Bringing te ao Māori to client projects

In 2006, when Wharehuia Dixon (Ngāti Awa) joined Beca as a graduate civil engineer, the company didn’t have a strong connection to te ao Māori. He was one of a handful of Māori within one of Asia Pacific’s largest independent advisory, design and engineering consultancies. Wharehuia says the industry can be a lonely place for Māori and Pacific engineers, and notes that many young Māori and Pacific children grow up having no idea what engineering means.   

Fast forward to 2024 and the environment is changing. Beca’s New Zealand cultural origins have become much clearer within the last seven years, following a challenge to the company to better reflect its roots as a business founded in Aotearoa by Wharehuia, Genevieve Doube (Ngāi Tahu) and John Blyth (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi). This challenge led to the inception of Te Ahi Tūtata in 2022 (Beca’s Māori business team) and a role within the company for Wharehuia that is grounded in te ao Māori.  

How has Beca joined you on the journey of what te ao Māori has to offer?  

Now a senior associate engineer and kaiwhakatere (project navigator), Wharehuia says he feels the workplace is maturing in its understanding towards te ao Māori and is more welcoming for kaimahi Māori (Māori staff). The establishment of Te Ahi Tūtata means roles now exist within Beca to lead and support the business and its clients in their engagement with iwi and hapū. 

He notes the nature of these roles means sound knowledge of te ao Māori is almost a prerequisite, and their creation recognises te reo Māori is no longer just a language but a professional skill enabling fulfilment of a professional duty. An avid advocate for the Māori language and its use, Wharehuia says that despite te reo Māori becoming a desirable professional skill, there is still work to be done across the industry to recognise and support it through professional development, in the same manner as other professional and technical skills.    

What do you enjoy about your current role?   

Wharehuia says the ability to converse in te reo Māori remains absent from the tongues of many Māori and their whānau. That lingers as a constant reminder to the nation of where things were, where they are now, and how much farther we need to go to restore the language back to prominence. He notes that for those fortunate to have a fluid command of the language, either through lived or learned means, the personal challenge is to consider what your koha or gift back to the language will be - as a language relies on the positive contributions of the multitudes.   

He acknowledges that his understanding of te reo Māori and te ao Māori now supports him in his role, and what he does within Beca, Engineering New Zealand (ENZ) and the industry is one form of reciprocity in action. He now has an opportunity to create an environment where te reo Māori is appreciated, heard, felt, and seen. By extending the traditional Māori language domain beyond the boundaries of the home or school environment, the value of te reo Māori increases. Consequently, more corners of the world become viable for future generations of te reo Māori speakers and practitioners of te ao Māori.  

Growing up in Kawerau against the backdrop of the (former) Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill, Wharehuia saw engineering as hands-on, problem-solving, and often outdoors work that he and other young Māori could engage in. Now a consultant, he revisits these initial reasons for doing engineering by continuing to volunteer his time to engage with students, from primary through to university age. Whilst the form of engagement varies based on the audience, ultimately it remains a demonstration of what an engineering career could entail, and that Māori and Pacific peoples can succeed as themselves in this space.  

Wharehuia says it’s about instilling in young Māori the knowledge that te reo Māori is an increasingly valuable skill extending far beyond traditional career paths of teaching or broadcasting. This is the bigger picture for him.   

What role does Te Ahi Tūtata play in supporting te reo Māori and te ao Māori?   

The existence of Te Ahi Tūtata demonstrates that Beca recognises the value in knowledge of te reo Māori and te ao Māori.  Wharehuia says the team’s roles are founded on a kaupapa Māori premise and are ideally filled by those with a command of te reo Māori and understanding of the Māori world view. Critically, they require a person to bring their whole learned and lived experience to the role, which isn’t validated by a degree (as compared to a technical role, for example, a civil engineer or planner). This involves drawing on their whakapapa, pepeha, and perspective on te ao Māori, and giving it to a space that isn’t necessarily aligned with or conducive to that way of thinking. Wharehuia says these roles require a lot more cultural input, and learnings are still needed at industry level regarding what this means.   

He acknowledges the establishment of Te Ahi Tūtata is a milestone that signals the position and commitment of Beca in its standing as an Aotearoa company. He is excited for future conversations within the industry about what it means to be Māori working in professional services. He comments that the professional services industry is, in his view, still young in its understanding, application and welcoming of Māori as Māori, but is pleased that progress has been made.  

What does te ao Māori bring to client projects?  

Wharehuia says knowledge of te reo Māori and te ao Māori enables people to look at projects from a different perspective, for example, in the water space when talking about Te Mana o te Wai. He notes that it can be a challenge for his non-Māori colleagues to grasp the concept. He offers suggestions based on his upbringing, including how he perceives water and its use by those around him and its role in certain practices. He says this is still technical knowledge, but it has a different starting point and brings a lot of value.  

Wharehuia enjoys the challenge of critiquing what is recognised as standard practice from a cultural perspective. He offers another way of thinking about the world, which can be useful in the project space, and likens it to fitting in a missing puzzle piece rather than trying to change people’s perspectives about how they choose to live. He’s excited by the challenge of working out how indigenous knowledge applies to the modern world, the learnings within and its application to today’s settings, acknowledging that what worked in the past may not be functional now.  

Did your appointment in 2022 to ENZ’s governing board demonstrate industry recognition of the value of te ao Māori to the sector?  

Wharehuia says his involvement on the board has given him an opportunity to canvas and engage with the membership, connect with other Māori engineers, bring a fresh voice, and continue to make strides for Māori in the industry.  

He believes the development of this role again signals an intent to the industry and showed the ENZ board and management team recognised there was a big learning journey ahead and notes they have provided a lot of support - but it is a long journey.  

The role also involves encouraging Māori partners to acknowledge that things like Te Tiriti o Waitangi are a ‘together thing’, not just a ‘Māori thing’, and Wharehuia says the hardest part is giving non-Māori colleagues and partners the confidence and comfort to partake in te ao Māori if they choose, because anyone can engage. He considers it's about the greater good and says people need to be provided with sufficient context and knowledge so they know how to engage, including the role they can play in the discussion and narrative. Wharehuia likes to set the scene and then work through it with those involved.  

An ongoing journey – the next steps?  

Wharehuia says Beca continues to evolve and is now in a comfortable space to start connecting with local iwi and hapū and share intimate relationships with these groups outside of a project context. This position will continue to strengthen as the company’s understanding of its place in the cultural landscape grows.   

He likes to challenge the way people at Beca think, noting that relationships needn’t always be transactional. He suggests that, across the industry, we need to be cognisant that iwi and hapū may offer skills and knowledge that we do not have. He comments that Beca is learning when to lead and when to pull back and let others lead, especially in the engagement space, and these incremental learnings enhance its contribution back to Aotearoa as a company founded in New Zealand.  

Wharehuia considers that these learning moments are part of the company’s evolution, as it recognises how it fits into the wider fabric of Aotearoa. He says it is about recognising when you don’t know the answer and opening it up for others to contribute, thereby acknowledging everyone’s place in the wider context.

This story was brought to you in paid partnership with Beca.