Gods, whānau, body parts – making sense of health with whakapapa

Whakapapa is about relationships, not just relations, and can help us understand our all-round wellbeing, explains columnist Te Miri Rangi.

Whakapapa describes a person’s genealogy, lineage or descent. It helps identify the relationships we share with others in to an organised system. Intimate knowledge of whakapapa was integral in traditional Māori society for not only maintaining social structures but also strengthening relationships with others. A well connected hapū could gain access to particular rivers for fishing, fertile land for growing gardens, or even call upon the help of a neighbouring tribe in times of war. Given that the wealth and health of a tribe was maintained through relationships, knowledge of one’s whakapapa was highly important. For this reason, whakapapa was considered a taonga, but have we forgotten how to use whakapapa to our advantage in the modern world?

The interesting thing about whakapapa is that many of us today would only consider the human relationships that we share with each other. But the holistic worldview of Māori accepts a universal indigenous truth that recognises the relationship existing between the individual and their natural environment. Whakapapa describes a Māori lineage that extends beyond human relationships, a lineage that reflects the Māori creation narratives of Rangi-nui and Papatūānuku. These are the narratives that relate the individual to mountains, rivers, trees and even birds as a part of larger extended family. This strengthens the bond between the individual and the natural world, and just like human relationships, guides behaviours and interactions that ensure mutually beneficial outcomes.

Wetini Mitai and Niwareka. Image: Getty

Regional proverbs fall out of these whakapapa based relationships. In the Whanganui you will hear the whakatauākī, or saying, Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au / I am the river and the river is me. The Whanganui river is literally considered an extension of the people of that region, bound together through whakapapa. Similarly, each rohe or region speaks about their own area by acknowledging their ancestral landmarks, such as mountains and rivers, before recognising their human tūpuna. This reflects the genealogical descent from Rangi-nui and Papatūānuku all the way down to the individual. It also highlights the tuakana-teina relationship that contributes to our understanding of the impact that environmental factors can have on individual wellbeing.

The narratives passed down through generations of oral story-telling, haka, and waiata, carry whakapapa that can guide and inform our behaviour and practice. For example, during the creation of the first woman Hine-ahu-one by Tāne and others, it is discovered that her various body parts are associated with a number of the children of Rangi-nui and Papatūānuku. The lungs are connected with the atua of the winds, Tāwhiri-mātea; the muscles are connected with the atua of man and war, Tū-mata-uenga; the water that flows through us is connected with the atua of the ocean, Tangaroa; while the mind is connected with the atua of the acquisition of knowledge, Tāne. This tells me that our body is formed out of a complex set of internal relationships that together allow my tinana to function. For Māori, the lungs, muscles, fluid, mind and even the spirit cannot be separated and targeted in isolation. Rather, we have to consider the whakapapa that exists between these atua and within our tinana, and address the whole system together as an interrelated whānau.

Whakapapa has the potential to add another dimension to our understanding of the world. These genealogies and connections that we understand about the natural world can help guide our behaviours to improve our wellbeing. Knowing the whakapapa of the food we are eating and the impact it has on our tinana will keep us away from unhealthy processed kai, and direct us towards whakapapa enhanced kai. These relationships and connections are all around us and whakapapa is but one means to help identify behaviours that put our wellbeing at risk, or present opportunities for enhancing one’s hauora. Whakapapa is not merely our human lineage, it encompasses all the many forms of relationships that we share across our lives. Our individual health and wealth, and that of our whānau, is still heavily influenced by the relationships we have today as they did traditionally. So perhaps the key to health is recognising the art of whakapapa and acknowledging the many connections we make with people and the world.

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