Custom meets colonisation

Image credit: Men of the 28th (Māori) Battalion with a gift of kai for Christmas, ca 23 December 1944 by George Frederick Kaye. Ref: DA-07989-F Alexander Turnbull Library.

3 soldiers from the 28th (Māori) Battalion peering out from behind 2 barrels of tītī (muttonbirds) sent from Aotearoa NZ.

For Māori, harvesting and preserving manu (birds) like tītī (muttonbird) is a centuries-old customary practice involving kaitiakitanga and tikanga. But colonisation affected this practice. Find out more by exploring our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about the impact of colonisation on customary practices

He manawa tītī, me tōhuna hiringa.
With the famed strength and perseverance of the tītī.

The image here, taken in Italy during the Second World War, records 28th (Māori) Battalion soldiers embracing their Christmas gift, barrels of preserved tītī. Also known as muttonbirds or sooty shearwaters, tītī have for centuries been harvested in April and May from locations in southern Te Waipounamu and preserved to provide food in winter months.

Upon their arrival in Aotearoa, Māori began to form physical and spiritual connections with te taiao (the natural world), and amassed a significant body of mātauranga (knowledge) about this unique environment. From these connections came the concept of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, and with that came tikanga, meaning customs or the correct way of doing things. For Māori, harvesting and preserving birds is kaitiakitanga and tikanga in action — a centuries-old customary practice.

Colonisation disrupted all this. Māori struggled to have their rights acknowledged, let alone enacted by the colonial government. In some respects, this is a struggle that continues to this day, despite kaitiakitanga and customary harvest being examples of the rangatiratanga (self-determination) guaranteed to Māori through the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840.

Between 1861 and 2013, the government created a staggering 609 different pieces of legislation around the protection, hunting or harvesting of taonga in Aotearoa. From early on in our shared history, there was friction between Māori rights to tino rangatiratanga and Pākehā interests in hunting birds for sport or tapping into the lucrative supply of specimens to collectors and museums worldwide. In time, as the losses of species became apparent, an admirable concern for their conservation arose. However, the overall result of many of these laws was the restriction or denial of Māori customary practice.

This image taken by official war photographer George Kaye (1914–2004) undoubtedly served its purpose of reassuring whānau at home. But the arrival of tītī had greater significance for members of the 28th (Māori) Battalion beyond being a special gift. The gathering, preparation and sending of tītī to the battalion was a strong statement from those very whānau. In the first place, it was about caring deeply for the men by providing kai to sustain them. But it also reaffirmed whanaungatanga (relationships with whānau and hapū) and tikanga, and sought to maintain connections to papa kāinga (home). Kaitiakitanga has long been compromised by tensions resulting from the imbalance of power between Māori and Pākehā, tensions that have only recently been acknowledged.

Story written by: Rene Burton and Erena Williamson

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

Find out more

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Te Marautanga o Aotearoa

Tikanga ā-iwi:

  • Te whakaritenga pāpori me te ahurea
  • Te ao hurihuri
  • Te wāhi me te taiao.

Te Takanga o Te Wā (ngā hītori o Aotearoa):

  • Whakapapa
  • Kaitiakitanga
  • Whanaungatanga.

New Zealand Curriculum

Social sciences concepts:

  • Identity, culture, and organisation
  • Place and environment
  • Continuity and change.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories:

  • Māori history is continuous
  • Colonisation and its consequences
  • The exercise of power
  • Relationships and connections between people.