Kaia Desai Fihn will be HECUA’s student blogger for the New Zealand program this spring semester. Kaia is a junior, majoring in History and minoring in Race and Ethnic Studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Read on for Kaia’s first impressions of New Zealand.
Our first day was spent bonding with the program directors and the rest of the group at a hostel called the Dwellington. We went through introductions and logistics and greeted each member of the program with a hongi, which is a traditional Māori greeting in New Zealand. You do this by pressing your nose and forehead (at the same time) against another person’s nose and forehead. This definitely broke the ice! My classmates and I are a group of nine students from colleges and universities around the country. Though the majority of the students are from the Midwest, representing the College of St. Scholastica, the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College, other students are from Colorado College, University of San Francisco and Eugene Lang College. Though we had all spent roughly twenty hours traveling, we managed to share a nice meal at the harbor, explore the city and drink a couple of beers together.
The next morning we hopped on the van and began our five week journey around Aotearoa. There are five program staff total. One of them, Ngārangi, is Māori, which has allowed us to learn heaps about Māori perspectives, the culture and the language. Our first stop was at Māori activist Jessica Hutching’s organic farm in the countryside outside of Wellington. We were welcomed into her yoga room where we spent the first couple of minutes decompressing and focusing on the moment. She spoke about Māori knowledge, values and principles, particularly how she connects with the whenua (land) to nurture what is produced.
Jessica emphasized that we have to tune in to the soil. The soil is healthy and vital when it has a dark color, smells rich, and you can see faint, white, interconnecting webs. Just imagine all that is happening within the soil– there is so much life beyond what our eyes can see that is working to sustain our lives. Jessica spoke passionately about how she connects with the landscape so that the landscape can express its own individuality. A common saying in Māori culture that expresses this kaupapa (vision) is “I am the river and the river is me.” This emphasizes our place on the earth, not apart from nature, but a part of nature.
Artichoke growing on Jessica’s organic farm.
Following our visit around Jessica’s home and farm, we took a spontaneous excursion to a Lord of the Rings filming site: Rivendell. It lies in Kaitoke Regional Park in the greater Wellington area. We crossed a swing bridge and walked around the forest, in the pouring rain, taking what Jessica had said to us into action. It was amazing how inspired we all were from Jessica and how connected we were with nature. I learned one thing in particular, smile when it’s raining because the rest of nature is!
After walking through the forest, we took a quick jaunt over to the Rivendell stone arches. Afterwards, we arrived at our home for the next six days: Mikimiki house. This remote, strawbale house was extremely welcoming and eco-friendly, providing us with impeccable views and an incredibly homey experience–perfect for getting to know one another. Rolling hills, a dancing river and swimming holes compliment this rural home. Every night, each program participant presented a brief picture slideshow of their life. This was a great way to get to know each other’s interests and passions.
On our second day, we went down the gravel road to Wairarapa Forest School. This is an outdoor classroom created for children, integrating children back into the outdoors. Its focus is to let children be children–to teach them about bugs, soil, gardening, trees–things that children no longer truly learn about in today’s society. We were welcomed in a traditional Māori way. Māori words were exchanged and we entered the circle and sang a Māori song. This classroom was so welcoming, I too felt like I reentered my childhood. While barefoot, we climbed trees, looked for bugs, and drank from the fresh spring with the children. Afterwards we explored the land. We climbed what I would consider a mountain, but Kiwis (New Zealanders) would describe as “just a hill.” Once we made it to the top of the hill and turned around, we were blown away by not only the wind but also the incredible view.
Prior to learning about the history of New Zealand, I considered it natural pasture land. However, after hearing about the history, I gained a new knowledge. In the 1800s, when British colonizers came to Aotearoa, like all other colonizers, they stripped the indigenous people of their land and resources. This is still an issue today. Hills overflowing with trees are chopped down to accommodate for dairy farms. New Zealand exports 90% of what they produce and there is a high demand for New Zealand’s milk powder, so dairy farms have increased tremendously over the years. Although the land is still beautiful, it is hard to acknowledge that sometimes due to the heartless actions of colonizers.
Every morning and evening we set aside time to reflect and tune in to ourselves. Especially in a world that is constantly on the go and is never still, this exercise was extremely refreshing. We all also gathered to sing Māori songs every night. At first, our voices were almost silent, but by the end of the week, we were jamming! Singing has been one of my favorite parts of our time–it is great to connect and hear the power of our voices. Although we do not know exactly what we are singing, you can feel the power behind the words, and it is beautiful.
Another sunny day welcomed our third day. We walked to the Mikimiki river and on our way, learned about a variety of different plants and trees and the healing powers they have.
Water in Māori culture is deeply respected. Everything in life is considered as being born with mauri (life force) and that everything also has mana. Mana is like DNA, it is in everything and everyone. It is given and taken. Everything works to build their mana. This creates a deep respect for all aspects of nature.
Māori believe that the elders (water, trees and mountains) have an upmost power on this planet. After the elders, the birds are recognized second, followed by the insects and then humans. Respect is deeply shared in Māori culture. At the river, we were asked to go into the water and find a stone. However, we did not find the stone, the stone found us. We then used harakeke leaves (flax leaves), which can make almost anything you can imagine, to bind our rocks. This creation is a good luck charm. The first one that is made is to be given to someone so that its story is retold. The stone represents the earth’s foundation. It signifies the power of the mountain, the vitality of the water and the energy of the earth. Our stones, wrapped in harakeke, were then blessed in a traditional Māori way. The blessing asked for Māori ancestors to embed the energy of the waters, mountains and earth into the stones so that the energy could be emitted to whoever’s hands the stone finds itself in.
Māori stone in harakeke leaves.
During our time at Mikimiki house we were given time to unwind and prepare for upcoming assignments. We played soccer, swam in the river, and spent time singing along to the music from our two guitar players. This entire week was a great bonding time.
On our sixth day, we went on a long forest walk. The landscapes of New Zealand vary so much. The bush (forests) of New Zealand are so rich. There is so much bird life that the forests are brought to life in a way I had not seen or heard before. We walked in silence, among Māori ancestors, for the majority of the walk. It was amazing to see how easily just walking in nature could clear my mind. It was a time to just listen to the world around us. We explored the river going through the forest and made bracelets out of vines that crawled up the elder trees.
This day was also New Zealand’s National Day: Waitangi Day. It celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It was signed by representatives of the British Crown and various Māori chiefs, resulting in the The Treaty established a British Governor of New Zealand, recognised Māori ownership of their lands, forests and other properties, and gave the Māori the rights of British subjects. In return the Māori people ceded New Zealand to Queen Victoria, giving her government the sole right to purchase land. There are two different versions of the Treaty: the English version and the Māori version. The English and Māori versions of the Treaty differed significantly, so there is no consensus as to exactly what was agreed. From the British point of view, the Treaty gave Britain sovereignty over New Zealand, and gave the Governor the right to govern the country. Māori believed they ceded to the Crown a right of governance in return for protection, without giving up their authority to manage their own affairs. The Treaty is discussed even to this day.
We did an activity to help us understand colonialism in Aotearoa. We were asked to draw a picture that depicted New Zealand in 1800. We spent about twenty minutes crafting this picture, coloring it and putting as much detail as time allowed into it. We went through the terms of the Treaty and the actual results of it. Then, our instructor asked us to tear our picture that we had just spent so much time creating, in half. By the end of this exercise, we were left with maybe an eighth of our original picture. This illustrated the amount of Māori land that was sold or taken by the Crown. I still hold onto the last eighth of my original picture, for it is a constant reminder of how much Māori people have gone through to maintain their right to their land.
On our last day in Masterton, we traveled to James Cameron’s food forest. This experience was unlike anything I had seen before. I was used to the monocrop full of pesticides and herbicides as a means of providing food. This food forest allowed food to grow in its natural state. Human interaction is special to this place. Although there is no human impact, there is human interaction. This allows humans to be a part of food production in a natural way, for they bring a variety of different foods together and allow them to produce in abundance. This was our first glimpse at permaculture and we were all inspired and eager for the rest of the trip! On our way back to the house, we stopped at the beach of the south coast of the North Island. Never before had I seen black sand beaches. We strolled along the shore and collected a variety of beautiful rocks, which we then made cradles for out of harakeke leaves.
James Cameron’s Food Forest.
Some of the many rocks we collected at the black sand beach.
We wrapped up our stay at Mikimiki house with a song. Though we learned many songs, one that really stuck with us sang “Aroha Nui,” which means “big love.” As we sang this, we expressed our gratitude to the home, the nature surrounding us and the memories that we made over the week. The memories are ones that are hard to fit into a single blog post, but one’s that we will never forget.