Tohunga Mātauranga awarded honorary doctorate of science

Tohunga tohorā (whale expert) Ramari Stewart has been awarded an honorary doctorate of science from Waipapa Taumata Rau, on 29 August at the University’s Fale Pasifika.

Dr Ramari Stewart (Ngāti Awa) has become an honorary doctor of science.

Dr Ramari Stewart (Ngāti Awa) was born and raised in Te Horo near Ōhope, and is known internationally for her commitment to mātauranga Māori (Indigenous knowledge) and science practices surrounding whales.

She also has extensive knowledge of the ngahere (forest) and the moana (ocean) and is a leading practitioner of rongoa (Māori medicine), as well as being a trained nurse.

Last year, a newly discovered whale species was named after her, an important moment for science. Whales are generally named after Western scientists, predominantly men.

After consultation with Ramari and kaumātua from Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Awa, permission was given to name this new species ‘Ramari’s beaked whale’. Its scientific name is Mesoplodon eueu, referring to its Indigenous roots in South Africa.

The name ‘Ramari’ also means a rare event in te reo Māori, a fitting tribute to the elusive nature of most beaked whales.

Ramari has dedicated nearly 30 years of research with Waipapa Taumata Rau academics. In 1995, Professor Scott Baker, now with Oregon University, established research on tohorā (southern right whales) at the Auckland Islands, the same time as Ramari’s research at Campbell Island. This collaboration led to a joint publication and acknowledgements of support in subsequent work.

Currently, Ramari is collaborating with Professor Rochelle Constantine from the University’s School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Marine Science. They have worked on several whale and dolphin projects over the past few decades, most notably the description of Ramari’s beaked whale. Ramari is using mātauranga Māori to document the relationship of these taonga with the environment.

“Ramari has been a valuable source of knowledge throughout my research career. Her understanding of stranded animals and the historical connection of whales to Aotearoa has enriched our work,” Professor Constantine says.

Since the 1970s, Ramari has led the practice, revival and ongoing tikanga associated with living and dead whales and dolphins; knowledge that was largely lost with the near extinction of whales during the 1950s from commercial whaling, and the denigration of te ao Māori. She has done this in an environment where her knowledge has often been dismissed as ‘merely anecdotal’.

In 2020, she was awarded the Queens Service Medal for her work in mātauranga Māori, wildlife conservation and research. It was the first time a Queen’s Honour had been bestowed for mātauranga Māori. It recognises the importance of cultural knowledge, and how it can sit comfortably alongside science.

Ramari is a strong champion of this approach.

“It’s wonderful that Western science is starting to recognise that mātauranga Māori is equally as great as Western science and the two can work together. Rather than just bridging a relationship and taking knowledge from Indigenous practitioners, it is better that we both sit at the table,” she says.

In awarding the honorary doctorate, the University of Auckland said: “On the basis of her commitment to the mātauranga Māori and science practices on whales, her ability to navigate Western science and mātauranga Māori as a practitioner, and her almost 30-year research relationship with University of Auckland academics, Ramari Stewart is found most deserved of the award of honorary doctor of science.

“In her life and work, and in her generous collaborations, Ramari has forged with our University a link between two of the worlds in which knowledge exists. She has revitalised a knowledge in danger of being lost.”