magazine for alumni and friends of Massey University.
Issue 14, April 2002
Professor Chris Cunningham and Te Púmanawa
Dr Chris Cunningham’s academic start was in photochromic
compounds, unpicking the chemistry behind sunglass-tinting
His subsequent career has been about creating lenses to
see public and social policy in a new light, making sure
the range of the spectrum labelled ‘Maori’ can
be seen clearly by the official gaze.
Cunningham, the director of Massey’s Te Pu¯manawa
Hauora Maori Health Research Centre, will ensure there
is a Maori dimension – and a Maori workforce – where
needed across all aspects of the new Research School of Public
From Ngäti Raukawa and Toa Rangatira, Cunningham was
born and raised in the Hutt Valley, entering Victoria University
Back then any Maori student with aptitude was shepherded
into law or medicine. I didn’t want to do that. I did
science, one of few Maori to do so,” Cunningham
After earning his doctorate, Cunningham was “recruited
into the cause” to work for Manatü Maori,
the short-lived Maori policy ministry that replaced
the old Department of Maori Affairs.
The Ministry contained a mix of idealistic university-educated
Maori, many in their first public sector jobs, and
people with some public sector experience. Public policy
was still in its relative infancy, especially in the Maori
area, and staff broke new ground.
“ The stuff I helped develop was a monitoring framework for
the government sector, monitoring responsiveness, how do
you measure outcomes for Maori.
“ When Manutu ended I shifted to the Ministry of Health and
translated that to health; How do you as a provider measure
Maori needs and aspirations? How you measure outcomes
on Maori terms.
“ There are subtle differences. The outcomes for Maori
the mainstream always measures are not the same as Maori
The mainstream measures health, not hauora. It measures physical
health, mental health and independence, where Maori
would want to measure spiritual health and whänau health
and interdependence as well.
“ Hauora is not the Maori word for health. It is a related
but different concept. There are collective and social elements
In 1996 Massey’s head of Maori studies, Mason
Durie, “wandered up to my desk in the Ministry and
asked, ‘Are you happy in your work?’”
He wasn’t unhappy, but the opportunity to build up
a leading-edge Maori research organisation was too
good to pass up.
A PhD is not a load to carry, and if I can assist other people
to get there, I will,” Cunningham says.
Much of his work involves recruiting and supervising Maori
masters and doctoral candidates, which involves challenges
not seen in other parts of the university.
“ The average Maori doctoral candidate is more mature,
with families and mortgages, and they are likely as not in
a reasonably well paid job, so the prospect of becoming a
poor student is no attraction.
We have received help from the Health Research Council, and
we augment that in the school to allow people to spend
three or four years studying.”
Cunningham says by having a research school, Massey provides
much of the infrastructure needed by graduate students and
gives them a collegial environment so they don’t repeat
The structure also allows the school to pass on many of the
methods it has developed for ‘Maori-centred’ research.
“ We do research at the qualitative end, not the quantitative,
which usually depends on good interactions with Maori
respondents and maintaining good relations with communities.
Mason calls it research at the interface, combining orthodox
methodologies with the ability to work with Maori on
Maori issues,” Cunningham says.
Consultation is not something we see as pro forma and a necessary
evil, but it is the way we work every day – so some
Päkehä researchers can contribute to Maori
health and Maori can and do work in the mainstream.
He says public health is the mainstream discipline that comes
closest to what Maori perceive as hauora, and he wants
to strengthen that approach. “Our approach is to take
a true public health focus, how to maintain wellness, how
to invest in keeping well, not what you do when you get crook.
The same conditions which kill all New Zealanders kill Maori – cancer,
heart disease, stroke. You can reduce the relatively high
Maori mortality level by maintaining a level of wellness.
“ That leads to questions of what Maori models can be
used. It is hard to maintain a healthy diet on a low income
because bad food is cheap food. The skill is how do you design
good nutrition around the realities of the food we eat.
Te Pümanawa Hauora has focused on the whänau, with
much of its work fed by a massive longitudinal study of Maori
“ The received wisdom is what distinguishes Maori is
collectivity versus individuality. So what is the collective?
Whänau units have withstood colonialism and urbanisation
much more than hapü and iwi, so that is a collective
you can use. The others are possibly notional for many Maori
The focus on whänau leads to questions about how well
health can span generations. A lot of that has to do with
expectations Maori have of health services.
“ Maori expectations around health are often humble indeed.
When you go to the area of greatest need, the expectation
is to see health professionals occasionally.
The prospects for a whänau taking a well baby to a GP
for a check up to be told they have a well baby, it doesn’t
figure. Rather than being seen as an investment in wellbeing,
health care is something that happens in a crisis.”
He says Maori want research which suggests solutions,
rather than research which describes them as victims and
measures what is wrong.
“ The health system in New Zealand is so different from indigenous
systems elsewhere. Maori health has always been mainstreamed,
it is nothing like Australian Aboriginal or American Indian
systems where people go to different places for health services.
“ Most Maori will encounter mainstream provision, so
the question is how do you make mainstream more sensitive
without misappropriating Maori culture? What will you
do differently tomorrow than you did yesterday?”