Mapping your marae

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Don’t know where your pa or marae is? Not to worry, Google will soon help you track it down. In early July Waatea News reported on a Northland trust’s plan to use technology to map out pa and marae sites.

“The idea of mapping the marae was first of all as a road map to get young people home” says Rereata Makiha. So obvious when said like that, and very modern. But mapping is a complex issue, with modern methods sparking interesting issues when placed in the context of this country’s history.

Maps aren’t objective givens. Like any text they are layered with meanings relevant to those who made them. Cartographer Jan Kelly captures this idea when she says “we think of ‘our’ maps as being ‘ordinary’ maps, so explicable that the transition to ‘real’ landscape becomes seamless in our minds and the symbols are as easily read as a written language, or are seen as the living landscape itself.”

When we think of using GPS coordinates and satellite-based computer mapping tools it is easy to believe these represent the real landscape. But when we gaze at the pastiche of satellite images we aren’t witnessing the real landscape (what ever that is), and are particularly not witnessing a mapping methodology that draws on or even takes notice of Maori knowledge systems or methods. Technology such as Google Maps is about accuracy and omniscience, and keeping a safe distance. It is tied up with ideas of how photographs misrepresent reality, and more scarily the technological triumph of satellites roaming the skies above us.

Somewhere here is a pa

Who cares? We shouldn’t forget that maps are not benign tools. In the very real sense, cultures often survive because their area of existence is little known or ‘unmappable’. In a less palpable sense, but still very real, cultures always have different ways of ‘placing’ themselves – these ways are often lost when new technology from multinationals present themselves.

“In the colonial era, the mapmaker’s imperative was to tame the foreign wilderness with names and boundaries – to discipline a profusion of facts and claims into a narrow and authoritative set of data.” John Gravois goes on to say that tools like Google Maps allow users to install their own data onto the map are therefore not as authoritarian in defining knowledge. But by defining what the map is, and therefore the basis of how place should be conceived, they have already achieved their cultural imperative and closed down different systems of defining place.

“Locational points, significant rocks, trees, hilltops, or places that had a story or event attached,” were used by Maori “to mark out territorial boundaries to define a place” according to Jan Kelly. Without a written language Maori named landscape features by describing them in a manner which allowed the speaker or listener to link it to a huge range of other oral information, setting place not on the flatland of the map but in the multi-dimensional world of people (past, present and future). Maori Land Court hearing minutes even record how ‘oral pegs’ were used to describe boundary marks that were anchored in stories and songs.

Professor Lisa Parks has written about how satellite imagery has laid bare a country’s infrastructure to groups who may use it to plan attacks. In a similar way, Google Maps lays bare a culture’s infrastructure. Land that marae and pa sit on have already been captured under the land title system imposed by the Crown – which even Te Ture Whenua Maori Act is subservient to – and this latest technological capture is just a continuation and expansion of this history. That Maori must now use Google Maps to get the young people home shows how distant they really are from being able to place themselves.

Jan Kelly, ‘Maori Maps’, Cartographia, 36(2), 1999, pp.1-30.

John Gravois, ‘The agnostic cartographer. How Google’s open-ended maps are embroiling the company in some of the world’s touchiest geopolitical disputes’, Washington Monthly, July/August 2010,

One News, ‘Google Earth used in battle?’, July 6 2010,

Waatea News, ‘Marae maps to lead people home’, July 7 2010,


About this entry