By Lauren Buchholz, Community Ranger in Napier
Fogs of breath lifted into the air as our group moved slowly onto the Waimārama marae. In front of us, various elders and tribal leaders waited patiently beneath the wharenui. One of the women called out, her voice resonating clearly across the yard: a karanga.
I pressed in a bit closer to the group standing around me. My reaction had as much to do with the cold as with a slight sense of nervousness as I took my first steps into a different world.
Barely two weeks had passed since my very first day as a DOC ranger. I wasn’t simply new to the organisation, either. As a recent migrant from the United States, everything I know about New Zealand had mostly been gleaned during the past eight months of my life. I’ve worked in conservation in the States for nearly a decade, but learning what that field looks like for an island nation halfway around the world often feels like starting back at square one.
My trip to the marae was a prime example. I would be here for the next four days with a group of staff from around the country for Te Pukenga Atawhai: an opportunity to learn more about Māori tikanga and cultural values as well as the relationship between iwi and the natural world. Te Pukenga is designed to help DOC staff understand and incorporate this wealth of knowledge so we can partner effectively with local iwi and hāpu. In my various roles with state and national organisations across America, I’d never experienced anything like this.
The sun rose higher during our pōwhiri, warming the marae ātea as conversations flowed back-and-forth in Te Reo. Joe Harawira, Te Putahitanga for DOC, translated the message: a warm welcome and a blessing that the coming week would be an enlightening one.
The solemnity of the pōwhiri was lifted during morning tea, the kai representing a transition from sacred affairs to whakawhanaungatanga – the developing of relationships. Carl Baker played guitar as the Kahui Kaupapa Atawhai team serenaded us, the first of many times that music would accompany a meal. It wasn’t merely entertainment. The songs helped us to connect with the culture in which we were now immersed.
Music and dance were critical to our lessons at Te Pukenga. In between sessions that ranged from Māori creation stories to an overview of Section 4, our group would be roused by Carl and Shayla Kora to learn the words and movements to two different songs. I don’t think any of us were hired by DOC for our dancing skills! Yet thanks to the dedicated efforts of our teachers, we were able to perform for the home people for our farewell ceremony.
I don’t know if I will ever be fluent in Te Reo, but by the end of the week I was able to pull out certain words and expressions from conversations. I’d also crafted my first mihi, interweaving my background and my journey across the Pacific with the vast oral history of Māori. The experience of connecting with a culture so intensely in such a short period of time is one of the highlights of my career in conservation, and another opportunity to celebrate a place I now call home.