Kim Workman (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne) has been a jazz musician, policeman, public servant — Ombudsman’s office, State Services Commission, Corrections (as head of prisons), and Māori Affairs (in charge of the Rotorua district) — but he’s perhaps best known as one of this country’s most respected and ardent advocates for justice reform.
His new memoir Journey Towards Justice offers rich insights, not only into the extraordinary range of life experiences that helped to shape his views on justice and inequality — but also into the cultural and political forces that have shaped our current justice landscape.
In this extract from his book, Kim writes about his early experience of restorative justice in Māori communities.
During my time in Rotorua, I started to interest myself in the way in which Māori communities resolve conflict and anti-social conduct. The term “restorative justice” was not in common use at the time, but as my understanding of it deepened, I kept being drawn back to my own early Wairarapa experiences.
By the time I was eight or nine, I became aware that some children were turning up at school with horrific bruising, without proper food, and in filthy clothing. We all knew who the offending whānau were, and their behaviour rested heavily on the shoulders of us all.
How did our village respond? In cases of more serious violence, kaumātua would take the child to live with more responsible members of the extended whānau, or another whānau altogether. Return of the child was negotiated through a restorative dialogue about a change in behaviour. The absolute shame of having one of their children chosen for this treatment was sufficient to keep most families on the right path.
But there was one thing that never happened. The abuse was not reported to the police or the child welfare authorities, for fear that the child would be taken away and placed in the care of the state.
In Rotorua in the summer of 1987, I was visited by the police, concerned that a Māori man living in a local village had committed incest with his daughter; but those who were able to support the police investigation would not cooperate. The 15-year-old victim had reported the matter to her teacher, but had subsequently retracted the claim.
I briefed the community team, and a senior community officer, Willie Coates, asked if the matter could be dealt with in accordance with Māori custom. I agreed, and was invited to take part in the process. Within a week, village elders had called a meeting on a Friday evening.
About 40 people attended. They included the suspect and his family, their extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins), community elders and representatives of each of the village families. Once gathered, they sat around the inner walls of the meeting house and began reciting prayers. They were all members of the Ringatū Church.
At the completion of prayer, the elders repeated the police allegation and asked the suspect if it was true. He immediately admitted guilt — a response common with the older Māori generation, who value truthfulness highly, and consider a person who does not take responsibility for his actions a coward. He was then asked to explain why he had committed the offence and questioned about whether he fully understood the harm he had caused.
Following his confession, each family member was given the opportunity to speak. The victim spoke of her confusion — of feeling worthless and a chattel, but also of her love for her father, and the fear that he might do the same to her younger sister.
The mother spoke out about her duty to protect her husband, and how she knew what was happening, but dealt with that shame through denial. The 13-year-old younger sister spoke of her mixed feelings of fear and love. The father responded by acknowledging that he had done wrong and expressing remorse for his behaviour.
Family members spoke directly to the offender, venting their anger and making clear the shame that he had brought on the wider family. The women comforted the victim and her sister, and one woman shared her own experience of being an incest victim.
Senior elders recounted stories from Māori mythology about the evil of incest, and the moral and spiritual consequences of committing it.
The speechmaking carried on until the early hours — interspersed with song, oratory and prayer. Finally, everyone slept in the meeting house until morning.
The following day, the elders discussed what to do next. It was agreed first that the offender should lose his status as an elder and speaking rights at the meeting house. He was also forbidden to visit it when young people were present.
Then, after much discussion, it was agreed that he would no longer sleep in the family home, but in a shed at the back of the house. He was only to cohabit with his wife during the day, when his children were at school. His full conjugal and community rights would be restored when his youngest daughter had left home.
The offender accepted the decisions, and there was public reconciliation between him and his family. I learnt later that he faithfully observed the conditions set by the elders for the next three years. Once his youngest daughter left home to work in the city, a ceremony was held at the meeting house where he was accepted back and had his speaking rights reinstated. He resumed living with his wife, and from then on, was treated as a law-abiding and responsible member of the community.
In later years, I often wondered what restorative justice practitioners would have thought of this proceeding. While what happened was culturally appropriate, it might well have been unacceptable in a western setting.
The victim, as far as I could determine, did not seem to be traumatised by publicly sharing her story and innermost feelings — nor was she subsequently stigmatised. The penalty was quite severe, and yet at the end of the process, there was provision for reconciliation and full community restoration.
Some police officers and local Pākehā were not happy that the offender had been spared the formal criminal justice system, but the local police commander took the view that without our intervention he would not have been confronted with the harm he had done. I agreed.
It is impossible to talk about indigenous peacemaking without mentioning Mita Mohi, a kaumātua from Ngāti Rangiwewehi. Mita was deeply cultured, with a prominent background in rugby league, wrestling and tennis; he had performed in kapa haka groups at the highest level. But more than that, he was someone skilled in the art of conflict resolution. His outstanding feature was his heart for those in need and his desire to transform the lives of young people who were in conflict with the law or in some way “at risk”.
In the role of community officer, he was the one who stepped outside the norm, always looking to help young offenders, gang members and the marginalised.
Mita was also an expert in mau rākau, the use of Māori weaponry, and in 1982 began running four-day wānanga at Mokoia Island on Lake Rotorua during each school term break. By 1987, about one hundred young people and adults — including police officers and, in later years, prison staff — were attending each wānanga. It was taking referrals from Child, Youth and Family, the police, schools and Māori organisations.
Despite some nervousness about the idea, Māori Affairs helped to sponsor it, and Mita invited me to visit and see it in action. I was immediately taken by the underlying emphasis on whanaungatanga. The wānanga was staffed by about six kaiako, as well support staff. Every participant was made responsible for the safety and well-being of a younger member of the group. They slept in tents, and the food was basic but substantial.
Starting with a run up the mountain at 7 a.m., each day comprised a mix of mau rākau tuition and lectures on tikanga, including a strong emphasis on a warrior’s responsibilities in terms of caring for women and nurturing children. Exhausted by nightfall, everyone gathered around the campfire to share their experiences and talents, and meet guest speakers.
There was a never-ending flow of visitors, with appearances from celebrities such as Howard Morrison, Cliff Curtis and Wayne Shelford, and Māori role models from all walks of life — helicopter pilots, police officers, armed services personnel, and former offenders who had turned their lives around.
After a couple of days of observing, I realised that Mita was doing much more than teaching mau rākau. He had created a community in which the more socially mature engaged with young people who were at risk, and showed them, by example and personal contact, how their lives could change.
Policemen befriended young offenders, former prisoners spoke convincingly into the lives of potential gang prospects. It made me realise that this was how transformation occurred.
On the third day, a 12-year-old was caught stealing $20 from his tent neighbour. He was spoken to by Mita, and at the camp meeting that evening he stood up and apologised. His apology was accepted, a waiata was sung, and everyone then lined up to hongi with him. His mana was immediately restored, and he learnt the value of being part of a welcoming community.
Mita went on to develop the programme under the auspices of the Mohi Whānau Trust and, after retiring from the department, took it into prisons and other places, eventually handing over the leadership to his son Patrick. He also served on the Parole Board and as a kaumātua to the Rotorua police.
By the time of his death in 2017, it was estimated that upwards of 30,000 mostly young people had benefited from the wānanga experience. They included our two youngest boys, Matiu and Wiremu, who took part from the age of eight onwards, along with their rather unfit father — who was allowed to sleep in the VIP tent with the tutors.
This is an extract from Kim Workman’s memoir Journey Towards Justice, published by Bridget Williams Books.
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