There’s growing recognition that historical trauma can be reproduced and passed down through the generations, where it shows up in a wide range of social harms seen in colonised peoples around the world — including family and sexual violence.

Healing that trauma is still a work in progress. 

In Aotearoa, a research project called He Oranga Ngākau, led by professors Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Leonie Pihama, is looking at ways to heal intergenerational pain and prevent whānau violence.

As Linda explains to Connie Buchanan, the way we treat historical trauma in Māori doesn’t work — and we need a kaupapa Māori approach.


Understanding the impact of historical and colonial trauma is the focus of much of our work. 

Twenty years ago, there was no recognition of the trauma being experienced over generations, or the trauma that comes from colonisation. A lot of people today still think Māori should just get over these things. Bury them and move on. Put all our sorrows away, and “mana” up.

But there’s a great deal of research across the world now that shows that trauma isn’t something that you just get over. It can be reproduced and passed down through generations. 

Trauma alters our practices, feelings, identities and our relationships. It alters our physical bodies. It affects our sense of place and worthiness, our feelings of value and of being settled.

One way of thinking about this is through the notion of a “soul wound”. This idea has been written about by clinical psychologists and health professors such as Bonnie Duran, Karina Walters, Tessa Campbell, Eduardo Duran and many others in the US. It’s the idea that historical trauma has a huge impact on your sense of wellbeing. And it affects the collective sense of wellbeing, too. 

In Aotearoa, we’ve been using something called the “trauma-informed care” model in our clinics and health organisations to try to deal with these soul wounds. Initially, Māori were quite excited about this approach, thinking: “Yes, this is for us.”  

But, in reality, the model is a very contained and constrained one. It came to us from western clinical practice in the UK and the US — where they were using trauma-informed care as a way to treat a very individualised, very singular notion of what trauma is. 

Using this model, many Māori get the idea that once they’ve had their therapy, they’ve been through a process, it’s been funded for so many hours, they’ve received the treatment — it’s done. They’re supposed to be better and they can go home. This minimises our pain. 

What we know is that by relying on western clinical practice, we’ve failed to bring in the essential sense-making element of healing.

The time has come for a kaupapa Māori model, where we use healing to address our intergenerational and historical trauma, and our family and sexual violence. 

This means more than just trying to describe our wounds, our hakihaki, our sores. 

There’s so much research already that talks about all the issues that we have, and all our problems. And that research is overwhelmingly unhelpful. Because, within it, there’s no theory of transformation or redress. 

What’s missing are the solutions. That is something that we address through a kaupapa Māori approach to trauma. Kaupapa Māori is for doing and living and taking action.  

Māori practitioners have philosophies and practices for healing trauma. That’s where the strengths and solutions lie. Not way out there somewhere in the wonderland of research, but in our own worlds, and with our people who’ve been experts in these areas. They have the thinking that will give us solutions.

It’s not like we’ve come late to this game. Many of our traditional processes had explicit strategies for excluding and exiling people who had done wrong, and also for reconciling them to themselves and to their communities. 

We had all kinds of processes and rituals that are restorative and make peace. We have concepts like utu, muru, and whakatika, which are about correcting and rebalancing. We have a whole vocabulary for pōuritanga and the different types of sadness.

Tears, hūpē, mamae — all those things are good healthy things in te ao Māori, yet they’re often seen in te ao Pākehā as inappropriate, or too much. But acknowledging pain is not a superficial thing. A kaupapa Māori approach honours the depth of the pain and the person who has had to bear it. It helps them mourn and farewell the trauma.

A kaupapa Māori approach accepts that while whānau are key for our wellbeing, they aren’t the sole or ultimate answer for every problem. Our whānau are also in stress and need support. 

We need to help people build their own whare, knowing that sometimes they’ve harmed their whānau so much that their whānau don’t want them back. Or that to go home again puts them back in a risky environment, so they have no real shelter. 

The answer may not come from whakapapa. It might come from the people who have chosen to be with that person. That doesn’t make them less Māori.

One of the most taken-for-granted things that happens in western clinical practice is writing up case notes. The notes are owned by professonal practitioners who are trained to write them in a particular way, without the patient’s involvement. 

The person has no control over how their journey is narrated. Their story is told solely by others. Then the next professional, a complete stranger, comes along and picks those notes up. The notes determine how they interact with the person, even if the story has been misinterpreted, which it so often is.  

We overlook some real basic practices like this, which are damaging, because everyone believes that’s just what you do. They’ve become part of the wallpaper. But what if the person who has experienced trauma was involved in constructing their own story? Had some control? 

These are some of the things that come into the light when we start talking about a kaupapa Māori approach to trauma.

There is also a lot we can learn about healing from other Indigenous communities whose responses to intergenerational pain can be so creative and outside the box.  

For example, some Native American people have asked themselves how they can heal from the long marches of forced relocation and abandonment of land that their ancestors were forced to undertake.  

One group of Choctaw women decided that their way of dealing with that is to walk their ancestors’ “trail of tears”. Each year, they walk part of the journey that their ancestors were forced to take to Oklahoma. 

For them, that is a healing process. Along the walk, they come to appreciate the strength and resistance and the love that their ancestors left for them.

This is called the Yappalli project, meaning “to walk slowly and softly” in the Choctaw language, and it was a partnership with the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute in Seattle to heal historical trauma.

Sometimes, in Aotearoa, we think healing is about a specific rongoā or medicine. But it’s also about action. Doing things. Political action is healing. The Crown saying sorry is not a healing strategy. That’s called an apology.

Other countries who negotiate agreements with Indigenous peoples often have a first line about reconciliation and healing. In Aotearoa, we went down another pathway where the big focus was on economic development. 

Our Treaty settlement process came out of neoliberal reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Our people received small amounts of money that they needed to turn into much larger amounts of money. The intention was for iwi to obtain the commercial means to begin economic recovery, and for political parties to be able to say they’d achieved full and final agreements. 

Social and cultural concerns were separated out, as if they were at odds with the corporate entities and goals. Everybody talked about the wider cultural benefits that would flow to iwi from the economic activity, but our agreements are constructed in a way that makes it so difficult for that to happen.

So while our iwi have been amazingly creative with their negotiations, we have lost sight of the healing and reconciliation components of settlement.  

These still sit on the table as unfinished business. 

Realising the potential of a kaupapa Māori model to provide healing for trauma requires things that don’t currently exist in our health system. Proper resources. A connected infrastructure among our health clinics and providers.

The barriers to a lot of what we’re suggesting are not right at the top. They’re in the beliefs that are held by professional groups, policy analysts, teaching disciplines. 

One of the challenges of getting policy workers to take up our research on kaupapa Māori for trauma response is that they don’t understand what it takes to apply it in practice. We get lip service to the principle of rangatiratanga, but it’s not funded properly.

Many of our Māori health organisations, whether they are paid to or not, will provide a wraparound service where they try to support the whole whānau way beyond the individual’s time-bound and constrained treatment model. We see them searching intuitively for ways to heal. 

These providers are honoured for their work all the time. But we need to do more than “honour” Māori aspirations for self-determination. If they were properly funded and supported they would be even more successful. They would have the self-determining capacity to actually do the work.

It’s hard being Māori. It’s way better now than it was in our parents’ time, but it’s still hard. 

Some people are landing on their feet — they have their identity and their reo. But that’s not the reality for a lot of Māori. What we’re good at doing in Aotearoa is dismissing their pain, ignoring it, making fun of it, or reducing it. 

Fixing trauma isn’t something the Crown, or any agency, can do for Māori. Fixing requires resources, so we can bring our own healing back. 


He Oranga Ngākau is a research project led by Professor Leonie Pihama and Distinguished Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith. It is part of the He Waka Eke Noa group of projects that examine Māori cultural frameworks for the treatment and prevention of family and sexual violence. It calls for resourcing a nationwide training programme to implement kaupapa Māori approaches to healing.

As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by New Zealand On Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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