Respecting Te  Moananui interconnected living ecologies

This guide provides a method for searching and understanding NbS by drawing on the concept of interconnected living systems specific to Te Moananui Oceania. Organising the information in this way is a means to forefront respecting and nurturing the living world akin to generalised Indigenous understandings of how to live well within ecologies over multi-generational periods in Te Moananui Oceania. The intention is to understand how NbS can be a means to strengthen mauri, and related concepts, and centre an Indigenous way of framing relationships to the living world and approaches to working with nature for increased collective wellbeing. This approach contrasts with a typical Western approach, which often focuses on solving specific problems or issues within the urban environment, such as the impacts of climate change or societal challenges. 


Ways to understand different parts of the living world and Atua themselves vary greatly across the region, however here we use six realms of Te Moananui Oceania interconnected living ecologies:

In this part of the guide, NbS are organised into realms of connected living systems. In Te Moananui Oceania, in traditional contexts, each of these realms would often be overseen by specific deities or gods called Atua (Aotearoa, Cook Islands, Samoa), Akua (Hawai’i), or ‘Otua (Tonga). Atua is the word we will use here. The interconnectedness between humans and nature is reflected in the oral traditions, stories, and legends passed down through generations. These stories often depict the origins of the islands, the formation of the land, and the profound influence of Atua and nature on the lives of the people. Others have explored the idea of working with the realms or domains of Atua before us such as Mataroa (2023) and Harmsworth and Awatere (2013). Our intention is not to try to define complex and diverse traditional spiritual beliefs in the region but to highlight how aspects of the natural world are sometimes made sacred by deification, personification, and genealogy connections to illustrate the unique relationships peoples of Te Moananui Oceania have with the living world. In turn, this may broaden understanding of NbS in the region and aid in more effective design processes and outcomes. 

A defining feature of Indigeneity is the intrinsic relationship between humankind and the natural world, with Indigenous cultures paying deliberate attention to the responsibilities these relationships generate and giving active expression to them in many aspects of life (Tassell-Matamua et al., 2021). Indigenous worldviews often position humans as inseparable from living ecologies (Harmsworth & Awatere, 2013; Koro et al., 2023). In the same vein, ecological and climate wellbeing are often not separable (Redvers et al., 2020). This tends to be true in Te MoananuiOceania, although Pacific peoples are greatly diverse in culture, language, and worldview. For example, in Aotearoa New Zealand, in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world-view), humans have whakapapa (genealogical/kinship) relationships with many aspects of the natural world, including Papatūānuku (the earth mother), as well as specific mountains, rivers, waterways and even plants. People are literally related to the land, and Indigenous peoples are called Tangata Whenua (people of the land). In Samoa, the word for earth, ele’ele, also means blood, highlighting that an integral part of human existence is the land itself (Powell & Fraser, 1892; Vaai, 2019). In Kiribati, people refer to the sea as their ‘mother ocean’ (Anterea, cited in Xuande & Yuting, 2021). Holistic health, wellbeing, and identity of people are therefore inherently connected to the eco-sphere. This relational worldview is fundamentally of Te Moananui Oceania and is at the core of Oceanic understandings of the world. Therefore, working with nature in the region potentially holds very different meaning and significance than in other parts of the world.

In Te Moananui Oceania the understanding of a kind of life force that binds all living aspects of the world (including rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, and other entities or living systems not often acknowledged as being alive in Western science) has different names, all with variations in meaning.. Examples inlcude mauri (Aotearoa New Zealand), mo’ui (Tonga), mauli (Hawai’i and Samoa), oraanaga meitaki (Cook Islands), and wâdé (New Caledonia) (Krupa, 1996; Mataroa, 2023; Yates et al., 2024). These relationships are acknowledged in different ways throughout Te Moananui. For example, the mauri of rivers has been notably recognised in Aotearoa New Zealand through the granting of legal personhood to the Whanganui River as a means of Te Ao Māori centred care for, and management of, the ecologies associated with the river as a way to better reflects their meaning and mana (prestige, esteem) (Charpleix, 2018). The related Samoan concept of va-tapuia (sacred space) is a set of behavioural norms which dictates interactions between people and between people and the physical elements of the environment. Tamasese (2009) explains:

‘…va-tapuia… literally refers to the sacred (tapu-ia) relationship (va) between humans and all things, animate and inanimate. It implies that in our relations with all things, living and dead there exists a sacred essence, a life force beyond human reckoning. The distinction here between what is living and what is dead is premised not so much on whether a life force, that is, a mauli or fatu manava, exists in the thing (that is, whether a life breath or heartbeat exudes from it), but whether that thing, living or dead, has a genealogy (in an evolutionary sense rather than in terms of human procreation) that connects to a life force.’

Va-tapuia gives rise to the principle of va-fealoai (mutual respect) which signifies culturally appropriate behaviour. Va-tapuia governs the way decisions are made in the aiga (family) as well as in fono (councils). Va-tapuia alsogoverns the use of resources. Va-tapuia engenders attitudes that accept and respect the limits of human knowledge in relation to the physical environment (Aiono Le Tagaloa, 1996a; Aiono Le Tagaloa, 1996b; Tamasese, 2007). Sa (taboo), asrelated through oral traditions, protects vulnerable species and sacred spaces, and prevents the exploitation of forests, marine areas and water sources (Latai, 2009). Other similar, but diverse examples of important relational principles in Te Moananui Oceania include sautu in Fiji, fakaaloalo in Tuvalu, fakaapaapa in Tonga, and piri’anga in Niue (Vaai, 2019). 

Te Moananui Oceania’s diversity is so vast that its Atua, like Tonga’s Hikule’o, or Kiribati’s Nareau, or Nauru’s Areop-Enap, cannot be easily categorised or grouped neatly. Some Atua operate across different realms or hold higher status than others, such as many of the gods associated with the realm of the moana (oceans). Examples include Tangaroa (Cook Islands, Rapanui, Aotearoa), Kanaloa and   (Hawai’i), Detora (Nauru), Tagaloa (Samoa), Tangagoa (parts of Solomon Islands), Tagaro (part of Vanuatu), Ta’aroa (Tahiti), and Tangaloa (Tonga). Atua such as Papatūānuku and Rūaumoko (Aotearoa), Papahānaumoku and Honua (Hawai’i), Hikule’o (Tonga), and Papa (Cook Islands) are associated with the earth mother, and underground forces, sometimes understood as a separate child of the earth mother. Important Atua linked to forests and other land ecologies include Hawai’i’s Kāne and Aotearoa’s Tānemahuta. As expert navigators who used the stars to traverse the oceans, many Oceanic people hold a deep respect for the sky and its elements, including the sun, moon, stars, and weather, each in their own distinct ways. Atua of this realm include Vatea (Cook Islands), Na Atibu and Na labu (Kiribati), Wākea and Hina (Hawai’i), and Ranginui, the sky father and Tāwhirimatea, one of his children and Atua of wind (Aotearoa). Atua of plants, particularly in ‘Polynesia’ are sometimes separated into ones that are associated with wild plants and those that are associated with cultivated plants such as Lono and Haumea (Hawai’i), Haumia-tiketike and Rongomātāne (Aotearoa) and Rongo (Cook Islands). Many Atua, and elements of their realms, such as rivers, bodies of water, plants, animals, and people are connected in various lineages and genealogical relationships. The concept of honouring and valuing relationships, ancestry, lineage, and interconnectedness is fundamental to many worldviews across Te Moananui Oceania.

When considering the importance of traditional spiritual beliefs and wellbeing concepts in Te Moananui Oceania, it is important to recognise the effects of Western colonialism. Individual nations from the region have very different experiences of colonisation, however, a common phenomenon accompanying colonisation has been the conversion of many Oceanic peoples to Christianity (Vaai, 2019). The majority of Indigenous inhabitants of most Pacific Island countries consider themselves to be Christian. Mihaere et al. (2024) discuss the importance of Christian beliefs in Te Moananui and their evolution in potential relationship to NbS. It may be possible to integrate concepts of spirituality drawn from both traditional beliefs and unique local Christian religious practices, in ways that resonate with local people in the region.

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