Ancestral Health – A Maori Perspective

Are we as clever as we think? We live in an age of rapid technical progress, the “future” is literally happening right before our eyes. What was simply unimaginable a few years ago is now indispensable and probably carried in our pockets.  We are on the cusp of space tourism, internet billionaires are made overnight, and we can access almost anything from anywhere and have it delivered to our door with the click of a button and soon via a drone.   All this, and yet what really matters, what underpins everything else ‐ our health and well-being ‐ is actually in a state of decline.

Why in 2014, one year off the future dreamt up by Robert Zemeckis in the “Back to the Future” movies is the population’s overall health trending downwards and for me, a New Zealander of Maori descent – why are  Māori and Pacific Islanders over represented in areas of poor health and can this statistic be changed?

Most will be very familiar with this now often quoted historical snapshot.  In 1769 Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks noted, “Māori, both young and old, were blessed with sound health in a very high degree.” In 1939 Weston A Price released his seminal book ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration’ which chronicled his decade long world travel, researching nutrition and its consequence on health amongst isolated human groups. During his trip to New Zealand he noted,

“The reputation of the Maori people for splendid physiques has placed them on a pedestal of perfection. Much of this has been lost in modernization… The breakdown of these people comes when they depart from their native foods to the foods of modern civilization…” – Weston A Price‐ 1939

So what has gone wrong? We all know someone now who has been affected by modern disease.  In 2014, living in an age of technical wonder where modern science has given us insights to health never before available, overall population well-being is declining and Māori have the poorest health statistics of any ethnic group in New Zealand.  Sure modern medicine and surgical techniques save lives, there is no denying that.  I’m not going to start a trend of visiting my naturopath to mend a broken leg, but, conversely, I do believe we now over rely on doctors to fix our general malaises.

Most people have become dependent on a quick fix creating a disconnect between true health and addressing the cause and simply symptom suppression.  The theme – a slow deterioration of our generational knowledge in regards to health and conversely a passing of this responsibility onto a paid professional.  We no longer take ownership of our very own bodies.  Poor health is either inherited, inevitable, out of personal control or simply not even of concern.  I know the potential solutions lie in a tangled web of society’s inner mechanisms.  Layer upon layer of politics, business, industry, medicine, social paradigms, generational knowledge, religion, history and money (add your own here) are tightly tangled in the birds nest of life and I’m not going to suggest I know how to unpick this to start weaving a better way to live.

I believe our message is a simple one.  My interest in ancestral health started off as a selfish quest to improve my health but now is bigger than that.

Everyone has a different story.  This is mine…

My name is Peter Tainui, and I am part Māori.  In fact I have quite a mixed heritage, some of which still remains a mystery thanks to a grandfather who disappeared more than 70 years ago and whose heritage was only recently traced to Honolulu, Hawaii.  So although my genes are painted with Hawaiian, English and Maori ancestry, there is no escaping that I have strong Maori heritage, a heritage I’m still learning about but one which I’m very proud of.

I grew up in Mt Roskill, Auckland.  A state house kid from a strong, loving family.  We didn’t have the modern luxuries growing up but we wanted for nothing.  I’m not sure where my interest in health came from.  As long as I can remember, even before starting school, I was aware that we are in charge of our health through the decisions we make.  I can’t explain the genesis of this inner awareness.  My parents, although always wanting the best for us, didn’t force any dogma or belief system around nutrition, apart from the good old “eat your veggies and you can have some pudding” line repeated the world over.  Dinner was always the classic meat and three veg and takeaways were an occasional treat.  Soft drinks were a no no until we were ten years of age and those were the days when you made your own fun, outside.

So I had a fairly straight forward upbringing except for my continual visits to the doctors.  From about the age of 10 I was told I had IBS.  Constant stomach pains morphed into horrible migraines, sore throats, vomiting episodes and later acne.   Apparently I wasn’t eating enough fibre, or so my doctors told me.  During my teens I was proud my ability to devour 8 to 10 Weetbix for breakfast.  I should have been an All Black.  Always hungry, I just couldn’t eat enough.  I was a good patient for my doctors.  They prescribed more and more fibre – Metamucil anyone?  And being the health conscious person I had always been, listened and eagerly followed their advice.

The trimmest milk, the palest margarine, vegetable and salad oil, the grainiest bread – boy did I love my bread.  I was a good student of health.  Exercise was not a problem, I couldn’t sit still.  If I wasn’t playing football or cricket I was either practising or outside playing, lost in the labyrinth of interconnecting back yards until dinner was served.   I was as thin as a stick and my nickname at Intermediate school became “Bean Pole” or “Drain pipe”.  I was following the doctors’ orders to the letter and yet, although not chronically ill, I could have been doing a lot better.  The thing is…I didn’t know this at the time and only now do I look back and start to connect all the dots.  Obviously, I knew no better, childhood offers that unique perspective protection, so I just got on with taking my medicine and trying to be “healthy”.

My journey to this current point of understanding and interest in ancestral health began like many people at a CrossFit gym in 2008 (I was an early adopter at the first CrossFit gym in NZ).  CrossFit’s nutrition mantra lead me to the likes of Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf where I experienced that light bulb moment we probably all have – “This just makes sense”.  Since then I have seen the “Paleo” scene explode and I believe we can safely use term – mainstream, now to describe this movement.  From restaurant menus, cafes, franchises, countless books, conferences, and websites, we are witnessing the commercialisation of this now forgotten common sense.  Sad as it is our great grandparents would be scratching their heads wondering how living a sensible life in tune with the earth is now one of the fastest growing trends on the planet. Of course we now live in a world that is foreign to our forebears both socially and technologically.  Modern society’s pressures and expectations have led us down the slippery slope of ‘death by convenience’ so much so that we now need to explain the benefits of eating real food and argue for organic food in its natural state as if it’s some alien life form.  I understand this, because I was a part of it.  I listened to my doctor(s) and played by the rules.

The questions I started to ask myself were “Is what we are told about health actually healthy?” Could we be living in a modern world that is in fact foreign to our ancestral evolution and what is the impact on our health? Has modern day progress outstripped our evolutionary ability to actually live that way? Is it in fact possible to return to a way of living that can have a positive impact on our health statistics? And what if that advice flew in the face of the accepted status quo and in fact turned our current belief system on its head.

I’m not a doctor, hold no medical, nutritional or wellness qualifications.  I don’t have any letters after my name which give me authority.  I’ll leave the finer details of the science to my esteemed colleagues.  I’ve tried to keep my interest to the big picture.   I understand the broader science but also believe that we have to be careful that our message isn’t lost in the minutiae of scientific detail that ends up alienating some of target audience.   I believe our message is a simple one.  My interest in ancestral health started off as a selfish quest to improve my health but now is bigger than that.

I’m passionate about this topic because I believe it is THE most important subject in the world.  Good health in-line with our evolutionary past and expectations is the foundation for pretty much everything.   So it saddens me that for both Maori and Pacific Islander – once were warriors – our current status in terms of health and well-being has over the last century taken a severe beating.   I think we all realise that the health crisis is affecting all of us, not just Maori and Pacific Islanders, although the indigenous cultures have been at the forefront of the front line.

Although far from an expert in terms of my culture (I don’t speak Māori), I hope that the current renaissance in Tikanga Māori and the revitalisation of te reo Māori can cross over to an awareness and fulfilment of our true health potential and once again return Māori to the “pedestal of perfection” for health.  Our genetic potential and history is something we should be proud of and we need to once again create that connection between traditional ways and health much like the immense pride and growth around te reo.   Māori ARE warriors and Te Ao Māori – The Māori World – is deeply connected with honouring and respecting Papatūānuku (Mother Earth).

It is happening.  This growing ancestral health community is making an impact within Māori, particular messages of fitness and movement.  Māori have an affinity with CrossFit and have taken to it in vast numbers.  Iron Māori – Half Ironman, has grown from a small event to one that sells out in minutes and is transforming lives across many cultures on a daily basis.  The message is getting out but there is still plenty of work to do.  Marae across the country have implemented healthy eating guidelines and many have established māra (gardens) to feed their iwi and wider community.  This knowledge is deeply embedded in Tikanga Māori.

The pathway is a twisty one with many loops that lead back to the same spot.  I don’t profess to have the one answer because there isn’t one.  If however, we can really drive home that message of our past ancestral health and how it previously left European explorers and early settlers in awe then we can hopefully help create a new paradigm and belief system.  This applies to everyone.  It’s a big wheel turning slow but it is moving in the right direction and slowly picking up speed.

We live in a world where we know more about our smart phones, the internet and celebrities than we do about the ‘food’ we put into our mouths. We are surrounded by information but unless we start to ask better questions, take more personal responsibility and ownership of our health we are more connected to the problem than the answer.

Whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō koutou – Seek after learning for the sake of your wellbeing.

Peter Tainui

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2 thoughts on “Ancestral Health – A Maori Perspective

  1. I totally hear what you are saying! You talk about how our ancestors lived and how healthy they were and also the English people. That there tells me that they lived the clean green life! They did not feed from the waters which are now polluted! They did not feed from the land which is now contaminated! They loved their whenua! They cared for their waters! And they worked together to keep this all real! You hear of our hapu, iwi fighting to return their lands to return their water ways because the people outside do not care how it is looked after. What they see is $$$$ dollar signs a way of making it work for themselves and not for all around them.
    It saddens me to hear people laugh at Maori who stand up for their rights to have their land and water ways returned. BUT how else can we help our hapu, iwi survive if other people come and pollute our pathways of great food. good living just like how our ancestors had.I laugh at how professions state green lip mussels have so many great nutrients in them and puha and watercress are so good for you! Why don’t people eat more of these? Because the waters they are in are polluted or we are unable to gather from certain sites due to ALGIE BLOOM or there is no more places to gather water cress and puha because the little creeks are covered over with dirt!!!!! Everything that is good for us is nothing new to our ancestors!!!!!! Your right they are scratching their heads baffled at why we make our lives so difficult! And why is everything they gathered from the whenua and the waters in their days at a HUGE cost for us now!
    You also speak about how cross fit has taken off for Maori (just one point). Well if you really look into that as well Maori walked everywhere (no transport) Maori worked their lands with their hands not with diggers and everything else they use (lol). So they kept themselves physically fit and motivated everyday because that is how they lived. They worked to live. I’m not quoting or stating from any books I am only providing what I have been told by a 92 year old beautiful lady who has recently passed on.
    She walked everywhere and was fit right up to her rightful age, she ate from the land which was food that they grew, they gathered from the waters when they wanted to and their shelter was that of a roof over her head which looked snug and warm.
    I am around a lot of Maori and Pacific Island people. Their tamariki are not well because they feel that they have to LIVE in houses that are cold, damp covered in mildew and over crowded. WHY I say to them! Your whare is not good for your tamariki! Do something for the future of the next generation coming through! I have now discovered of a group of people who are promoting warmer houses for whanau. What they do is install pink batts into peoples homes. This comes with no cost however few people know of this! It is starting to come into my community as I saw a notice at our local shopping centre. But I heard a young Maori girl say to another girl “you should look at this for your house” straight away the other girl replied “no it will cost me I cant afford it” I casually turned around and said “actually you do not have to pay it is a promotion for better living in the homes” So this young girl would of walked away and missed the opportunity of a warmer winter and cooler summer in her whare. Hmmmmmm such a great thing but poorly managed to promote it. If it was cheap fizzy drinks they would have a huge sign out the front of the store!
    Well as my whanau say (that’s my 2 cents worth) I hope it makes sense and I didn’t ramble on.

    It takes a village to raise a child. “Ka taea te pa te whakatupu i te tamaiti”

  2. Tena koe Peter,
    I really enjoyed your personal perspective and love the look of your new website – I will keep an eye on it and look forward to seeing its future progress.
    Mauri Ora!
    Chelita Ogier

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