Growing The Puna Alum | Debs Heke

The Toi Tangata Growing the Puna internship is aimed at fostering mātauranga Māori and whanaungatanga between tertiary students, community, and the health sector that provides opportunities for tertiary students to participate in the development of innovative approaches to physical activity and nutrition in kaupapa that has reciprocal benefits to both the student and the health sector.

The Toi Tangata Growing the Puna Internship has been a kaupapa that has grown over the 10 years since its conception. We have had a number of whānau that have come through our Internships and we would like to take this opportunity to celebrate them.

Allow us to introduce the amazing Dr Deborah Heke nō Nga Puhi- Ngati Hineira / Te Uri Taniwha, Te Arawa – Ngati Rangiwewehi. Dr Debs was a successful Growing the Puna summer intern in 2015. She has recently completed her PhD and shares her journey with our kaimahi and Growing the Puna lead, Crystal Pekepo.

What was the theme/topic of your PHD?

The idea was to understand the ways of being and doing of physically active wāhine Māori, in a way that resonated with what it means to be Māori, wahine, and physically active. Part of coming to understand our ways of being and doing, is also about knowing the whakapapa of it. Knowing that sometimes we are the way we are because of the significant people and places we connect to. I wanted to look at how the way we are – as physically active wāhine Māori – is inextricably connected to the way our ancient atua wāhine are. I asked: how do the traits of physically active wāhine Māori connect to atua wahine?

What inspired you to pursue this research topic?

Coincidentally, my time as an intern with Toi Tangata was where this kaupapa was conceived. I was disconnected with te ao Māori and it was uncomfortable being in a space that was so connected with what it meant to be Māori. I embraced that discomfort and decided that I wanted to understand more about te ao Māori. For me, the most logical way to understand something is to engage with it physically, and to a lesser degree “academically”. The idea to do physical activity with wāhine as a way to come to know them was part of my project while undertaking the summer internship. Dr Ihirangi Heke had a part to play in it too, with his kōrero about atua, his mobile wānanga, and the questions he left me pondering about what it all meant.

What were your greatest learnings during your PHD Journey?

There were so many! But the two main ones are: 1) we as Māori have a depth of knowledge that is almost impossible to articulate – at least without the requisite reo. But we also have so many diverse ways of articulating what we know. The PhD is just one of the many ways we can create, curate, conceptualise, and articulate mātauranga… and we don’t necessarily have to do it in ways that perpetuates an institutional knowledge system – you know – we can mix it up. Make the institution shift in order to see things in our ways. And 2) the PhD can be a lonely journey – but there are people out there doing inspiring mahi, in the Māori and Indigenous realms, if you can tap into those realms – it doesn’t have to feel so lonely after all.

Where to from here for Dr Debs?

I am currently a lecturer in the School of Public Health and Interdisciplinary studies at AUT. I have recently been seconded as a Research Fellow to project coordinate an HRC research project looking at the application of maramataka and other taiao based practices for hauora (led by Dr Isaac Warbrick – through Taupua Waiora, centre for Māori health research).

Debs Heke and her tamāhine, Āria.

What are some of Dr Debs’ wise words you would like to share for whānau out there to reach their potential?

Oh mate – I don’t know if I have any wise words. But I got to kōrero with some pretty wise wāhine through my PhD journey (and even through the Toi Tangata project). Some of their wise words culminated in some of the huahuatau that I developed and one of my favourite ones talks about a singing kūmara. I called the trait “te tangi o te kūmara”. This singing kūmara is all about letting the world know about the successes of wāhine and of Māori in general. Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka – is a great whakataukī to help us keep ourselves in check and acknowledges the importance of humility. Te tangi o te kūmara is the other side of that coin – where we can acknowledge our success in a way that resonates and inspires others – so that our success is heard more clearly than the narratives of our deficiencies. It helps to know what’s possible to achieve before we can expect to achieve our potential. How will we know, if we don’t hear about the success of our own? It’s a fine line between a kumara that doesn’t speak and one that sings out loud – but we as active wāhine Māori are well practised in navigating challenging terrain.

One other thing I learnt from the internship with Toi Tangata was that some of the best learning happens when you’re not paying attention or when you’re feeling a bit of discomfort. Like when I crashed Ihi’s moto-x bike by taking my eye off the track but then got hit with the biggest lesson about atua – atua teaches us about how to behave in different environments. Simple stuff but it might not have clicked with me without the opportunity to crack my head on the ground – Papatūānuku gives a mean hongi if you’re not paying attention!