Heritage / 16 December, 2016
Whakapapa Fridays: What happened to Māori health? Isaack Gilsemans 'View of Murderers Bay', ca. 1642

Whakapapa Fridays: What happened to Māori health?

Māori were once described as "the most physically perfect race living on the face of the Earth.” Te Miri Rangi looks at the colonisation of Māori health, and the need to adapt as our tīpuna once did.

Compared to any other New Zealander, Māori experience some of the worst health outcomes in this country. As Māori we are more likely to be impacted by heart disease, diabetes, obesity, various cancers and a lucky-dip of other health complications. The health sector acknowledges that this reality is attributed to a whole range of contributing socio-economic factors such as housing, income, and education. Because health is quite a complex beast, and influenced by so many different things around us, no single-bullet is going to fix this challenge. The good news is that despite the struggle that exists for so many, on a whole, Māori health outcomes have improved over the years, and it will continue to do so as we come to learn more about Māori health. However, we're still  a far-cry from the standard of wellness that our tīpuna experienced. So what happened to Māori health?

When we rewind the clock a century or more, the picture of Māori health here in Aotearoa was described by early settlers as something unseen in other parts of the world. In 1769 Captain Cook described Māori of Aotearoa as a “strong raw boned well-made active people...They seem to enjoy a good state of health and many of them live to a good old age.” This is supported by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks who commented on the Māori stature, “the men are of the size of the larger Europeans, stout, clean limbed and active, fleshy but never fat. Among them I have seen many very healthy old men and in general the whole of them are as vigorous a race as can be imagined.”

 "The tikanga or practices established by our tīpuna enabled not only our survival, but a synergistic relationship with the environment that enabled Māori to flourish."

As the years passed by, many more European settlers commented on the health and figure of Māori. Both Māori women and men were seen as taller than their European counterparts.  The Religious Tract Society in 1799 observed: “The New Zealander is the most gigantic in stature and muscular in frame, and may be justly regarded as the most robust and hardy of the Oceanic race.”

Māori also experienced a high level of oral hygiene with some of the best teeth ever recorded. This is interesting given we had no toothbrush or toothpaste in those days. In his groundbreaking book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939), Weston Price observed very few tooth cavities and attributed this to the natural diet of the Māori, free from processed and refined foods. There are many more records of settlers describing the fine, muscular figures of the Māori. It almost appears that this picture of health was commonplace amongst Māori in the early 1800’s, and this persisted in rural communities like Te Uruwera, who were isolated from European influences.

Price attributed this level of wellness and health to Māori who had “developed a knowledge of Nature’s laws and adopted a system of living in harmony with those laws to so high a degree that they were able to build what was reported by early scientists to be the most physically perfect race living on the face of the Earth.” The tikanga or practices established by our tīpuna enabled not only our survival, but a synergistic relationship with the environment that enabled Māori to flourish. 

This system of living is entrenched in mātauranga Māori or Māori knowledge. Mātauranga Māori is what enabled Māori to cross the largest body of ocean and populate the farthest corner of the world. It enabled Māori to survive and thrive here in New Zealand, a land with different seasons, flora and fauna to our homeland. The differences our tīpuna encountered here had implications on the fundamental necessities of life—food, warmth and shelter. The Māori of old had to develop new technologies and understandings of their new environment in order to ensure a successful life was attained. Myths and legends were told to carry this critical information through generations that enabled Māori to thrive. This tells me two things. Firstly, mātauranga Māori is pliable. It grows and adapts in a way that ensures its users have the tools to live a successful life in their environment. Secondly, our tīpuna who survived here were smart enough to make changes and adaptations to survive.

We missed the boat on developing new knowledge around modern health challenges because of Pākehā control of our lifestyle. The image of the ‘average’ Māori in terms of health is not where it should be. Despite that, we are still here today because of those well established practices that built a ‘hardy race’. In my opinion, we need to enable new practices and tikanga to support positive health outcomes based on mātauranga Māori. We must develop new myths and legends, or reinterpret traditional knowledge that improves Māori health for the future. The question is, are we smart enough to filter all of the information that is out there to ensure our whānau have an opportunity to be healthy? Those that can will adapt and survive. Those that can’t? Well, let me just say that not all our tīpuna made good decisions in the past either.

Kai tika. Whakakori te tinana. Tiaki tou whakapapa!


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