Māori Public Health Leadership
Toi Tangata Hui-a-tau has been one of the most influential experiences I’ve had since being in New Zealand. The annual conference held by Toi Tangata provided a space for those in New Zealand, and across the world, to speak on some of the many health issues within Indigenous communities, with a focus on Maori communities. Ruthie and I were lucky enough to be part of the conference and made the trip to Napier. The three-day conference consisted of health and wellbeing presentations, ranging from food sovereignty to Te Reo Maori to Maori sports.
One of the most memorable speakers of the conference was Dr. Geoff Kira. Dr. Kira presented on Maori sovereignty and the three pillars of health, which includes e kai (food), e moe (sleep), e kori tinana (exercise). As a Maori health researcher, Dr. Kira brought forth some of the implications that arise when using a Western based science approach to research health related issues in the Maori community. Western science and scientific study is often focused on a reductionist and single factor approach. However, through this approach, it fails to address other factors that may be impacting one’s health. Additionally, Dr. Kira highlights the inconsistencies within Western scientific study and the Maori population. The example he focused on were the guidelines on physical activity for youth. Dr. Kira highlighted the ineffectiveness of these guidelines when being applied to Maori youth due to the fact that these guidelines are based off of a study conducted in the United States. It is counterproductive to extend guidelines from a study conducted in another country because it is not population specific. Acknowledging that this approach is far from helpful to Maori communities, he redirects his presentation to emphasize on a holistic approach. More importantly, Dr. Kira provided some food studies and initiatives that are currently in place. For example, one initiative was a data based consisting of traditional Maori kai (food). The aim was to create a platform where traditional kai was accessible to Maori communities, to not only promote health kai, but to share traditional knowledge the same way our ancestors did.
In addition, I found the the Oranga Kai, Oranga Taiao, Oranga Tangata panel to be very interesting. The panel featured five individuals whose work related to encouraging healthy lifestyles. I was particularly drawn to the presentations by Donna Takitimu and Mason Ngawhika. Takitimu’s talk focused on food sovereignty. With food sovereignty being in the forefront in many indigenous communities, Takitimu encourages us to not only reclaim what is going in our mouth, but to reclaim what is coming out of it. I had never thought about it being this way. Within my own community, there are definitely strong links between food and language. Furthermore, Takitimu wants to encourage Maori communities to grow their own foods. Mason Ngawhika also touched on being able to grow our own foods and highlighted the empowerment that people get from being able to do so. Mason Ngawhika talked about his work with Papatuanuku Kokiri marae in South Auckland. Papatuanuku Kokiri marae provides a space within the urban area for people to grow their own food. In my experience, people living in the urban setting are often discouraged from growing their own food because the lack of space or knowledge to do so. Papatuanuku Kokiri marae is a solution for both problems.
Aside from the speakers and presentations, all the conference participants had the opportunity to partake in physical activities. It was nice to see Toi Tangata implement these physical activities in their programming, especially since the conference centers around wellbeing. Some of the activities included aka, a Maori movement are similar to tai chi, taiaha, biking, and waka ama. During the aka workshop, the instructor, Justin Gush, lead us through each movement while also connecting these movements to Maori symbols. Personally, I found that pairing the movements with Maori symbols gave meaning to the exercise.
Altogether I’m grateful to have been part of Toi Tangata Hui-a-tau. The conference exposed me to amazing work being done in New Zealand and the people behind it. Some of the themes I saw within the presentations were the impacts of colonization and the need to decolonize our ways of living and thinking. For many years, indigenous peoples have been introduced and, in some cases, forced to adopt Western concepts and systems. It is clear that these do not work for Indigenous communities. As an indigenous person pursuing Western education, I often struggle with being able to navigate my indigenous identity and worldview in an institution that values and highlights Western concepts. It was great to hear from a range of presenters at the conference and the ways in which they have extended their Indigenous worldviews to help address health issues in their communities.