Embracing cultural narratives

A cultural narrative can be your guide to threading the history and storying of mana whenua into the fabric of your school.

Your openness to my voice laden with legacy and tradition is the one response that my heart will recognise, that my soul will rise to, that my being will open to as a mokopuna of iwi.

(Maria Tibble, CORE Education)

What a cultural narrative is

A cultural narrative describes what is unique about the place and the people your educational setting is part of. In the New Zealand context, a cultural narrative recognises the histories of and by mana whenua (tribes who have territorial authority over land), their sacred places, their interactions with the land and their ways of being as a people.

CORE Education

For a school in Aotearoa New Zealand, embracing the cultural narrative of mana whenua represents a commitment to an enduring partnership that is built through open conversations consistent with two world views. It shows you recognise mana whenua and value their knowledge and ways of being.

Māori-medium contexts are a bit different to English-medium contexts as mana whenua histories tend to be more known and lived in kura.

Cultural narratives were a key part of the Ministry of Education’s rebuild of schools in Christchurch where they strongly influenced the design and naming of new school buildings and environments.

Cultural narratives, or the equivalent, form part of Waitangi Tribunal submissions, resource consent impact reports, and other government activities.

What a cultural narrative tells us

A cultural narrative recognises the historical relationship between the area and its mana whenua. It describes what is unique about the place and the people your school is part of. It helps build a common understanding of heritage, traditional and spiritual connections, and values.

What this place is and what happened here not only tells the journey and settlement of the area, it also reveals how best to partner with the place and realise the potential of those who live here.

(Phoebe Davis, CORE Education)

In Aotearoa, iwi, hapū or sub tribes within iwi groupings have their own stories. Their stories may echo similar themes, but the experiences are raw, distinctive, and unique to each tribal area. Not one story is the same. They cannot be hybridised.

A local cultural narrative may contain a range of things that mana whenua would like your school to understand, share and embrace. This could include:

  • whakapapa
  • significant sites, landmarks and geographical features
  • historical events
  • relationships with flora and fauna
  • local language
  • local stories, waiata, whakataukī, symbols.

What a cultural narrative contributes

In essence, a comprehensive cultural narrative can be a source of knowledge and innovation for everything a school wants to do to acknowledge and engage with mana whenua more effectively. It brings richness to what a school is trying to achieve and strengthens shared accountability.

For our future, we need to do this hand-in-hand. When we get it right, magic happens.

Cultural narratives can provide the big picture for schools committed to ongoing development as culturally responsive and culturally located spaces. They can guide schools' decisions about the culture and curriculum in the school, and shape their connections with the wider community.

Cultural narratives can help schools to find the keys that will unlock kids’ potential. When you understand the stories of mana whenua, you understand the students and the whānau. When you use that lens, when you know the essence of the people, then you see their potential.

Kids are more engaged when their learning reflects their lives and history, and they can bring their knowledge to their learning. Similarly, whānau are more engaged because they know about what their kids are learning.

"[We want to move from] more of a smorgasbord of some effective approaches to a deliberate, planned, school-wide understanding in terms of culturally competent practice." 

(John Channer, primary principal sabbatical report, 2018)

Engaging with mana whenua

To engage with mana whenua around a local cultural narrative takes strong cultural leadership and the desire to create a culturally distinct school where your students and their community can see and be who they are.

No matter what specific purpose you have for starting on the journey to embrace a cultural narrative in your school, you must engage mana whenua early on in that purpose. This can not be a add-on, somewhere part way through.

Consider that for mana whenua there may be past hurts and neglect; one tribal historian put it this way, “We’ve waited 137 years to be asked to be part of this conversation about what’s on this land.”

Plan how you can:

  • foster a relationship built on good faith and partnership
  • find and research what information is publicly available already
  • listen to authentic whānau voice, from kaumatua, kuia, whānau, ākonga
  • offer your kete of skills, as neither expert nor amateur, to realise their aspirations for schooling.

Talk with other local principals in your area or kāhui ako about your plan, get their advice and experiences, and where appropriate discuss combining efforts to build the partnership with mana whenua. Think about ways you might involve your learners in the process.

Some specific ways to engage mana whenua include:

  • Approach whānau members known for their knowledge of whakapapa and history
  • Engage mana whenua experts to provide advice on language, environment, architecture, landscape, or culture, as needed
  • Attend meetings of iwi or hapū trust boards.

Translating a cultural narrative into practice

Focus on what the narrative and the stories tell you about the strengths of the people, for example, What does the symbolism of an eel convey? Striving together against the tide. Recognise and value what people have done and how they have done it. Recognise the innovation and resourcefulness that flowed through life then.

Translate what the stories say about the past to now and to the future. The messages can be future-focused, linking our past to our destiny.

Use the power of whakapapa to inspire and create a sense of continuity and self-responsibility. Use it to make kids proud of who they are, to understand their cultural advantages, and inherent capabilities. There is power in the strong heritage they belong to; there is greatness, innovation, resilience and strength in the stories of their tūpuna.

Examples of cultural narratives

The following list suggests some of the ways a cultural narrative and a partnership with mana whenua can help bring coherency to space, culture and learning in a school.

  • Physical design of buildings, landscape and gardens
  • Creating spaces where Māori can learn through their culture and about their culture, eg, marae spaces
  • Signifying community aspirations and/or the past, present and future of the school
  • Naming buildings, amenities, groups in the school, activities, learning progressions, etc. These could use functional names or ones related to stories or figures that personify the thing being named
  • Developing visual themes and designs, for example, a school logo, house symbols
  • Identifying ways of incorporating Mātauranga Māori, sustaining cultural knowledge, revitalising mana whenua language(s), honouring significant iwi histories
  • Normalising the use of te reo Māori and raising the profile of a shared Māori and Pākehā heritage
  • Developing a graduate profile, reflecting the values and qualities of mana whenua
  • Providing localised Māori contexts for learning in school and subject curriculum
  • Growing opportunities for mana whenua to participate in school processes and activities.

Examples of how Christchurch schools are embracing cultural narratives:

Cashmere Primary School 

Haeta Community College 

Rawhiti School

Sumner School 

Woodend School 

Useful resources

Building relationships with whānau, hapū and iwi 

Engaging with Māori – Poutama Pounamu 

Hūmārie – an authentic response to cultural location – CORE Education blog

Māui whakakau, kura whakakau |The impact of physical design on Māori and Pasifika student outcomes (PDF) – Ministry of Education

Tautokona te reo | The wellbeing of te reo Māori in kura and schools – NZCER


This article is based around an interview with Phoebe Davis of CORE Education and blogs by Maria Tibble of CORE Education.

The images used in this article, in order of use, are from:

  • Flickr, Aguacate 
  • National Library, Map of place names and historic sites, Horowhenua district. Ref: PA1-q-002-18-MAP. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Ministry of Education
  • Flickr, Flissphil 
  • Flickr, Archives NZ
  • Flickr, Taka

Tags: Culturally responsive leadership

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