Whenua as the foundation for health, by Sharon Moreham

  • 11 August 2020

Source: Moewaka Barnes, H., & McCreanor, T. (2019). Colonisation, hauora and whenua in Aotearoa, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 49(sup 1), pp. 19-33.

I’ve been thinking about whenua/land a lot lately and its bearing on our health and wellbeing.  My cousins and I are planning a trip to Rakiura/Stewart Island to visit whānau/family whenua.  They smile wryly and laugh as they refer to themselves as ‘landless natives’: those who have relationship with this whenua under the 1906 South Island Landless Natives Act.  It’s the first time any of us have been there.  There will be tears.  Tears for our tīpuna/ancestors; particularly those who passed too early.  Tears for the collective suffering of Māori.  Tears for ourselves and our loss; disconnection from whenua, language, culture and people.

Given my personal experiences, I have been reflecting on my practice in working with young people of diverse backgrounds and how to ensure there is space for the exploration and acknowledgement of their whenua and culture in our conversations and our work together.  I’m keen to know more about how strengthening our relationship with whenua might also strengthen health and wellbeing.  So, unsurprisingly, the title of Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor’s (2019) article ‘Colonisation, hauora and whenua in Aotearoa’ caught my attention.

Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor offer a summary of the impact of the various events of colonisation and land alienation on the health of Māori from Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the present day.  This is presented through the lens of multi-generational historical trauma utilising the framework of Reid et al. (2014).  It is a valuable overview for anyone unfamiliar with these issues and their impact on Māori health, and a helpful reminder to those who are versed in health status disparities in Aotearoa.

Whenua as the key determinant of hauora/health is the central proposition of this paper: the interwoven nature of human health and wellbeing with the health of our lands, waters and environment.  Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor see this connected relationship as central to health and public health approaches.  They offer an emerging framework ‘Tangata Whenua Tangata Ora’ to assist us on our collective healing journey toward health equity but to also address the trauma we have wreaked on our natural environment.

This relationship between whenua and hauora is beyond the physical and environmental connection between land and people; it also reflects what places mean to people and the relationships they have with whenua ideologically, emotionally and spiritually.  Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor assert this approach is not only for the benefit of Māori, but for all peoples, and that everyone can participate when whenua becomes the focus of human effort and the holistic base for multiple approaches to wellbeing.

Healing historical trauma and achieving health equity requires us to step into relationship with our ‘guerrilla selves’ as discussed by Steve Langley on this site (9 July, 2020).  This is a place of resisting and challenging our colonial-informed dominant systems of health and destabilising our dominant settler paradigms and assumed social order.  Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor assert we can then enter into Te Tiriti-led decolonising praxis that utilises Māori knowledge systems to inform our actions to heal our land, heal our waters and heal ourselves.  As Steve pointed out, we have many young people showing us how to resist and challenge assumed systems, such as in youth-led climate change and Black Lives Matter initiatives.

As I make plans for our whānau roadie, I am also making resolutions: resolutions for the courage to challenge assumptions and for whenua to have a central place in my practice of building youth health and wellbeing.  I tremble at the prospect.  I genuinely doubt I am up to the task, but I can’t bear for another generation – tangata whenua and tauiwi – to experience the continued trauma of our settler pasts and for our shocking health disparities to continue.


For a candid insight into personal stories behind the statistics, historical events, and academic arguments in Moewaka Barnes and McCreanor’s (2019) article, check out the recently released RNZ podcast “Getting Better – A Year in the Life of a Māori Medical Student”.  You will follow the experiences of Māori trainee doctor Emma Espiner over the last twelve months, including the Covid-19 crisis.  It’s real, it’s raw and it’s pain is palpable – grab your tissues.



Barnes, H. M., & McCreanor, T. (2019). Colonisation, hauora and whenua in Aotearoa, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 49(sup 1), 19-33.

Reid, J., Taylor-Moore, K., & Varona, G. (2004). Towards a social-structural model for understanding current disparities in Māori health and well-being. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 19, 514-536.

South Island Landless Natives Act 1906 (6 EDW VII 1906 No 17)

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. (2017, October 5). SILNA. https://ngaitahu.iwi.nz/our_stories/silna-tk75/

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