Gift of native tree ‘grounding’ for whanau

by Alice Angeloni, Gisborne Herald, published 1st March 2021

Trees for babies: The Women's Native Tree Project nursery manager Kauri Forno (left) with Mokopuna Ora Coordinator Kaniwa Kupenga-Tamarama, pictured with Amaia and Jayden Kupenga-Tamarama. The two organisations have teamed up to provide each newborn in Tairāwhiti with a native tree. Picture by Liam Clayton.

A goal to give every newborn in Tairāwhiti a native tree is guiding whānau home to traditional birthing rituals, a midwife says.

Mokopuna Ora and the Women's Native Tree Project Trust have teamed up to provide each pēpi (baby) in Tairāwhiti with a native tree. It's reconnecting whānau to the tradition of burying the whenua (placenta) which reinforces the relationship between the newborn child and the land, says Mokopuna Ora coordinator Kaniwa Kupenga-Tamarama.

But it's also a way to improve health outcomes, address inequities and broaden the acceptable school of thought within the health system, she says.

The Women's Native Tree Project Trust has donated about 120 native trees to new mamas since the project started about a year ago. The trees are offered to whānau, Māori and Pakeha, and could be planted at the burial site of the whenua, or be a dedication to their newborn depending on the family's tikanga.

“What we're saying to women is, this is a gift from our community to thank you for continuing your whakapapa and that we honour your baby that is to come,” Mrs Kupenga-Tamarama said.

“It starts to remind us of the reciprocal relationship that we have with the earth".

“It's a way of anchoring our children to where we are, or to where they come from".

“And when you think of our ecological climate or landscape, we need to leave some legacy for our children. One of those legacies needs to be connecting them with nature”.

The trees had been given out at hapū (pregnancy) wānanga and similar workshops, but the aim was for community midwives to hand them directly to whānau in the future.

“It's one avenue for improving health outcomes for all. There are a lot more moves to make, but it's just positioning certain things".

“We know that we have a huge problem in our health system of institutional racism, bias, inequities and that it's been there for decades".

“This is a really crucial part in normalising other health paradigms that improve long-term health outcomes and to just start changing and widening the acceptable thought of health and wellbeing,” Mrs Kupenga-Tamarama said.

It follows the introduction of wahakura, a woven flax basket, to address high rates of Sudden Unexplained Death in Infants (SUDI).

About 40 to 60 babies die of SUDI each year, with the main risk factors being smoking while pregnant, bed-sharing in an unsafe way and the position of babies when they're sleeping.

Tairāwhiti, once an area with one of the country's highest rates of SUDI, was starting to see a decline in the numbers, Mrs Kupenga-Tamarama said the Ministry of Health in 2019 reported the SUDI rate for Gisborne-Tairawhiti was 2.2 per 1000 births against the national average of 0.7 per 1000 births. Since the introduction of the wahakura, that create a safe distance between baby and their parents in bed, rates of SUDI have dropped by nearly 30 percent across New Zealand. Mrs Kupenga-Tamarama hoped the decline would be evident in data released by the Ministry of Health later this year.

Kauri Forno, nursery manager at The Women's Native Tree Project, said they had started growing more kowhai after it had proved popular among whānau.

The kaupapa of The Woman's Native Tree Project was about looking after and replanting Papatūānuku, mother earth in native trees.

“I think that connection between the baby and the tree is exactly what we want to support,” she said.

A 2012 Massey University thesis by Dr Jane Stojanovic said that by the 1930s, Māori childbirth practice, wisdom and tikanga was becoming devalued and “colonised” by the medical system. By the end of the 1900s, Māori had effectively lost their tikanga with respect to childbirth, a contributing writer said. This included the whenua being taken away and burned.

Teone Taare Tikao, a respected rangatira of Te Waipounamu who died in 1927, said this practice was against the mana of the child and would destroy its mauri (life force).

Concerns about the birth and treatment of the whenua were not recognised by the overwhelming pakeha medical institutions until the late 1980s when the whenua began to be offered to the women and their whānau, Dr Stojanovic said in her thesis.

Mrs Kupenga-Tamarama believed the gifting of trees could “ground” whānau.

“If we look at our history, we've got a lot of Māori whānau who were pushed out of their own whenua (land). This is one way of trying to settle the whānau, by grounding them,” she said.

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