Dr Ihirangi Heke

Tomarata resident Ihirangi Heke was kicked out of school at 15, but went on to earn a PhD and become a globally recognised expert on indigenous health and its connection to the environment. He spoke to James Addis …

I’m from Tauhei, which is near Hamilton, so my iwi connections are there. But I grew up in Queenstown. My father is buried in Arrowtown and my brother died there this year, so I have a lot of close connections there, too. I had a great childhood down there. I played rugby and ice hockey and took part in 100km long distance runs. I would ski all winter and mountain bike all summer. The mountains were right in my backyard so I was out in the hills all the time. I attended Wakatipu High School, but back then I had no interest in academic study. I just played sport and did nothing else. I only turned up when a game was on. The principal said I was not really cut out for academic pursuits, and I was expelled from school when I was 15.  It did not seem to hold me back. I worked for the next 10 years in the building industry – mainly stone masonry. It was a great job and pretty physical, which I enjoyed. But then I went for a job with Telecom, and they said I needed School Cert maths. It seemed odd to me that I could not dig a hole for a power pole unless I had maths, but it made me think I should take study more seriously. I enrolled in Otago University as an adult student at 25. That first year was a disaster. I didn’t really know what or how to study and I failed all the papers. Disheartened, I went back to work for another two years. Then, about 1989, I bumped into one of my old lecturers. Although I only got a C minus in the paper he taught, he had faith in me. He said if we could find something to study at university that inspired me, I would do okay.

So I went back and joined the Maori Studies department and suddenly I found the study challenging and enjoyable. This time I flew through my degree and embarked on a second degree and then another and another. After each degree, my confidence grew, and I thought, ‘I’m capable of doing more’. Now I have six degrees in Maori studies, education, educational psychology, physical education and environmental science. For my PhD, I specialised in sports psychology. That interested me because as I mentioned I had participated in extreme long-distance running when I was younger, and I was curious to know what kind of stress it would cause both physically and mentally. I came to realise that anything that requires some effort will usually start from a physical perspective, but it will shift to a psychological one pretty quickly. After the first two or three hours people depend on their brain more than their muscle. Whatever the brain decides, that is what the body is going to do. I took up a post with the New Zealand Academy of Sport and began working with athletes from a whole range of different sports.

Because I had done a lot of really tough mental and physically demanding activities when I was younger, I never expected an athlete to do something that I had not done myself. So I had a pretty good idea of what they would be capable of. Some of those I worked with went on to play in national teams such as the Silver Ferns, others won national titles and two went on to become world champions in motocross.  

But the range of my studies has led me into other fields as well. I’ve worked with Johns Hopkins University and Washington University on the health of indigenous populations, and this is where my background in environmental science has become enormously helpful. The biggest area of concern for these people is preventable disease – particularly diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The trouble is, indigenous people have been trying to adjust to a “person centred” approach to health, which blames the individual person for their inability to make healthy choices and accuses them of being a drag on society. For this reason, health has often become a dirty word in these communities – something that’s used to punish and control them. But indigenous groups are not “person centred”, they are “environment centred”. Here’s the kicker that a lot of people are surprised about. We’re finding that when we lose biodiversity, we lose our health, we lose our language and we lose our culture. Why?

Because we stop using language associated with particular plants or animals, we stop doing activities that engage with the environment and we lose all the culture that goes along with those activities. For example, if you go to South Auckland now, you are never more than 500 metres from a fast food outlet.

Whereas in the past you went into the ocean or out into the bush to eat. We’ve created food deserts and food swamps. Places where people can’t eat healthily even if they want to.

So, this is where I am trying to make changes. I take groups out into the bush or to the ocean or lakes, and I will talk to them about what is going on there. In a way it is health by stealth because they don’t know they are moving the whole time. They don’t know they are having to be physically active, and the gains are huge both psychologically and physically.

As it happens, the environmental approach has captured the interest of policy makers in the United States because it’s blatantly obvious current approaches aren’t working. Take gym membership. Most people join up in January after making a New Year’s Resolution and most gyms make all their money in the first three weeks of the year, but after that they are empty.  That’s because trying to connect with a gym is difficult. Whereas we can enjoy going to our favourite beach or our favourite river and so on.

Right now, I’m working with six schools creating Google Earth virtual tours, to help students become better connected with their environment. The tours identify six places of importance within their district.

What types of nutrition and physical activity used to be available there and what is available now?

I’m also on the Board of Trustees of Mahurangi College and involved in turning an area of native bush next to the school into a “living classroom”, where students learn about biodiversity and help improve it by removing noxious weeds and pests, monitoring water quality and replanting with native species. At the same time, their health improves as they walk around getting to know the bush.

What gives me confidence is to see progress made by other indigenous communities around the world in places like Ireland, Japan and on the reservations in the United States. Last year, I was in Wisconsin where the Menominee people have successfully sustained their forests for 8000 years and people from the Amazon come to study how they have done it.   

I believe things can be turned around otherwise I would not be working in the field, but unless we concentrate on what is happening in our environment, we have no hope of changing the individual. This is especially true for indigenous peoples, but also true for everybody. Take obesity. It’s coming after everybody. The projections are that in 25 years some countries run the risk of becoming bankrupt because of obesity. It is a bigger threat than terrorism, smoking and alcohol combined. In New Zealand, we have the third highest prevalence of obesity in the world, and it’s especially prevalent among Maori. In some schools, we have got kids who are seven years old who are suffering from diabetes because they are so overweight. My brother weighed 160 kilos and died at 53 from diabetes. How did I escape that? Well, he had a very different upbringing from me. When my family split up, I headed to the South Island with my father and he remained in the North Island with my mother. My family has a number of connections with gangs, and at one point, my brother was a prospect for the Mongrel Mob. But I was never exposed to any of that. The mountains were where I lived. I was out in the bush a lot. I was out running and cycling and so on. I made my own fun out in the hills. But things could so easily have gone the other way.