Kim Eriksen-Downs with Dr Saša Bavec, a writer on Indigenous knowledge, in Taupō. (Photo supplied)

Kim-Eriksen Downs works as an iwi kaituruki ora, or an Indigenous practitioner. That means she finds new ways to pull knowledge from old kōrero in a bid to help others heal. Here she is talking to Siena Yates.


There’s something we refer to in my line of work called “knew” knowledge. It feels new but it’s knowledge that we, as Māori, once had. We just need to come to know it again.

It’s not just us, either — it’s Indigenous people everywhere. When we talk about the maramataka or Matariki, people in places like Peru and Bali and a number of other cultures all have the same knowledge. It’s from their own context and Indigenous understandings but it’s very similar, right down to the back and forth over whether there are seven stars or nine in the Matariki cluster.

As Indigenous people, we look at the stars, the moon, the waterways, the land, the people — and we see how all of that is entangled. Some of our grandparents had this knowledge but they took it underground because of colonisation and assimilation, to protect us. But now we’re being encouraged and empowered to step forward safely into these practices, and to use them every day.

That’s what my mahi is — using and teaching people Indigenous practice, which is just finding ways to work from a cultural base. For us, it’s te ao Māori. But it could come from any culture as long as it’s based in that culture’s tikanga, kawa, values and belief systems. It’s about doing things in the ways of your people.

I’ve always had a belief in the intergenerational healing that returning to those practices can bring. That belief comes from when I was growing up, sitting and watching my grandparents do the pōwhiri over and over again on our marae.

Now I’m 54 years old, and I’ve finally realised that, after studying to be a social worker and learning counselling techniques and all that jazz, what I learned all those years ago, and what I was born into, is my natural practice. And that’s all I need.

Of course, I didn’t realise that until I paid $10,000 to do my master’s, and then I was like: “Why am I paying all this money to do this when I already know the answers?”

Now, I have the courage to speak about our culture — and the conviction that we already have answers within te ao Māori.

A lot of my work is in family and sexual violence, and suicide prevention, where my approach is to help our people to bring out solutions on their own. I see my role and responsibility as creating a safe space for them to explore whatever problem they’re there for. And to bring about that safe setting, we turn to te ao Māori, and mātauranga Māori.

Take the pōwhiri. I watched my grandparents do that time and again when I was little, as many of us did. So it becomes an innate model of practice. In our wānanga, that translates to: You need to be invited, and to practise reciprocity, manaakitanga and all the fundamental ways that we’ve always known. Because we know they work.

Another aspect of my mahi is consulting and teaching people in different spaces and workplaces how to incorporate Indigenous practice. I’ve taught groups of all ethnicities across most industries. Whether it’s social work, education, or media, there are no limits to where cultural practice can be used because it’s about sharing our ao Māori worldview. It’s not saying you must believe it or subscribe to it. It’s about being open to the experience, and what you might take away from it.

An example is a series of wānanga on intergenerational healing that we organised with other local kaupapa Māori organisations, which ran at different marae throughout Tūwharetoa.

We gathered kōrero from our elders and rangatahi, and from all different viewpoints from our iwi. Then, in wānanga, we deconstructed those narratives and asked: “What are the healing strategies within that conversation? What can we take from it to put in place within our own home, within our own whānau?” And so many different, beautiful things came out of those conversations.

For example, we might talk about our beautiful tipuna Pīhanga, and the battle of the maunga that happened here among Tauhara, Tongariro, Taranaki and Pūtauaki. A kuia called Whaea Hariata shared that with us at Hirangi Marae, and when she did, she talked about the power of women — and specifically the power that women had in those times.

Pīhanga made her own decisions and choices about where she went and what she did. And if she had sexual liaisons, she’d decide with whom. So even that little story tells our girls: “Oh, I have the right to decide who I spend time with. I have the right to give permission, and not to feel submissive. I have the right to choose my partner, as opposed to being pushed into an area where I don’t have a choice.”

And that’s just one story.

We could also use kōrero related to waka ama, like talking about a waka hourua, which is a 12-person, double-hulled waka. The two waka lashed together represent the mātua — the parents — while the lashings between them represent the children. We talk about how they’re able to move together the way they do because they’re a whānau unit. Really, we can go anywhere with the kōrero. It’s a matter of drawing on the mātauranga that we’ve absorbed in our lives, while staying open to new mātauranga along the way.

This approach works for us, for Māori, in a way that counselling might not, simply because we already know it. It lives within us. It’s in our DNA, in our blood, and it’s just waiting for us to ignite it. It’s part of that mauri, that living essence or life force. We know it when we hear it, see it, or feel it — and it knows us. This is what I mean about “knew” knowledge.

The results we see are beautiful. People overcome addictions, transform violent situations and abuse, even just change the way they treat and speak to each other.

And we’re not alone in this. I was recently invited to speak on a panel at COP28, the UN’s climate change conference, in Dubai. I was invited by Dr Saša Božič, who had interviewed a few of us from Tūwharetoa for her book One World, One Family. Our focus at COP28 was on the wellbeing of the modern person, and on reminding people how important Indigenous knowledge is for the sustainability of both people and the environment.

I got to interact with people from all different cultures and hear them speak our reo as well as theirs, and to hear some of their stories. I felt so grateful and loving towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters then, and it blew my mind to experience their power, and the power of our interconnectedness.

I mean, that’s why our people are standing up for the people in Palestine — because we know that journey. We might not have been hit by actual bombs, but we were hit by assimilation and colonisation, and we’re still living with the effects of those things today. Plus, we’re now facing whatever is going to happen with this new government.

That’s why we mustn’t lose our hope — or lose our love for our culture and for each other. Tino rangatiratanga is the self-determination to do what we do as Māori every day, without needing permission or a policy, or even organised protest. We just need to embody our culture every day and live it.

I know some of our people are afraid, and that’s okay. That fear reminds us to be alert to what’s going on around us, to pay attention, and to get involved. The answers are already within us. We just need to find them, and act on them.

Take the word mokopuna, for example. “Moko” stems from “moko kauae” and can refer to the imprint of our DNA, connected to the kauae runga (the heavenly realm) and the kauae raro (the physical realm). “Puna” is the source of life and wellbeing.

So, when we talk about standing up for our mokopuna, we’re not just talking about our grandchildren or even the future generations to come. We’re talking about standing up for everything that came before us, too — the precious knowledge that comes from our ancestors and runs through our mokopuna, because they are the closest to our ancestors when they’re born. They come to our world from the old world, and, at least before the world tries to teach them otherwise and turn them into something else, they already inherently know who they are, and what they need. That’s why, if we’re standing up for our mokopuna, we don’t need to be afraid.

Another kōrero that I find helpful comes from Pāpā Moana Jackson, and it’s about knowing which whare you’re standing in when you speak. Are you in your tīpuna whare, or are you in another house?

If you’re in your tīpuna whare at home on your marae, you are who you are. You have your values, your beliefs, your cultural integrity bestowed on you by your people. Your practices and tikanga, the mana, the mauri, the tapu — you have all of that. But if you choose to walk into another house every day, which could be your workplace or wherever else, you must understand that, while there are other roles, responsibilities and procedures in those places, they don’t define you. That’s not you.

Whether it’s work, certain events, or even just entering into conversations about Gaza or the government, we mustn’t allow what happens in that other house to overpower us. In the other house, we know what our parameters are, what the roles and contractual obligations are. We know what we have to do. What we don’t have to do is do it someone else’s way.

This is the crux of Indigenous practice. How we do what we do in that other house is the most crucial thing because that’s where our rangatiratanga comes in. We must remember who we are in our tīpuna whare — which is who we really are — and the power that we have just by practising what we already know.


Kim Eriksen-Downs (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Kahungunu, Mōkai Pātea, Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Whatuiapiti) has a master’s in Applied Indigenous Studies (He Waka Hiringa), as well as social work and counselling qualifications. She works as an iwi kaitūruki ora and kaiwhakaruruhau, creating safe wellbeing and wānanga spaces for whānau, hapū and communities, with a focus on family violence, sexual abuse and suicide prevention. She also offers nationwide consulting and training in Indigenous practice through Kaitūruki Ora o Te Hāpori Ora, the company she built with her husband Brendon, as well as her own private practice Te Kākano Consultants. Kim is a member of the independent tāngata whenua ministerial advisory group Te Pūkotahitanga.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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