The word tiaki is the basis of the longer word kaitiakitanga. Tiaki means to guard. It also means to preserve, foster, protect and shelter. So, notions of care and protection are at the heart of kaitiakitanga, and give it its conservation ethic.
Role of kaitiaki
The prefix kai means someone who carries out an action. A kaitiaki is a person, group or being that acts as a carer, guardian, protector and conserver. The gods of the natural world were considered to be the original kaitiaki – for instance, Tāne, god of the forest, was the kaitiaki of the forest. All other kaitiaki emulate those original ones.
Many hapū (sub-tribes) and whānau (families) care for a place such as a lake or forest. They work to conserve the natural heritage, address environmental problems and reclaim traditional knowledge.
Te hunga tiaki
The Te Arawa tribes use the term ‘te hunga tiaki’ instead of kaitiaki, explains Huhana Mihinui.
The prefix ‘hunga’ is more common than ‘kai’ amongst Te Arawa, hence te hunga tiaki rather than kaitiaki. The essence of hunga is a group with common purpose. Hunga may also link with the sense of communal responsibilities. The same meaning is not conveyed with ‘kai’ … te hunga tiaki likewise invokes ideas of obligations to offer hospitality, but also to manage and protect, with the implicit recognition of the group’s mana whenua [customary authority over a traditional territory] role in this respect. 1
Animals and other beings can also take the role of kaitiaki. The Ngāti Raukawa elder Tāmati Ranapiri explains:
Manu taupunga is a name for the bird that stands guard while others are eating from a tree. It is also called the ‘sentry bird’. This bird would guard the tree, and when other birds came to eat the fruit, it fended off the intruders, ensuring their departure. 2