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."

Dr Maree Roche.

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.”

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