like the Karuk were stewards of this land for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, and during that time they prevented major wildfires by practicing controlled burns that removed flammable litter from the forest floor without destroying the old growth trees. The American government outlawed the seemingly “barbaric” practice of purposely setting fires in the early 20th century. Thanks to that misguided assumption and Western industrialization leading to climate change, California is now terrorized by “fire season,” a time when we all huddle inside with the windows closed and a “go-bag” packed just in case we have to flee our homes.

Our governor has just this month announced “Whoops, turns out you guys were right,” and “could you, like, go back to doing that please?” and “maybe teach us to do it, too?”

Had our murderous ancestors simply paused and thought “Maybe they’re doing that for a reason, let’s ask them,” a whole lot of drama could have been avoided. But like the writers of the letter “defending science,” they just kind of assumed they knew better. And it’s a shame, not just for the indigenous people we killed, displaced, and tried to breed out of existence, but for all of us – for the entire knowledge base that we as humans have been building. If we really are the universe becoming sentient and learning about itself, we must do better.

If you’re interested in reading more about Maatauranga, there are a few more things I didn’t get around to explicitly mentioning but you may find interesting, like this overview from 2016 by Dr Daniel Hikuroa of University of Auckland who writes that “Hitherto mostly ignored or disregarded by the science community because it seemed to be myth and legend, fantastic and implausible, m?tauranga M?ori includes knowledge generated using techniques consistent with the scientific method, but explained according to a M?ori world view.” And then there’s this special issue of the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research that goes in-depth on the “enormous potential for the use of maatauranga Maaori to more widely enhance the understanding of aquatic ecosystems, underpin culturally-appropriate restoration approaches, and provide a more holistic and integrated perspective for activity in this realm, including research, monitoring, planning, and policy and resource development.”

This paper is about how Maori knowledge in particular can help researchers understand the unique geomorphology of New Zealand, and how indigenous knowledge in general can help scientists around the world.

Here’s a paper published last year in Nature that more generally argues for the decolonization of ecology, summing up that “ecology as a discipline and the diversity of those who call themselves ecologists have also been shaped and held back by often exclusionary Western approaches to knowing and doing ecology. To overcome these historical constraints and to make ecology inclusive of the diverse peoples inhabiting Earth’s varied ecosystems, ecologists must expand their knowledge, both in theory and practice, to incorporate varied perspectives, approaches and interpretations from, with and within the natural environment and across global systems.”

Finally, I loved this calm and rational discussion amongst Maori scientists responding to the letter from their own independent perspectives, including an astronomer who even addresses the “teaching creationism:”

“If M?ori say everything began in a small place with Rangi and Papa and was exploded outwards… that’s ‘myths and legends’. But when it’s a singularity and a ‘big bang’, it’s science. Same as you know, when we say we’ve got genealogy to stars, they say ‘how ridiculous is that?’ Now, everything begins its life in a star – every molecule, everything that makes up the entire world. 

“When it’s done from a Western perspective, it’s scientific truth; when it’s an indigenous idea, it’s myths and legends. It undermines everything that we do.”

I found that interesting because I sort of disagree with him here: there IS a difference between scientific observations and a creation myth that we can metaphorically relate to what we scientifically know about the universe, BUT what I DO find thought-provoking is how these myths were developed and what real observations were they based on. Personally I would LOVE to see something like that explored in science class, just as in my own science classes as a teen we talked about whether or not there’s scientific evidence of a “great flood” that inspired the story in the Bible. As a young Christian, that drew me in and made me want to learn more about the science! And as someone who has always loved learning about the myths and legends of other cultures, I’m now equally fascinated by how they might have developed based on what those people were experiencing thousands of years ago.

I’m going to end this video here, but do know that there’s a whole lot more happening with this to-do – the reason why people are still talking about it is because some people complained about the academics who wrote the letter, there was an investigation into some of them, some people resigned from some jobs, other people are claiming they’re being harassed – I’m not going to get into any of this because this is already a video so abnormally long I’m thinking of breaking it up into two parts. My apologies for the length, but as an outsider I really wanted to do the research and give you as much context as possible for what kicked all this off. I think it’s easy for white, Western science-loving atheists like myself to dismiss mysterious “ways of knowing” other than science, and it’s easy to have a kneejerk reaction to the idea of “teaching creationism to kids,” but honestly that’s not just wrong, it’s boring. There’s a whole wide world of weirdness out there, and I encourage you to always keep an open mind. Just not so “open” that your brain falls out.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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