For Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki ‘the embrace of our ancestors’ refers to the need for Māori psychologists to return to the knowledge of their ancestors.
Dr Waitoki and her team believe that a flourishing Māori psychology resides in mātauranga Māori Indigenous knowledge. The embrace of our ancestors refers to the shape of the wharenui as an ancestor, and as a repository of knowledge. The embrace is also a space of awhi where Māori worldviews are embraced as legitimate, meaningful and valuable. The embrace is not just a specific situation, it goes right back to how people have handled things in the past, and have also got well in the past.
The Royal Society has awarded her team $859,000 in Marsden funding for the project: The embrace of our ancestors: reimagining and recontextualising mātauranga Māori in psychology.
If you ask Dr Waitoki why the research is worth close to a million dollars, she’ll tell you it’s because they are changing the way psychology is viewed. She believes that is worth way more than than any dollar figure you can put on it. “We are saying that health and wellbeing is not an individual biological thing, just you reacting to the world. We’re saying that matauranga Māori can inform psychological theory and practice because when Māori finish their training, we return to Māori knowledge to find ways to work with our people. We are asking about the nature of that embrace, what do we return to, and how do we use our ancestral knowledge? We are looking deeper into our knowledge base: at our arts, technologies, language, relationships and cosmologies. Currently, Māori worldviews aren’t understood in mainstream psychology and tend to get marginalised and fragmented. This happens around the world, where Indigenous knowledge is sidelined. Psychology has been professionalised so much that it is unaffordable, and unrecognisable to those who are not part of its development."
A couple of facts help illustrate the inequities that Māori experience:
- Māori are under-represented in psychology programmes in terms of academic positions, teaching content and student enrolments.
- Māori make up 50% of the prison population. The Department of Corrections employs 12 Māori psychologists out of a total 164 psychologists.
- Māori comprise over 60% of children and young people in the custody of the Ministry of Social Development, and over 65% of children and young people in Care and Protection residences. The Ministry employs one Māori psychologist out of a total of 14.
Dr Waitoki says the current Western system of psychology is not working. “Western psychology, the teaching, the practice, the regulation, has let us down. Maori have tried for 30 or 40 years to say this is our psychology, this is our worldview, this is what we need. This project is about returning to our psychological knowledge that has been fragmented because colonisation continues to do its job."
The other principal investigator on the project, Dr Maree Roche refers to how, through intent to include, people have actually moved towards tokenisation. “For example in a recent meeting someone asked if we’d like to start with a karakia - little tokenist things. A lot of it doesn’t come through bad intent, it’s just been shopped out there as being the resource you use in this situation.”
So what’s the fundamental difference between Western based psychology and Māori based psychology?
Dr Waitoki says a Maori-based psychology is an Indigenous psychology. "At its heart is the determination to promote our own psychological knowledge base and to ensure that our heritage is carried into the future. The search for an Indigenous psychology challenges the very notion of what mainstream psychology means, and its relevance for Māori”. She adds that a central feature of an Indigenous psychology is relationality. “We look to our wellbeing from the perspective of our relationship to others, to our environment and its interconnections. We don't put the problem inside the person. The issue is that something has gone wrong relationally, that something needs addressing relationally. We say the reason you’re in a mental health institution is because you’ve got bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues, those are the issues we’re trying to fix. But actually you need to backtrack to trauma, to experiences of racism, to institutionalised care, and just falling, or being pushed, through the cracks in every instances in your past life.”
During the three year project, the team will use a kaupapa Māori approach to shine a light on the places invisible to Western psychology. They’ll look at the repositories of Māori traditional knowledge held in place like archives, museum and marae. And, of course, people. They will talk to 100 psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists, elders and healers. They’ll produce some tangible things, but it will be the intangible they have the highest ambitions for. Dr Waitoki says she would like Māori to see themselves in psychology. “If you’re a Māori psychologist you’re going to see you are valued, you are acknowledged, your parents and your ancestors are valued.”
The conversation with Waikaremoana Waitoki and Maree Roche
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This conversation has been lightly edited for ease of reading.
Waikaremoana: The title of the project is in the embrace of our ancestors. Our Māori knowledge used everywhere, in all our potential healing spaces. But it is really fragmented, because colonization has done its job. In the embrace is our whare tupuna, our ancestral house, which is metaphorically and symbolically an ancestor. The central pole in the house I see as the umbilical cord. That ancestral framework uses knowledge that is evidence-based traditional knowledge. I say it is evidence-based because we use it all the time. When we try to do psychology as it is understood now, in Western terms, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Western Psychology has let us down - the teaching, the practice, the regulation, have let us down. We have tried for 30 or 40 years to say this is our psychology, this is our worldview, this is what we need. We have written about it, talked about it, and presented on it, yet it is still marginalized knowledge. So, it is really about saying you guys do your psychology and we’ll do ours. We experience psychology in a monocultural way because we have to leave our knowledge and culture at the door, but when it is needed it gets brought in.”
Maree: It gets tokenized. It’s like let's start with a karakia. You’re going through mental health services, there are little tokenist things. A lot of it doesn’t come through bad intent, but it has just been shopped out there as being the resource you use in this situation.
What’s the big difference between a western based psychology and a Māori based psychology?
Waikaremoana: The relationality is the fundamental difference. A really good example is death and grieving. That’s a healing space. When you are grieving you need a support network around you, and people to organize the priest, the funeral home, the food, the visitors, everything. You need people to cry for you, and to talk to you about that person. It’s not just about having someone away from you for two or three days and then brought out, and you’re detached from that. Even Pakeha want to grieve with that person. So, in terms of relationality, we don't put the problem inside the person. The issue is that something has gone wrong relationally, and that something needs fixing relationally. With our drug and alcohol rates, with our incarceration rates, it’s systemic. Māori are told the reason you’re in a mental health institution is because you’ve got bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues, those are the problems we’re trying to fix. But we need to actually backtrack to trauma, to the effects of ongoing racism, institutionalisation, and even just falling through, or being pushed through the cracks in their life.
How would something like schizophrenia fit in?
Waikaremoana: It would be seen in the same way as any other condition. But we’re not going to just heavily medicate you. This isn’t a Māori problem, it’s a problem with the system. People live in poverty and that can be changed. That’s not an individual biological thing. People actually get stressed and unwell because of their living conditions, and you change the living conditions and their wellness is going to improve. Or if it is a biological issue, if you resource the family and you provide a wrap-around service for the family, they are going to be able to look after the person better. If the system can help you, you can recover faster and you are more likely to have longer periods of recovery. Māori are more likely to be given the heavy drugs, more likely to be given the diagnosis, more like to have a system of care that doesn’t include their world view. We are saying that actually makes them more unwell.
Why is your research important. Why is it worth over $800 000?
Waikaremoana: Because we’re changing the way psychology is viewed. We are saying it is not an individual biological thing, just you reacting to the world. We’re saying ta moko, a tattoo can heal you. We’re saying a personal trainer can heal you. We’re NOT saying if you’ve got psychosis you need to go see a personal trainer, but we’re saying the knowledge held in the community can inform a psychology. We are looking at our weaving, art, carving, leadership models, the things that already happen. We have professionalized ourselves so much we don’t look at those things any more.
Maree: It’s also an historical understanding of the person. It’s not you or what you think, or any of those things in isolation. It’s actually the context. It gets back to that embrace. In my mind that embrace is not just a specific situation, it goes right back to how people have handled things in the past, and have also got well in the past.
Waikaremoana: The real thing for me is that the psychology we have is not making a difference. That’s the fundamental of why $800,000. Psychologists get trained in a system that is Western, it is imported knowledge. Māori Knowledge is marginalized in that system. Māori are 5% of the academic workforce, we’re 15% of the population, and over 50% in the negative statistics across the board. That psychology model doesn't work for us. To the extent that there is a Waitangi Tribunal claim that is a direct challenge to the systems that support a mainstream psychology that has failed or seen Māori go backwards.
Maree: Ultimately too, it is moving from the ‘getting well and feeling ok’ model, to flourishing. They are different states.
Waikaremoana: Māori in psychology is typically taught from a disease model. Our question is what are you going to do about to make the situation better? How are you going to change the way you practice, and the way you deliver your psychology so you actually address that? Moving to representing Māori as healthy, flourishing and capable.
Maree: I believe informed.
Waikaremoana: Informed about who they are, coming from a place of knowledge. That is a way to learn about how you work with Māori, rather than always having to fix us.
Māori want to do research for Māori. To get that validity the research has to be published overseas.To me, if you create knowledge in New Zealand, for New Zealand - then that’s it. It only has to be in New Zealand. We don’t have to then run it around the world and say can you please validate this karakia paper in journals that are predominantly mainstream, that are inaccessible to our people. That is the ranking system we have and it is really difficult.
What do you want to have happen at the end of the three year research period?
Maree: More knowledge, more consolidated knowledge that is really holistic, in terms of wellbeing for Māori. That’s going to be massive and take years to do. The ultimate outcome is the wellbeing and flourishing of Māori society.
Waikaremoana: I would like Māori to see themselves in psychology. If you’re a Māori psychologist you’re going to see you are valued, you are acknowledged, and your parents and your ancestors are valued - because those values, and that knowledge will be translated to our people.