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Pleasurable experiences in nature can lead to the development of a positive attitude and active engagement with the natural world. Conversely, an unpleasant experience early in life can put a person off the outdoors. While formative experiences may be a predictor of one’s attitude to the natural world, other factors shape our connections in subtle but powerful ways (Brown & Fraser, 2009; Hill & Brown, 2014). The absence, overt denial or ‘substitution’ of the natural world can undermine the development of connections with nature. We see this, for example, when road construction destroys habitats or where the ‘unpredictability’ of nature is substituted for indoor reconstructions (indoor ski slopes, for instance).

We are also increasingly aware of the effects of colonisation on indigenous peoples’ longstanding connection to particular places and their identity. In Aotearoa New Zealand the confiscation of land – and the associated dislocation (physical and spiritual) – has a direct and long-lasting impact on health and wellbeing, not only for those who are immediately displaced, but for future generations. The effects ripple through the wider society (Durie, 1997; Reid & Robson, 2007).[1]

‘In Aotearoa New Zealand the confiscation of land – and the associated dislocation (physical and spiritual) – has a direct and long-lasting impact on health and wellbeing, not only for those who are immediately displaced, but for future generations.’

In Aotearoa New Zealand there has been an ongoing effort to redress the injustices brought about by prolonged neglect of the legally binding treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi) signed in 1840 by representatives of the crown and Māori leaders. Central to redressing these injustices has been the acknowledgement of an iwi’s (tribe’s) spiritual connection and special standing in their land. The intimate connection to land is expressed in the term tangata whenua (people of the land). Whenua is the word used to describe both land and the placenta. It is customary in Māori tradition to bury the placenta (whenua) in a place of significance to the family (whānau). As a result, people (tangata) are linked individually and collectively through human actions and interactions with the land (whenua) as one (Brown & Heaton, 2015). As tangata whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand: the person is the earth, the earth is the person (Royal, 2002).

This worldview encompasses a broader set of relationships based on shared genealogy (whakapapa) and kinship connections (whanaungatanga) that extend to both the human and more-than-human worlds. In areas where an iwi has established authority and rights, they exercise kaitiakitangi (trusteeship or guardianship) of the environment. Implicit in this network of relationships are four components of wellbeing (hauora); spiritual wellbeing (taha wairua), social wellbeing (taha whānau), mental and emotional wellbeing (taha hinengaro), and physical wellbeing (taha tinana), each one influencing and supporting the other.

The bicultural foundations contained in Te Tiriti o Waitangi underpin the need to recognise indigenous ways of connecting to the land in the New Zealand context. The all too brief outline of some key concepts illustrates the need to understand how connection to land is intrinsically connected to wellbeing. For as Park (1995) reminds us ‘a sense of place is a fundamental human need’ (p. 320).

History has taught us to be cautious in the application or imposition of cultural practices in contexts where they were not originally developed. The challenge is to find culturally appropriate frameworks and practices that meet the needs of the people that we serve. As we look to the future, we will need to broaden our understandings of our relationship of the natural world. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori knowledge systems (Mātauranga), built over generations through careful observation and an awareness of human impact on the environment, enrich and inform Western science. For example, Hikuroa (2009) has demonstrated how traditional narratives and place-naming show evidence that the Māori knew that geothermal sources followed subterranean pathways. He demonstrated this by overlaying the narrative on a geothermal map of the Taupō Volcanic Zone. By being respectful and open to different ways of knowing, we can enhance our understanding of the local environments, and honour and celebrate the knowledge that is valued in our communities, thereby enhancing wellbeing. The disruption to ‘business as usual’, due to restrictions imposed by the global pandemic, may provide opportunities to build new relationships with the people of the land. It is in building connections that we are most likely to find a common way forward to make the changes necessary to thrive in a sustainable manner.

[1] As a non-Māori academic, I am conscious that I cannot truly represent a Māori perspective. I am only able to convey my journey of including Mātauranga Māori within my teaching. I am grateful to colleagues who have assisted me on this path.


Brown, M., & Heaton, S. (2015). Ko ahau te awa ko te awa ko ahau [I am the river, and the river is me]. In M. Robertson, R. Lawrence, & G. Heath (Eds.), Experiencing the outdoors: Enhancing strategies for wellbeing (pp. 49–60). Sense.

Brown, M., & Fraser, D. (2009). Re-evaluating risk and exploring educational alternatives. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 9(1), 61–77.

Durie, M. (1997). Identity, nationhood and implications for practice in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 26(2), 32–38.

Hikuoa, D. (2009, August 14). Integrating indigenous knowledge with science. Paper presented at the 2009 Seminars, NPM Media Centre, New Zealand.

Hill, A., & Brown, M. (2014). Intersections between place, sustainability and transformative outdoor experiences. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 14(3), 217–232.

Park, G. (1995). Nga uruora: The groves of life. Victoria University Press.

Reid, P., & Robson, B. (2007). Understanding health inequities. In B. Robson, & R. Harris (Eds.), Hauora: Māori standards of health IV. A study of the years 2000–2005, (pp. 3–10). Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora A Eru Pōmare.

Royal, C. (2002). Some notes on oral and indigenous thought and knowledge. A paper delivered to the Otaki Oral History Forum, Otaki, 16 November.