Te Ao Mārama is the oldest annual Māori students publication in Aotearoa. It has been running since the 70s and is a significant platform for Māori student writing. In the 2019 issue (edited by Te Aorewa Areta), Rachel Trow (Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) wrote about climate grief as a rangatahi Māori. You can read the full issue here:
I don’t want to be one of those “I liked Lizzo before she was famous” people, but I’ve been dealing with climate change since before pākehā started caring. Because of this, I am no stranger to environmental grief. And if you’re Māori, you and your whenua can probably relate.
Before we get into this, a controversial proposal: We have to acknowledge that the climate crisis and the ongoing processes of colonisation are inextricably linked. You cannot tautoko environmental justice if that does not include justice for tangata whenua. For most Māori, the grief we feel because of the climate crisis does not just come from the present, and it is not just our own. It wasn’t until I started coming across the term ‘intergenerational mamae’ that this really started to make sense. In short, ‘intergenerational mamae’ refers to the pain, grief, and loss that has been woven into our whakapapa since the beginning of colonisation. This pain was passed on to us against the will of our tīpuna and, despite their best efforts, remains with us. Growing up with first-hand experience of the climate crisis unlocked the mamae that my tīpuna felt for their whenua 200 years ago, and I imagine a lot of tangata whenua can relate.
This is why so many of us answered the karanga to Ihumātao and will continue to until this mamae is unravelled from all of our whakapapa. We don’t need to be mana whenua of that wāhi tapu to understand the pain they are pushing through and the kaupapa they are fighting for. Our experiences are not homogenous, but our grief is collective and we can only be disentangled from it if we stand in kōtahitanga. I’m not one for quantifying or comparing anyone’s experiences, grief, or trauma. However, it is crucial that while I write and while you read this, we send our aroha and whakaaro to the kaitiaki of Ihumātao, of Mauna Kea, and any indigenous person putting their life on the line to protect their whenua, their wāhi tapu, their tino rangatiratanga. Their grief likely runs deeper than ours right now and they need our tautoko.
Ko Kāti Māmoe te hapū—a small but mighty hapū hailing from Southland, Rakiura, and the surrounding Tītī Islands (Muttonbird Islands). For generations, we have travelled to the Islands to harvest tītī. My second year to the Islands, I saw a baby tītī—a fraction of the size it should’ve been—crawl out of its subterranean home, collapse, and die. My dad told me the ocean was too warm this year so its mother had to fly farther south to catch squid. In her absence, the chick starved to death. This was ten years ago. These seasons of warming oceans and starving chicks are becoming increasingly common. Through my studies, I have come to learn the scientific ins and outs of this process, but I have never needed science to convince me that our environment is being altered.
Māori have been living with the impacts of the climate crisis for much longer than Pākehā have cared about it. There, I said it. I suppose it’s human nature to care more about the things that affect us directly. Pākehā apathy towards ongoing colonisation is evidence of this. But that’s the thing: colonisation and the climate crisis affect all of us directly, whether you benefit directly or suffer directly. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels will not pick sides as we march towards a climate catastrophe.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s better late than never to have Pākeha at the table, but you can’t blame Māori for rolling their eyes when a ‘YT’ girl gets a ribcage tattoo of Papatūānuku. She is not a fashion statement. She is not an emblem for your political narrative. She is not a cheque you can cash for Instagram clout. She is not a free pass of allyship. Your allyship means nothing if you do not show up. So show up for tangata whenua. Show up for Papatūānuku. If you are Pākehā and you read past the first sentence, then I am pleasantly surprised. If you are Pākehā and you’ve read this far, then hold your friends and whānau who wouldn’t to account.
Environmental grief is real and it’s not just a Millennial conspiracy. From our tīpuna to our tamariki, grief does not discriminate. If the whenua that your tīpuna belonged to—the whenua ^you belong to—was stolen in the name of a distant monarch or of corporate greed, you’d be pretty sad about it too. And, because dealing with the grief of colonisation wasn’t enough, we now have to watch the climate crisis harm the mauri of the whenua and the waters we have called home. The Crown may have physically removed us from the whenua, but whakapapa transcends time and space. You don’t have to be submerged in your awa to feel her pain. You don’t have to have your feet in the soil to know the whenua needs us as we need it. You don’t have to climb your maunga to know that the view from the top is changing.
Environmental grief has weighed heavy on me since I watched that tītī drag itself out from the whenua in a last-ditch attempt to find food, although I didn’t really understand the sadness then. Today, environmental grief burns like acid in the back of my throat—a physical, spiritual, and emotional ache that I haven’t entirely figured out how to soothe. It burns for Ihumātao. It burns for Mauna Kea. And when it burns for all the global injustices against indigenous people, it can feel like drowning.
I can’t offer the cure for environmental grief. However, what I know for sure is that it lies in te ao Māori. Indigenous resilience around the world is all the proof I need that the relief for our pain will come from us. Ka whawhai tonu mātou. Indigenous lives and experiences are not homogenous, but we share a universal struggle and power. Despite the Crown’s best attempts, we are still here. The salve for our pain will come from (re)claiming our narratives, untangling the mamae from our whakapapa, and the slow and confusing processes of decolonising our lives. Our strength comes from our whakapapa, our tikanga, and our reo. Learn it, absorb it, practice it wherever you can, even if it bothers people—especially if it bothers people. Talk to each other about it. Rest when you need to; the journey will be long and hard. I stand here, in the infancy of unearthing my Māori identity, learning te eeo Māori, and finding my place in the fight for climate justice, for indigenous justice, having never felt stronger. This strength will sustain us as Papatūānuku does and we, in turn, must sustain her.