Last month I came across an article on the Cook Islands News that I’ve been meaning to share. At the recent Koutu Nui conference, a New Zealand visitor spoke strongly about the rights of indigenous people and her own efforts to preserve traditional values. Pacific Indigenous Peoples Group director Tui Shortland is from an isolated tribe in the far north of New Zealand, and has spent a large portion of her life in the community.
“Around 11 years ago I was asked to work on the environmental services in the local area,” Shortland said. “That was quite some time ago. I did a lot of work around whales, bio-security, that sort of thing. Then around eight years ago I was asked by my grandfather’s people to work for them. We still retain a lot of our traditional knowledge and that was really important when the elders asked me to set up our environmental services. They asked me to recall our sacred places and to write our environmental policies.”
Though the traditional leaders of the Ngati Hine tribe were pleased with her work, they encouraged Shortland to expand her horizons and look for other like-minded indigenous people who were wanting to protect their rights and use traditional knowledge.
“One of the ways that we currently do this is through a charter school, where elders come in and teach traditional skills like waka building, language and medicine. We also have a youth enterprise program, where young people are working to establish their own businesses. A group even won an award last year because they developed an app,” Shortland added.
Shortland also looks beyond New Zealand through her department, Te Kopu, which is tasked with assisting Pacific countries with similar issues. Of the staff they have, half are indigenous rights lawyers, and the other half are primarily skilled at working “on the ground”, around the village, for example, helping to establish tools and program. “So say for example there is a (species of) fish that is a bio-security risk that’s taking over, we assist with that type of work,” Shortland explained.
“Indicators of the well-being of rivers is something else we help with, such as when we helped a community establish a water monetary program, and they came up with 44 cultural indicators for the way in which the water spoke to them about their health,” she said. “These are two main areas we are working on, which is built around the pillar of traditional knowledge.”
Shortland is also active on the global stage, mentioning that decisions made at the United Nations will become law and regulations that will impact indigenous people and communities. And that is how she met Tuaine Marsters, wife of Queen’s Representative Tom Marsters. “Mrs Marsters has hosted me while I’ve been here and she’s a member of Te Kopu.”
Shortland added, “We supported her to join us in Paris for the big climate change negotiations, and I supported 20 other indigenous Pacific participants too. We lobbied for indigenous people’s rights and we were successful.”