Māori trauma: How one teacher is inspiring others to change

Māori trauma: How one teacher is inspiring others to change

The lives of all children are shaped by their upbringing. But a Waikato Institute of Technology lecturer who told his own remarkable story during a visit to NMIT, says Māori are paying the price of historical trauma.
maori historical trauma and traditional forms of healing talk
Raewyn Laurenson, Coordinating tutor counselling and Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena

The lives of all children are shaped by their upbringing. But a Waikato Institute of Technology lecturer who told his own remarkable story during a visit to NMIT, says Maori are paying the price of historical trauma.

Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena is teaching others to understand his ‘purakau’ theory – showing how Māori deficits in many areas of life are a consequence of inter-generational trauma dating back to European colonisation.

Rawiri traces his own painful, dysfunctional upbringing to the experiences of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. His epiphany came while he was in prison, serving 11 years for killing a man.

Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena’s transformation to becoming an inspirational teacher includes his PhD thesis on how “historical inter-generational trauma and colonisation” has led to Māori being over-represented in statistics for imprisonment, crime, poverty, family violence and unemployment and poor health.

NMIT counselling and social work teams heard from the Waikato-born, Tainui-raised teacher in a professional development training session recently.

He spoke about ‘Takitoru,’ a framework developed to support Māori counselling students to understand the impacts of historical intergenerational trauma across generations.

The focus of this framework examines unseen contributing factors supporting deficit statistics that continue to dominate Māori communities. Essentially students are invited to participate and interpret personal genealogy in the context of colonisation to explore influences and effects.

As part of his PhD, Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena explored his own family history to find a harsh pattern of what he calls “inter-generational impoverishment.” For his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and himself that lead to an increasing alienation from their roots; lack of cultural identity, language, cultural and whakapapa heritage and understanding of tikanga/kawa.

The start of the loss of Māori identity was his great-grandfather being exiled from Waikato to the King Country after fighting the British in 1863. He was brought up in a Māori culture and economy, part of a caring collective. Rawiri says he died a pauper at 100 years old.

His grandfather was taken away by social welfare at age 10 and put into an English-speaking school. He was caned for speaking Māori. He fought in WW2 but moved away from Māori culture for western religion and refused to teach his own children Māori.

Rawiri’s father became part of the new urban Māori, the “Once Were Warriors” generation as Rawiri puts it. His father under-valued anything Māori, didn’t learn tikanga cultural heritage, put friends before family and beat his wife and children. He was part of the re-settlement of Māori from country to town. Māori learned their traditions, their values on the marae. “There were no marae in the cities, so the pub became the marae and, for me, that became the Once Were Warriors generation.” His father pushed away the traditions, the language.

Rawiri and his siblings and mother were beaten and he ended up in foster homes and boys’ homes from the age of five to 16. At 18 he killed a man who he saw beating his own son and spent 11 years in prison, convicted for murder.

It was to be the start of Rawiri’s transformation, his journey of discovery about himself and the generations before him.

“I tried to figure out why I was there. I started to review my life and decided I had to take accountability for my own actions that had taken an innocent person’s life. My actions had also injured my own family.”

Rawiri started to learn, starting with learning to read and write. One of the first things he did on his release was to find the family of the man he’d killed. “I wanted not only to apologise for what I’d done but actually work with them on their healing journey.” That began when they shared their stories in the Waikato Times.

Then Rawiri says he needed to focus on the “deficit legacies” of my own family. “I decided the best thing I could do was get into education, go to the very top and so I decided to become a doctor.  Once I did that I could change the deficit legacy by creating a new legacy, not only for my family to be proud of but also for future generations.”

Rawiri has become in high demand and he teaches throughout the country; in psychology at Waikato Universities, in social service agencies and in prisons. He has worked with gang members and seen the success of their learning about the impacts of intergenerational trauma. Some gang members responded by having laser surgery to remove tattoos, leaving their gangs and getting married. “Their families have become their top priority.” One young woman, featured on the Native Affairs programme on Māori TV was inspired by Rawiri’s story. “She had a similar story to my own but she decided to get into education. She’s now doing a masters and is set to do a PhD.”

Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena says education is the answer to dealing with the deficits traced back to generational trauma.

“It’s not about taking away the accountability of people – in prisons, for example. “It is just contextualising their stories. Then we can start to develop strategies and practices to help them move forward.

“We have come a long way since the 80s and 90s but we still have a fair way to go. I was lucky to sit in Waitangi Tribunal hearing and hear just how far we have come but we are still dealing with dominant views and dominant powers who, as part of the equality process, have to give up power. There’s still that struggle and resistance there.

Dr Waretini-Karena is inspiring people to make big changes in their lives by first looking at the environment they’ve been raised in. “It’s about inspiring people to look back into their authenticity and speak from their truth. My PhD has a saying: ‘we grow up in the face of our history, born into environments constructed by others.’”

Rawiri has no children of his own to teach. “People ask me why not and I answer ‘because this thing has become bigger for me.

“It’s a slow process and it’ll probably take me the rest of my life because these things we’re experiencing have been going on for 200 years.”

Dr Waretini-Karena was visiting NMIT as part of our Paetahi Tumu Kōrero Bachelor of Counselling and Bachelor of Social Work programmes run in partnership with Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) where Dr Waretini-Karena is a lecturer.

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