Cultural narratives

What's this all about?

A cultural narrative describes what is unique about the place and the people your educational setting is part of. In the New Zealand context, a cultural narrative recognises the histories of and by mana whenua (tribes who have territorial authority over land), their sacred places, their interactions with the land and their ways of being as a people. It helps build a common understanding of their values, their heritage and their traditional and spiritual connections to the land and the environment.

Cultural narratives are increasingly recognised as powerful enablers in connecting our past to the present and acts to build a platform to a sustainable future. They enable schools to situate themselves in the context of the places they co-inhabit, and recognise the influences of people, places, time and events in shaping who we are. When learners are enabled to make connections to where they live, when they create links to significant events, people and the land, they develop a sense that they are part of a larger story. As such, cultural narratives are as much for non-Māori as they are Māori. They help learners examine knowledge, issues and events from where their feet stand first, in their local environment.

Part of our Aotearoa national story that contributed to the relative invisibility of Māori heritage, language and culture in education started with the 1867 Native Schools Act. This Act established a system of English-only secular village primary schools charged to assimilate Māori into Pākehā society. Over time this led to a loss of language, culture, identity and with it, cultural stories. A leading Māori author, Patricia Grace said “If there are no stories, or not enough stories that tell children about themselves but only tell them about others then those children are being given the message that they are not worthy of affirmation in literature, in stories, in media. They become the invisible ones, the marginalised.” (P. Grace, personal communication, August 28, 2017)

The negative impacts of the Native Schools Act is still felt today evidenced in disparate achievement of Māori learners and engagement with their whānau (families). It is the role of education to reverse this legacy. In the blog Engaging Māori students and whānau in future-focused education, Janelle Riki-Waaka challenges educators saying “It is not a privilege to be connected to the place you go each day. It is a right! Kids deserve to go to school and know they are home. If someone stood in your school, how would they know they were in a school in Aotearoa? How are we enabling our children to be Māori? What would we hear, see and feel that sends the message, ‘We value and will celebrate your culture here?’

The Cultural Narratives of the mana whenua embodies the essence of who they are. It supports authentic engagement with whānau, hapū and iwi, because it invites all these groups to not only contribute their stories, and invites them to be able to participate as mana whenua on their lands their tamariki are educated on. To know the stories of a people is surely to know the strength of who they are. This will enable a more inclusive culturally responsive way of working with Māori and help address the disparities and barriers that exist for Māori within the education system.

What's driving this change?

Localising the curriculum and culturally responsive practice

In New Zealand each educational setting is charged with co-constructing a localised curriculum with their communities to enable learning that is meaningful, relevant, and connected to students' lives. Culturally locating your educational setting is pivotal in creating a culturally responsive curriculum that resonates with the aspirations of mana whenua, whānau and their tamariki. No matter the setting, one common theme reverberates – a sense of belonging, identity, language and culture are at the heart of Māori student success as well as success for all learners. 

Māori Success as Māori is best expressed by Professor Mason Durie (2003) as, “Māori being able to have access to te ao Māori, the Māori world - access to language, culture, marae, tikanga and resources. If after twelve or so years of formal education, a Māori youth was totally unprepared to interact within te ao Māori, then, no matter what else had been learned, education would have been incomplete.”

When we culturally locate our curriculum in the context of cultural narratives, our learners will have access to build a stronger sense of identity, language and culture. For a school in Aotearoa New Zealand, embracing the cultural narrative of mana whenua represents a commitment to an enduring partnership that is built through open conversations consistent with two world views. It shows you recognise the status of mana whenua, you value their knowledge and ways of being and therefore schools who embrace these stories are upholding their place in the treaty partnership, giving mana and giving value to the Treaty. 

Enacting the Tiriti o Waitangi

The process of uncovering and integrating a cultural narrative is a key tool in Māori achieving success as Māori, a key outcome of Ka Hikitia, and thereby enacts the articles of the Tiriti o Waitangi.

Article 1, Kāwanatanga - Honourable Governance: The process affirms and values the place of Māori as tangata whenua. It necessitates collaboration with mana whenua and whānau, creating powerful and enduring partnerships based on shared decision making. This is at all levels of governance, senior leadership and in every day to day planning.

Article 2, Rangatiratanga - Agency: The process provides a mechanism for Māori students and their whānau to assert rangatiratanga or the agency, voice and choice over what and how Māori identity, language and culture is reflected in the curriculum.

Article 3, Ōritetanga - Equity: The process enables equity for learners to access a curriculum that makes sense for them from a dual heritage relevant to place. They can access Māori and non-Māori knowledge systems, ways of being and learning and histories that produce an equitable outcome.

Article 4, Wairuatanga - Spiritual beliefs & practices: Article 4 is the spoken promise. It allows Māori the right to promote and protect tikanga (protocols), Māori spiritual beliefs and connections as well as knowledge systems underpinned by te reo. All these aspects are inherent in the cultural narrative.

What examples of this can I see?

The examples below illustrate how cultural narratives are being used both nationally and internationally.

In Canterbury, local Ngāi Tahu rūnanga, supported by the Ministry of Education, have worked with regional clusters of educational institutions to develop a series of cultural narratives as evidenced in the following examples: Haeata Community CampusRāwhiti SchoolSumner SchoolUniversity of Canterbury. These narratives provide insight into the cultural history of where these educational institutions are located and allow elements to be integrated in the design of new or existing institutions. Influences in design here include both physical aspects such as buildings and planting as well as non-physical, such as curriculum, values and kaupapa.

These cultural narratives tell the story of the land itself, the soil structure, flora and fauna. This allows for centres of education to foster values such as kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and sustainability over the local area. There are also facilitators available under Mātauraka Mahaanui, who represents mana whenua interests, who support schools to embed the cultural narratives and develop more culturally sustainable practices.

In her blog Hūmarie, an authentic response to cultural location Maria Tibble talks about the role of the curriculum designer in developing a marau ā-kura (localised curriculum in Māori medium) that resonates with the voice and aspiration of whānau hapū, and iwi. At the heart of the work is the child, a future leader of the iwi. It is the role of the facilitators of this work to design, craft, and shape a curriculum that leaves whānau in no doubt about what it means to achieve as Māori, feel success as Māori, and to know, do, and be as Māori in their eyes.

In the design of marau ā-kura (localised curriculum) the following examples show the centrality of the cultural narrative. Te Kura o Tākaro base their marau ā-kura on the cultural narrative embedded in the landscape. The mountains, the land, the rivers and the wildlife are metaphors for values, dispositions, inter-tribal connections as well as contexts for learning.

Likewise Waimirirangi bilingual unit at Whangarei Intermediate developed their marau ā-kura based on cultural location permeated with local reo, local contexts for learning, and local history showing that the ākonga stories and their history matter. Understanding the attributes of their tīpuna and the many skills and talents those tīpuna had, helps students understand themselves. It allows for generational history to become part of a living story. 

Te Rangihakahaka Centre for Science and Technology is Ngāti Whakaue’s newest education initiative with a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics: STEAM. The centre is named Te Rangihakahaka after a significant site on Mount Ngongotahā. It is a reference point for their people as they aspire to great heights. The content is localised and contextualised, drawing on mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and is committed to the development of Ngāti Whakaue language and culture. 

Valuing cultural locatedness indigenous cultural narratives is also evidenced internationally in Alaska. Alaska Native educators developed the Alaska standards for culturally responsive schools to provide guidelines for schools as they examined how their practices impacted on the cultural well-being of their learners. These "cultural standards" are founded on the belief that “a firm grounding in the heritage language and culture indigenous to a particular place is a fundamental prerequisite for the development of culturally-healthy students and communities associated with that place, and thus is an essential ingredient for identifying the appropriate qualities and practices associated with culturally-responsive educators, curriculum and schools”.

The standards challenged educators to:

  • incorporate local ways of knowing and teaching in their work. 
  • use the local environment and resources on a regular basis
  • link their teaching to the everyday life of their students
  • participate in community events
  • work closely with parents to create synergies in educational expectations between home and school

How might we respond?

If you were asked “what are the stories that identify you with kiwi culture”, what would spring to mind? Take a moment to think about what and whose stories you would share. Would it be narratives of number eight wire innovation; overcoming challenges like Sir Edmund Hillary, or stories of determination like Kate Sheppard leading the right for women to vote? There are many stories woven into the fabric of our collective history. However if we only teach these types of narratives are we teaching a balanced view of who we are as a people in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Stories matter. Telling a balanced view on whose stories we share matters. What voice is given to Māori cultural narratives in your educational setting? How can schools use a localised Māori cultural narrative as a catalyst to enact the Treaty of Waitangi, build powerful whānau and community partnerships and improve all student engagement and achievement?

Within Aotearoa, when considering how you might take on the journey of uncovering a cultural narrative and integrating it in meaningful ways, you could consider the following.

How could a cultural narrative be surfaced with mana whenua?
  • Walk outside, place your feet on the ground and ask how well do I know the cultural histories of this piece of earth that lies underneath my feet? 
  • Create a long and respectful relationship with mana whenua and their kaumātua (respected elders). These people are essential to the entire process of creating a cultural context. The link to these people could also be within the students in your school. 
  • Identify with mana whenua key ancestors, geographical features, important events, tribal songs, reo (language) that is unique to the people. 
  • Consider the work around Place-based Education which invites learners to understand themselves in their local environment, it’s past, their present and how they can impact their future. 
  • Research the environment elements of the area, it’s native flora, fauna and land and soil uses and changes.
How could the cultural narrative be integrated?
  • Commit to exploring with mana whenua and whānau possible learning contexts and or learning experiences that relate to the cultural narrative
  • Commit to visiting the local marae and mana whenua in their spaces/environment, as well as their places of significance
  • Consider how the cultural narrative will inform the design in new modern learning spaces as culturally inclusive learning spaces that are flexible with indoor and outdoor connectedness.
  • Develop māra (gardens) with native plantings associated to the area in keeping with the geography and landscape as well as use and purpose such as edibles and medicinal qualities (Rongoā).
  • Consider how the cultural narrative will inform the sustainable use of land from an infrastructure as well as an inquiry based curriculum with students. This could include focuses on bio control, biodiversity and environmental resilience and protection. 
  • Utilise Māori or dual names for significant buildings, areas and amenities or projects imbued considering the identifiers of local native flora and fauna Hornby cultural narrative.
  • Commit to explore with mana whenua and whānau ways of teaching and learning and ways of assessing that are strengths based and are preferable to whānau and students. For example, the use of Story Hui as model of telling success in story narrative is an effective way of identifying impact and next steps.