Awhiora Nia Nia, GEGAC’s Executive Director Aboriginal Health & Wellbeing. Photo: Jake Lynch/GEGAC

About 800 years ago, a group of Polynesian explorers voyaged thousands of kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean.

Their great ocean-going outrigger canoe was made of two large hulls carved from giant Koa trees,  connected by lashed crossbeams, and it was powered by sails woven from pandanus leaves.

On board was a crew of men, women and children, as well as animals, supplies and crops.

According to Māori tradition, this was the Horouta waka (waka means canoe), the first of the great ocean-going canoes in which Polynesians migrated to New Zealand.

Where this first canoe eventually came ashore was a small, picturesque bay on the east coast of what we now know as New Zealand’s North Island.

The site of this historic landing – known as Tairāwhiti in Māori (Gisborne in Pākehā) – is now a place of enormous cultural significance for the Māori.

It’s also the hometown of Awhiora Nia Nia, GEGAC’s Executive Director Aboriginal Health & Wellbeing, the place where she grew into and learned about her Māori (father’s side) and Tongan (mother’s side) heritage.

“They call Tairāwhiti, ‘the first place to see the sun,’” says Awhiora (pronounced ah-fee-or-a, or ah-fee for short.) “It’s a very special place.”

Awhiora joined GEGAC is this new executive role in August this year, relocating back to Gippsland with her partner, Gerry Pilkington, a Yamatji/Martu/Noongar man.

Awhiora has most recently been in senior leadership positions at Wungening Aboriginal Corporation in Western Australia, an organisation governed by the Noongar community in the Perth metropolitan area.

Prior to that she was the Regional Manager for VincentCare, based in Shepparton.

Now in a role that is focused on how the cultural and spiritual nature of a person, particularly an Indigenous person, has a direct connection to the health and wellbeing of that person, Awhiora’s upbringing in Tairāwhiti provided a profound education on just how inseparable those two sides are.

“My father was a pretty unique person – he was an Anglican Minister, a drug and alcohol counsellor, and a strong leader amongst his Māori people,” Awhiora says. “So he had this really unique perspective, that could see and understand the spiritual and the cultural, but with a health services, clinical background.”

Awhiora’s father was a pioneer back in the 1980s in what was called “cultural therapy.”

Working out of Gisborne Hospital and responding to crisis events and medical emergencies in community, a cultural therapy worker would accompany a clinical assessment worker, and work hand-in-hand with them to develop a more holistic understanding of the client or patient.

That would include things like what was happening in that person’s family or community, their cultural beliefs and needs, and other more personal aspects critical to providing safe and appropriate care.

“Dad could walk in both worlds,” Awhiora says. “And he always taught me that when you can walk confidently in both worlds, you have an extra responsibility to advocate for your people.”

It is notable that this level of sensitivity and cultural awareness was being adopted and accepted in mainstream health services in New Zealand more than 40 years ago.

“There was the understanding that what is good for our Māori people is ultimately good for all of  New Zealand,” Awhiora says. “If we can get it right for the most vulnerable people in community, it benefits everyone.”

Awhiora’s mother ran the Pacific Islands Community Centre in Tairāwhiti, a place where people moving from the islands to New Zealand could come together.

Awhiora worked there too, in her 20s, continuing her deep education into the cultural life of the world’s Indigenous people, herself included.

The example of her parents and her grandparents (“they were always driven by, and worked hard for their community”), and also of her brother, who is the CEO of a national Māori health workforce organisation, illuminated for her a powerful guiding star.

“Your pathway is to be a part of your community, but also to do the best you can by your community,” she says.

That mantra has continued to inform Awhiora as her career has taken her across the ditch to Australia.

“My father said, ‘when you go to Australia, you are a visitor there,’” she says. “Show respect. Do as you would expect others to do here. I always remember Dad’s words, and I have tried to live by them.”

Her work in Australia took her to remote Aboriginal communities around Kalgoorlie, a time she says “opened my eyes to the struggle – to the terrible imbalance in access to basic services and resources.”

The plight of many Aboriginal people was deeply painful for her to see.

“Māori people have always held Aboriginal people in high regard,” Awhiora says. “As Indigenous people there is an unspoken respect, an appreciation of the age of their culture. They are ‘tuakana’ – older sibling.”

Awhiora says that, over the years, the connection between Aboriginal, Māori and Islander people and families has grown stronger, through marriage and friendship and work throughout the region.

But, she says, part of that connection is innate, natural.

“There are things that Indigenous people worldwide have in common. Those are connection to land, to family, and to culture. These are things we know are connected to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people – it is a holistic wellbeing.”

“If the spiritual part of a person is broken, then everything is broken – that’s the most important part,” Awhiora says. “We see broken spirits when we see people in prison, in alcohol and drug dependency, in crisis.”

“Often the people that come through our doors have been through some sort of trauma. Our challenge, our responsibility as an Aboriginal health service, is to work out how we can get at the spiritual part of that person, and how do we get beneath the trauma.”

“Ultimately we need to be working from a trauma-informed practice base, consistent throughout all services. Then we are better placed to heal people’s spirits, so they in turn can live fuller lives, and with improved life outcomes.”

And while Awhiora says GEGAC’s increasing focus on culture in its service delivery is driven and informed by the Aboriginal people of this community, there is an opportunity for people of all backgrounds and cultures to be involved in providing those services.

“We all need each other,” she says. “I don’t want our non-Indigenous friends and partners to ever feel threatened or alienated in the work they do with GEGAC. We are stronger when we have a diverse community. We need to celebrate those differences.”

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