Dr Mere Whaanga (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Pahauwera) is the first Māori writer to be awarded the prestigious Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer’s Fellowship. Dr Whaanga was awarded $100,000 to complete a book that takes a holistic approach to applying rongoā (medicinal use of plants) to healing land and people.
“I feel very privileged to now have two years to dedicate to intensive research and writing on this project. This is the real value of the Creative New Zealand funding – that I can devote so much time to writing a book that will combine history, science, rongoā and practical applications of mātauranga (knowledge), all from a rural Māori perspective,” said Dr Whaanga.
Drawing inspiration from the philosophy of a highly respected teacher of rongoā, Rob McGowan, who said that we need to heal the land before we can heal ourselves, Dr Whaanga’s book will explore the vital role of plants in the settlement of Taipōrutu, the ancestral land at Mahia on which her project is based.
“The project, Rongoā – Heal the Land, Heal the People, is a culmination of a lifetime of accumulating the histories and mātauranga about our whānau land Taipōrutu – the type that can only be acquired through living on and working the land, through practising ahikāroa (ongoing, sustainable existence),” said Dr Whaanga. “My whānau and I continue to maintain a connection with Taipōrutu that spans more than 20 generations,” she added.
Dr Whaanga will draw together the mātauranga Māori associated with Taipōrutu – weaving historical records such as the earliest map of the area held by the Māori Land Court, photographs, diagrams and coastal charts, with histories told in ancient song-chants, traditional accounts of significant historical events and knowledge from kaumātua (elders).
The work will encompass not only historical knowledge, but the multiple and inextricably linked ways of knowing the land, including its ecology, traditional narratives, seasons, astronomy, gardening, growing and harvesting knowledge and husbandry of the forest.
Creative New Zealand’s Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright said, “Dr Whaanga’s new work will significantly enrich our understanding of the connection between the people (manawhenua) and the land, fundamental to mātauranga Māori. The prospect of a book outlining traditional practices such as rongoā, with practical applications of this knowledge has never been more timely given the current interest in wellbeing.”
Dr Whaanga is an accomplished writer and academic with several publications in children’s and non-fiction genres. She has an impressive collection of literary awards spanning from the Choysa Bursary for Children’s Writers in 1988, to more recently being awarded the University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence in 2017.
Established in 2003 and administered by Creative New Zealand, the Michael King Fellowship was renamed in recognition of the late Michael King for his contribution to literature and his role in advocating for a major fellowship for New Zealand writers.
The fellowship is available to established New Zealand authors of any literary genre with a significant publication record. It is offered biennially for writers working on a major project which will take two or more years to complete.
Previous recipients of the fellowship are Dr Philip Norman, Martin Edmond, Fiona Farrell, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, CK Stead, Rachel Barrowman, Neville Peat, Dame Fiona Kidman, Philip Simpson, Kate De Goldi, Peter Wells, Dr Peter Simpson and Elizabeth Knox.