Saturday, April 13, 2024

Sir Richard Faull honoured for contributions to Māori and neuroscience

University of Auckland Distinguished Professor, Sir Richard Faull, has received a korowai and tokotoko for his contributions to Māori and neuroscience in a ceremony held recently at Waipapa marae.

Sir Richard – a Distinguished Professor of Anatomy, and Director of the Centre for Brain Research at Waipapa Taumata Rau – is a pioneering figure in neurological science and is also recognised for addressing the cultural sensitivities between Māori traditions and neurological research.

In the late 1980’s, he discovered that the gap in Māori participation in brain science was due to tīkanga Māori, the ethical understanding that the head, including the brain, is tapu (sacred) and not to be tampered with.

In the early-1990s, Sir Richard collaborated with longtime friends, Tainui kaumātua Eru Thompson and Te Kaanga Skipper, and Tumuaki Professor Papaarangi Reid, to develop a whakanoa (a ritual to lift the tapu), hoping to implement it into the university’s mandate to support tauira Māori.

“It was a decision met with much opposition and resistance at the time, but it is now a mandatory practice that we conduct at the start of every year before our medical students begin their medical studies,” Sir Richard says.

“In the early stages, it was just for Māori and gradually included Pacific students, as it was something they wanted to be a part of too. We have come a long way since then.”

His efforts to introduce the whakanoa demonstrate a profound respect for tīkanga Māori, ultimately leading to a groundbreaking practice now standard at the university.

Sir Richard in his korowai, holding Aumangea (tokotoko). Photo / Sav Schulman
Sir Richard in his korowai, holding Aumangea (tokotoko). Photo / Sav Schulman

“We view every brain bequest as an invaluable gift to medicine and science. We are merely the humble custodians and recognise that the brain tissue always belongs to the owner’s whānau. I think that’s what makes this research very special.”

It’s also opened pathways for critical and ethical discussions on how brain research can be conducted, based on expert advice and support from Māori—a process Sir Richard describes as “the right thing to do.”

“The Centre for Brain Research was built on the ethos of community engagement. This means collaboration with neurological scientists, clinicians, iwi, and hapū. When I realise the significance of my whakapapa, it’s my tīpuna who are telling me to do this. We are the reservoirs of knowledge for the community—we’re here for the people.”

Sir Richard credits much of the support to his iwi and hapū, who financially enabled him to progress as far as he has.

The Taranaki Māori Trust Board contributed to funding Sir Richard to pursue advanced research into Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in the United States.

“I was very humbled by the offer to support me and didn’t think I deserved it. At the time, I wasn’t fully immersed in my whakapapa, but their words to me were, ‘you will come home’. Such simple words, yet I did not understand at the time how profound they were.”

Sir Richard was also bestowed with a tokotoko named Aumangea, crafted by master carver Rangi Bailey of Te Ātiawa.

The word ‘aumangea’ is a Taranaki kupu that translates to strength, leadership, championship, and wisdom. A tokotoko is only given to those considered of high status, commonly seen with kaumātua sitting on the paepae.

Aumangea is a testament to Sir Richard’s influence and status within the community. The intricate carvings narrate his ties to the land of Taranaki, his whānau, and the hapū of Ngāti Rahiri and Te Ātiawa.

For Sir Richard, he says the recognition surpasses any academic accolade, describing the ceremony as “the most wonderful, special day of my life which will live on in my heart and in my whānau for ever,” a true coronation in its emotional depth and significance.

Deputy Director Māori of the Centre for Brain Research, Dr Makarena Dudley.
Deputy Director Māori of the Centre for Brain Research, Dr Makarena Dudley.

Deputy Director Māori of the Centre for Brain Research, Dr Makarena Dudley, says Sir Richard “walks the talk” when it comes to addressing inequities in Māori brain health.

“In the time I have worked with Richard, I have sensed his passion for Māori. His pride in his whakapapa has profoundly impacted our mission for equity in brain health,” Makarena adds.

“From the far reaches of Kaitaia to the southernmost tips of Invercargill, we are on a mission to meet with nearly 800 marae to engage, to listen, and to serve the needs of Māori communities.

“Under Richard’s leadership, we’ve created initiatives to expand Māori involvement and inclusivity. We have a Māori Advisory Board, two Māori PhD scholarships awarded each year, and careers within the Centre for Brain Research.

“This would not be possible without Richard—he is a Rangatira in every sense of the word.”

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