Indigenous Optometry

I presented to the LIOEN ‘Leaders in Indigenous Optometry Education Network’ today and I gained some awesome kōrero and insight from the Indigenous speakers such as Professor Gregory Phillips, Renata Watene – Māori Optometrist, Dr Kristopher Rallah-Baker and Shannon Davis – first Aboriginal woman Optometrist. Greg opened by asking “How did we care for our eyes before western eye care?” As indigenous peoples we had our own ways of healing and health practice long before colonisers came to our shores and these practices have been violently stolen from us, but not all is lost.

Renta spoke about feeling removed from her culture through her training in Optometry where she had to leave being Māori at home. University was and still is an unsafe cultural place. She described this as ‘White systems in brown clothes’. She said that we need systems of education, support and development that are created not simply described. Meaning we can’t continue to support practices of inaction any longer, support must be hands on, actionable, holistic and generational.

We need to improve student retention and completion rates. Invest in student wrap around services such as tutoring, counselling, study support, financial support and pastoral care. Universities need to change from a colonial lens to Indigenous epistemology. As Renata highlighted Indigenous knowledges existed well before colonisation stating that “What’s good for Māori is good for everyone”.

Kristopher from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association called out “Racism Kills”, and we need to be calling out racism when it happens. If systems are not set up to make people accountable for their actions, just like clinicians can be held accountable for their clinical practice – racism will continue to be tolerated. He spoke about needing to commit to life long learning around cultural safety, just as there is a commitment to updating scientific rigour. We also need champions that foster best practice, cultural safety and policies that make racism a public health issue.

Shannon spoke from the heart saying that “You cant be what you can’t see”. Meaning that exposure of eye health, eye health messages and eye testing needs to be embedded within communities through eye health being part of early childhood health checks, school programs and eye checks recommended by GPs.

We need Indigenous leadership spaces that are led by Indigenous thought. There are only 4 Māori Optometrists in Aotearoa and 11 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Optometrists in Australia. We have faced a 180 years of violence, powerlessness and assimilation and we must move away from aspirational talk to intentional action.

Wiremu Kingi 8 years old

Addressing the challenges to be faced in developing the Māori health workforce are not new. We are aware that Māori only make up 1-5% of the allied health workforce. When Ngā Pou Mana – Tangata Whenua Allied Health members were surveyed in 2019, 90% report feeling isolated, unsupported, undervalued and  fearful when challenged by institutional racism, discrimination and a lack of cultural safety.

. . . Every day spent waiting to find voice is another day that bears witness to preventable death. The price of our collective failure continues to be borne by the most vulnerable: the impoverished, the marginalised, the oppressed and those who have had their systems of control and authority undermined by colonisation and its intergenerational impacts. 

Brown, et al., 2010, p. 265

At the very least we need to commit to:

  1. Development and use of kaupapa Māori frameworks; 
  2. Creation of environments that foster whakawhanaungatanga (relationships and sense of belonging) to support student involvement; 
  3. Engagement with student whānau and communities to help build understanding around the education space and academic requirements; 
  4. Provision of culturally safe academic and learning support, staff – both Māori and non-Māori, and culturally safe learning environments; 
  5. Creation of opportunities to build Māori leadership and a commitment to raising Māori achievement; 
  6. Development of accurate data collection, tracking and evaluation; and 
  7. Building opportunities for the student to have a voice and participate in the evaluation process.


Published by Tākuta Teah

Indigenous woman, partner, māmā, sister, daughter, aunty, artist, story catcher/teller, researcher, evaluator and academic. I draw on these identities to express, connect and articulate kotahitanga, mana motuhake and aroha.

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