Story: Kaitiakitanga – guardianship and conservation

Page 1. Understanding kaitiakitanga

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Kaitiakitanga means guardianship, protection, preservation or sheltering. It is a way of managing the environment, based on the traditional Māori world view.

Māori world view

Traditionally, Māori believe there is a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. All life is connected. People are not superior to the natural order; they are part of it. Like some other indigenous cultures, Māori see humans as part of the web or fabric of life. To understand the world, one must understand the relationships between different parts of the web.

Kaitiakitanga is a vehicle for rediscovering and applying these ideas.

Kaitiaki – guardians

A kaitiaki is a person or group that is recognised as a guardian by the tangata whenua (tribal group with authority in a particular area). For instance, a hapū (sub-tribe) may be the kaitiaki for a lake or a forest.

Interest in kaitiakitanga is growing today. Tribal groups are working to respond to environmental problems, and to renew their own knowledge, culture and experience.

Environmental impact

All human societies, including Māori, affect the environment they live in. Before Europeans arrived, Māori hunted the moa (giant flightless bird) to extinction, and burnt large areas of forest. They had a negative impact on the environment in other ways too. However, Europeans also had a serious impact on native plants, animals, land and sea after they settled in New Zealand. For example, large areas of forest were felled to make way for farming.

Becoming endangered

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Māori communities and cultures were also colonised and endangered. Many Māori likened themselves to native plants and animals on the brink of extinction. For example, the people of the Ngāti Huia tribe saw the extinction of the huia as calamitous. The bird was central to their identity and mana (status).

Guardianship of objects

Kaitiakitanga can also apply to valued items. These include family heirlooms such as korowai (cloaks), mere pounamu (jade clubs) and books about whakapapa (genealogy). An item that belongs to a person later becomes the property of all their descendants. It is cared for by an individual kaitiaki on behalf of the group. The kaitiaki is responsible for bringing the object to important occasions such as funerals, and for holding information about it.

Kaitiakitanga today

Kaitiakitanga today expresses traditional ideas in a time of cultural and environmental renewal. Iwi (tribes) are seeking to restore ecosystems and culture at the same time. Kaitiakitanga theory and practice responds to a number of current issues and challenges.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Kaitiakitanga – guardianship and conservation - Understanding kaitiakitanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 24 Sep 2007