“I found my own way to piki wairua,” writes Aroha Gilling, a public servant, who attended Kapa Haka Tuarua held in Whakatū (Nelson) this year. (Photo supplied)

Māori public servant Aroha Gilling attended the recent Kapa Haka Tuarua championships and found what she needed to lift her flagging spirits.


A lot has changed in Aotearoa in the last year. As a Māori public servant, there’s so much I want to reflect on, but my job means I’m unable to write about those things.

As I began to compose this, hundreds of Māori public servants gathered in Wellington at He Māori Ahau to piki wairua, or lift the spirits, of those Māori working in the public sector. They heard from our own who have survived and, I hope, flourished in government departments.

I would’ve loved to go. But pleading my case to my bosses for travel from Nelson to Wellington seemed too fraught in these tough times. Revealing to them how vulnerable I feel was also out of the question. To say such things out loud creates a damaging cycle of anxiety, hope, vulnerability, and disappointment that most Māori in the public service are probably familiar with.

My Māori friends who did go to the hui raved about the speakers and the ideas shared on the day. One even remarked: “I think I’ll stick around in my job for another year.”

Māori civil servants gather at He Māori Ahau, a hui to support those in public service. (Photo: Te Rau Hihiri)

Still, I found my own way to piki wairua. I went along to Kapa Haka Tuarua, the secondary schools kapa haka champs which were held in Whakatū (Nelson) this year.

Sitting in the predominantly Māori audience listening to these wildly brilliant performances is as uplifting as it gets. Add in everything that goes with the competition — the sound of te reo Māori all around, outbreaks of hearty laughter at the jokes we all get, spontaneous haka tautoko, pao, karanga ringing out from the audience in waves, brown faces everywhere — and it’s sensory overload, in a good, positive way.

Some of the young people who stood for their kura will be heading out into the workforce soon. They might just end up in the public service. I hope they do, because we need them desperately — but I also fear for them if they do, because I know we’re not able to look after them properly. How do we prepare them for the isolation, the petty aggressions, and the never-ending expectation that they must be the font of knowledge about all things Māori?

More importantly, how do we prepare them for the expectation that they should see themselves only as individuals, when they’ve come from environments that emphasise the wellbeing of the whole?

The first time one of those young people steps up to help an admin person who’s besieged at reception, or the cleaner who has the flu and is struggling to get through the office, it’s likely the response from their colleagues will be quick, hurtful and confusing. There’ll be suggestions that they’re not focused on their own job, that they’re interfering, or that they need to set boundaries. I know this from experience.

I once had the nerve to offer one of our vulnerable Māori clients, who’d been sleeping rough, a hot drink in our staffroom. Complaints from my Pākehā colleagues were loud and virulent. They tried to disguise their pettiness by cloaking it as concern about health and safety. Not once did they consider that the very least you can do for a physically vulnerable person, someone living in the public gardens in winter, is to show a little manaakitanga. Put their cup in the dishwasher, or throw it out, if that helps your nervous, ridiculous disposition!

I’ve also experienced the incessant requests that come with being a Māori public servant. Especially requests to translate te reo Māori for colleagues. It might be a job title, place name, karakia, or values statements. Some of the requests aren’t even work-related.

My belief in manaakitanga and arohatanga make me want to help, but experience stops me. I’ve learned that if you assist once, you’ll always be expected to help, and there is danger inherent in that. You run the risk of becoming the go-to Māori, which can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Then other Māori may question why your name is the one on everyone’s lips, and it may be construed that you’re empire-building, overstepping, or lacking humility. Worse still, you may inadvertently whakaiti someone else’s role, or work they’ve already started.

To protect myself, I’ve learned to build up a reservoir of institutional knowledge. I know the responsibilities of other key Māori advisors, and I always ask my assailant if they’ve approached the correct person for help. That way I can deflect the request, and direct the asker toward the right place. If they persist in the pursuit, and many do (often because the answer hasn’t arrived quickly enough, or they didn’t like the one they got) then growly aunty takes over. I like to keep her in reserve and use her sparingly, but she is very effective on her rare appearances.

I loathe self-advocacy. It always feels as though I’m being whakahīhī, or arrogant.  But to achieve parity with colleagues inside the public service who are very skilled at arguing for themselves, I’ve had to overcome my revulsion for self-promotion. I now approach it just like any other job skill. In the same way as I’ve had to learn to write a ministerial briefing or talking points for a director, I’ve had to learn how to promote myself using experiences from all facets of my life. Still, I suspect I’m not as good at it as many of my non-Māori colleagues.

I wonder if younger generations will have the same reticence? Despite their confidence on social media, I fear they may be less forthcoming in work situations. I’ve noticed, for example, how Māori applicants for public service roles routinely do not end up being hired. The reason given is that their CV wasn’t appealing, or they didn’t “sell” themselves well at the interview stage.

One problem is that those doing the recruiting don’t understand how to accommodate whānau support for an applicant. Most of the times that I’ve taken support people with me to a job interview, it’s been clear that the agency is scrambling to accommodate my modest request. I’ve also seen, and been part of, large ope tautoko (supporting groups) for job applicants. Each time, I’ve noticed the palpable nerves and anxiety on the part of the interviewing organisation.

I don’t understand what is so unsettling for them. Why don’t they use the whānau support? They could try talking to the whānau, who may be able to help them draw out the best from the potential recruit. Give them the opportunity to add comments or speak about the candidate’s attributes. It’s not difficult!

Often, I hear about Māori candidates who are described as lacking job-specific skills, even though I know they have a wealth of experience in te ao Māori. Yet it doesn’t seem to be an issue to employ a person with no skills in te ao Māori, with the expectation that they’ll somehow learn to develop them.

Come on, public service. Flip the script!

Performers at Kapa Haka Tuarua held in Whakatū (Nelson) this year. (Photo: Ngā Kapa Haka o Ngā Kura Tuarua o Aotearoa)

If you make hiring decisions, please remember you can teach skills like data entry, case management skills, or how to set a trapline. And, if an applicant has kapa haka on their résumé, you’re potentially getting someone who’s had the benefit of a masterclass in teamwork, possesses an outstanding work ethic, and has the ability to endure physical, mental and emotional challenges, year after year after year. Ask them to talk about their kapa experiences in the interview.

An applicant who’s immersed in Māoritanga has the skills that the public sector must have to interact in a positive way with whānau, hapū, iwi, and the burgeoning Māori economy. Hire a kapa member and you’ll be getting a team player who understands loyalty and commitment in a deep way. But don’t you dare take advantage of that!

Back at Kapa Haka Tuarua, during the lunch break, I wandered around the many displays and did a little shopping. Always good to represent, so I stocked up on Te Whānau a Apanui bling. I noticed that there were no government services represented among the information stalls. Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) was outside the perimeter fences. It occurred to me that if you wanted to make a statement about tino rangatiratanga, then sidelining government services is one way to do that. If those bright young competitors do end up in the public sector, they’ll need to learn to see such statements for what they are, and not get hurt or take it personally.

I also heard plenty of critique and commentary in the waiata and haka about the current political climate, and rightly so. Waiata and haka are a vehicle for Māori to express our experience of the world. Sometimes, though, it’s tough reconciling that Māori identity with life as a Māori public servant.

It’s also a challenging lesson to meet another public servant who happens to be Māori. I’ve developed a type of situational-awareness, where I scatter a few crumbs and watch the reaction to determine where a Māori colleague stands, and how much can be shared, or should be protected. I recall being on the receiving end of this process myself as a young public servant. A colleague who went on to be one of my mentors used a case management meeting to see how I’d respond to a particular work challenge. When he saw my Māori values triumph, he welcomed me and became one of my most stalwart supporters and confidantes.

If our young people are lucky, they’ll have an older Māori colleague to champion them. Otherwise, how do they learn the skills to survive? Some will find non-Māori allies. Some of those allies will be brilliant and affirming, and others will fall by the wayside when the going gets tough. Other young Māori will make it only by going through painful lessons. Still others will abandon the waka and head back to iwi and Māori organisations, to a world that truly sees them and values them. The public sector will be the worse for their loss.

Our Māoritanga is a beautiful thing indeed and the public service has a duty under Te Tiriti o Waitangi to ensure it’s not tainted or distorted. I hope some of our young people discover a viable and rewarding employment pathway in the public sector, but I understand if they don’t.

Te Kapa Haka o Tūranga Wahine Tūranga Tāne reminded me, as they sang about “te reka o te Māoritanga”, that the most important thing is that our young people never lose sight of how sweet it is to be Māori.


Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago, and a background in adult education and social work. She lives in Nelson.

E-Tangata, 2024

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