Karlo Mila on language, knowledge, and right relationships.
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Acknowledgement is made to Puhi-Moana-Ariki and Kohewhata marae – especially Ted Wihongi and the women of this place. This is dedicated to all the women who call to the cleansing waterfalls for healing of their lands, lakes and rivers… You are the inspiration for this writing. Acknowledgement is made to Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, Ngāpuhi taniwharau for your continued brilliance and beauty and fierce protection of the land.
Kāinga, aiga, ‘aina –
I can find myself foreign in these words.
So often, I don’t know the meaning of the words.
So many of us don’t know the meaning of the words.
We don’t know the words for home.
And we don’t know home in the words.
We are so far from home, and we don’t know home in the words.
In many ways, these words of mine form a short diasporic lament for my community – Pacific islands peoples who live in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Only half of my generation can speak our native tongues. Kāinga, aiga, ‘aina – in 27 of our Pacific languages this means ‘home’ or ‘homelands’. In a further ten, it refers to family, relatives and kin. The source word, ‘kainga’, is categorised by linguists as proto-Polynesian in origin.
We have lived in the South Pacific for over three thousand years. Our languages moved from island to island, but the foundational commonalities still echo in our sentences. In a contemporary context of colonisation, migration and globalisation, retrieving and remembering what it is to be ‘ocean people’, and living what that means, is what’s on my mind seven days a week. It’s my job, my passion, my purpose.
My main job – aside from being a poet and mother – is to run a leadership programme called Mana Moana. Moana is an indigenous term for the Pacific Ocean that can be found in 35 contemporary Pacific languages. Mana is an Oceanic word that can be found in 26 Pacific languages. Mana refers to power and authority – the ability to harness the energy of the intangible realm so that it is recognised and impactful in the tangible world. Mana Moana, then, references the power, energy, and vitality of the indigenous ways of knowing and being – belonging to the Moana. The aim of Mana Moana is to activate the wisdom of indigenous knowledge of the South Pacific in service of the world in which we live. Why?
I have studied all English has to tell me
all of my life.
With its centre of the universe-verse,
It’s reductive science,
It’s extractive nature,
It’s soulless systems,
It’s secular reality.
It’s positivist positive
that it knows
all it needs to know.
There is so much
that cannot be said in English.
cannot be seen in English
cannot be heard in English
cannot be mastered by English.
It is a whole shimmering universe.
And it is
Under the noise
of this one.
This world –
we are witnessing its
Changing the climate itself.
It is out of time.
It is out of ideas.
I have learned it all.
And I find myself dumb.
So much information,
and on the brink of collapse.
Mana Moana is one of many movements of indigenous renaissance. At the core of this work is collective soul retrieval. How do we see the world when we look through the octo-scopic visioning ancestral eyes? To be matavalu, makawalu is to have eight-eyes – a multi-dimensional perspective when it comes to viewing things. How do we harness ancestral knowing when seeking solutions to contemporary global problems, and even ordinary, everyday ones? How can we be guided by our ancestors when we’ve lost our languages and connection with culture, when we’re far from our islands of origin?
With everything English and education had gifted me, I hunted, knowing that, in many ways, what I had learned within the Western body of knowledge was my prey. Foucault cleverly observed that knowledge makes you its subject, because you must know ‘through it’. I felt this while I was exploring, knowing that I could only know through this heavy-weight paradigm, which had already set limits about reality, and which through its language had delimited the parameters of what could be said, recorded and known.
I did the library legwork to find the stories, the ‘myths’, the books that were stuck in ‘stack’. I opened their dusty, stale covers and searched for remnants of our rich genius. I searched among missionary accounts, sifting through unbridled racism and contempt, reading anthropological texts that were odes to self rather than neutral observations, finding stories recounted in English by travellers and beachcombers. I read the speeches of great leaders from our region. I sought the scholarship of our indigenous historians, linguists, sociologists, writers, poets, storytellers.
As fragments were gathered, bits of logic were pieced together and patterns found. Digging work became jigsaw work. Bits of worldview, philosophy, language, narrative, cosmogony, proverbs, art, rituals, customs, practices, symbols and history were fitted together in a search for wholeness. Re-searching. There were some pieces that survived fully intact; the task was to fit them against what had been demonised and lost. Recreating a coherence with what had been shamed and deemed uncivilised, unscientific and un-Christian.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, after five years of continuous research, the framework I chose was one that simply focused on words. ‘Power’ words, which Gregory Cajete describes as ‘having intrinsic meaning to a people’. In order to open the portals to the past, the bricks and mortar of worldview were our words.
For we have
about being here,
and being human.
mauri, mauli, mana, tapu,
fonua, fanua, ‘enua, fenua, whenua.
mauri, mauli, mana, tapu.
Without these words,
a world is lost to us.
I was after archetypal concepts that were shared in many, many of our Pacific languages, that we used collectively to make sense of what we saw in similar ways. Many of these words language the quantum – like vā / wā – which is effortlessly translated into the quantum field. I sought proverbs and sayings in Tongan, Hawaiian, Samoan, Niuean, Tokelau, Cook Islands Māori, Aotearoa New Zealand Māori that swirled around these power words, chanting them into context. Teu le vā, one Samoan proverb says – make the energy between you beautiful. Tauhi vā, says a Tongan phrase – tend to, nurture, take care of the relational space between you and others. These were words to live by, for millennia. I imagine these utterances falling from one mouth to another, generation after generation.
It is in Oceania’s library that I sought answers – and questions – about climate change. I find the overarching framework for understanding climate crisis within our cosmogonies. This is the story of all stories. Every cosmogony stories a deeply related and connected universe, whereby through the reproductive energy of attraction an evolutionary family of things is born. In this genealogically ordered universe, where everything is procreated through relationships of attraction, we find ourselves the younger sibling of all that precedes us: plants, rocks, skies, and sea. As younger siblings, our role is clear: to serve and protect our elders. There are ancestral codes of behaviour – tapu – that dictate ‘right relationships’ in the spaces between all creation – the vā – which in turn creates a harmonic system.
A return to ourselves includes finding our ancient stories that once guided and informed human life. There is a story of Rata or Lata – island depending, but the story is the same. He is the spoiled son of a great chief raised by his grandmother. Set apart as special, after a series of self-centred, undisciplined and ego-driven actions, he is determined unfit for leadership. After an incident involving the killing other village boys, his grandmother, in desperation, hands him an enchanted axe and tells him the gruesome truth of his parent’s violent deaths, as well as who killed them. Fuelled with rage, shame and failure, he flees his village to avenge their deaths. Rushing into the forest, he finds the largest tree fit for building a voyaging canoe and hacks it in fury and frustration. Exhausted, he sleeps. When he wakes, the tree is standing again. Three times this scenario repeats. Finally, he pretends to sleep and watches in wonder as the spirits of the forest rebuild the tree through chant and song. He jumps up and yells out, confrontational and angry.
The spirits are solemn and sure. He has breached a code of respect, has not acknowledged that the tree has a valuable life and a wish to be appreciated. He has violated the relationship by forgetting the rituals and prayers that must be uttered. He has not acknowledged the life-force and divinity in all creation. He has forgotten that the tree is his relative.
Embarrassed, aware, humbled, he admits his fault. He atones. He carries out the rituals with sincerity. He makes peace with the spirits of the forest. The tree is respectfully cut down. It lives on as one of the most famous war canoes ever made. He avenges his father. He becomes a great chief.
This is a story about the danger of anthropocentrism, the belief that human beings are the most important entity in the universe. It is a reminder about our place in the family of things – that all the co-created have a wish to be appreciated. It includes guide-signs about the ways we must relate if we are to be in right relationship. How to nurture the vā, the relationship or the space between us and the co-created.
Our knowledge tells us that climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of relationship. A breached relationship requires an examination of our conduct. It requires atonement and a return to right relationship. It requires us attuning ourselves to the divine life-spark and essential energy state with all things – the mauri, the mauli.
Somewhat unbelievably, in my library search I find the original words to the chant the spirits sang to Rata. I share them now, reminding us all how connected we are. It speaks to me, of what we need most: a remembering, that we too are the trees, and that we need all the help we can get.
Rere mai, Rere mai
Te vai toto o ta’u ra’au
Homai heti, homai heta
Piripiri tapau tu
Tu e ra’au, tu e
Fly together, fly together,
the blood water of my tree
Come gently, come angry,
Join together green sap and strong gum
Make my tree upstanding again.
It is in
our mother tongues,
almost lost to us,
we will find our way back
to the future.
It is in our languages,
word by word,
rock by rock,
leaf by leaf,
brick by brick,
we find the building blocks of
another way of being.
Word by word,
stone by stone,
leaf by leaf,
we return to talking trees,
a forest of upright
with terrestrial tongues
holding up the sky.
Let our languages
give us ears,
so we may hear;
eyes, so we may see;
hearts, so that
so we can translate
the thudding rhythm
of all the
Let us listen beyond sound,
to before we had words.
Return to the earth’s most profound language –
seek the bright secrets in the light of the stars,
follow the signals in the moon’s movement,
understand the tongue of the tides,
listen to the enduring knowing of the stones,
feel the cleansing of water
that can still heal
everything it touches.
Let us attune to
That unseen feeling-being-living-essence
of the earth itself.
That which connects us
to the mystery we are.
Let us call on our family of relatives to help us heal.
Kāinga, aiga, ‘aina,
Let the morning mist,
with its cold fresh breath
that we are alive.
Dr Karlo Mila (MNZM) is a writer, researcher, poet, seeker, mother and the creator of Mana Moana. Of Tongan, Samoan and Pākehā descent, her lifes work has been centred around the lived experiences of Pacific peoples.
Initially, this focused on contemporary life: generating academic, creative and political writing, as well as developing policy, strategy and ethics texts. Her postdoctoral research sought solutions to contemporary problems by exploring the three thousand year-old knowledge resources of the ancestral Ocean peoples of the Moana.
She currently runs a leadership program that takes a year-long deep dive into the shared language, epistemology and ancestral wisdom of the Moana, prototyping these in practical ways in professional and personal contexts. This is a journey of re-turn, re-cognition, re-membering and reawakening. It is a call to intergenerational leadership and deeply reconnecting to all that we are inter-dependent upon.
Mana Moana is one of many movements of indigenous renaissance. At the core of this work is collective soul retrieval – culturally, spiritually, and environmentally – in a time of climate crisis, covid-19 and late capitalism. It is her passion and purpose to better understand the octo-scopic visioning (matavalu, makawalu) of ancestral eyes – in order to see what they see – when seeking solutions to contemporary global problems.
Karlo writes, speaks publicly, performs poetry, teaches workshops and continues to explore Oceania’s library – the lab of the largest ocean in the world – seeking A.I. – ancestral intelligence. She has won awards for her poetry, as well as national acknowledgement for her service to the Pacific community. Her latest poetry book “Goddess Muscle” was published by Huia in 2020. She lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, New Zealand, with her three sons.