“Activism is a source of wellness,” says clinical psychologist Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki. (Photo: Te Rawhitiroa Bosch)

The conflict in Gaza resonates deeply and painfully with many people in te ao Māori, as with other Indigenous people who see the history of Palestine as one of colonial violence. And together with the new coalition government’s policies here at home, which will wind back progress toward self-determination for Māori, there’s a loud and ongoing call to protest and fight back.

Here, Siena Yates reflects on the last few months, and asks clinical psychologist Waikaremoana Waitoki for advice on staying well while taking action.


The first time I realised how much I was taking on from Gaza, I was in a crowd of people and saw a dad lifting his baby up into the sky. They were playing. The baby was giggling. Everyone was smiling. Except me. I couldn’t help but think of images I’d seen of a Palestinian father holding his dead baby above his head, wailing as his child’s limbs hung over his head.

Foolish as it sounds, until then, I hadn’t really stopped to think about why I was feeling so sad and hopeless. It took me even longer to figure out that the suffering of the Palestinian people had released sadness in me about the suffering of my own people. I was sad for my tūpuna who were violently removed from their whenua, and I was sad for my irāmutu, my niece and nephew, and what their futures may look like.

Other Māori I’ve talked to about Gaza have also been deeply affected by what we’ve been seeing and hearing over the course of the past two months. Palestine’s history and horrific present is rooted in the same colonial thinking that attempted to wipe out te ao Māori. We’re watching people forcibly displaced from their homes and entire whakapapa lines being destroyed. We’re seeing how a coloniser mindset and narrative works in real time, playing out on our screens and social media.

For Māori, this comes on top of an election campaign where we witnessed the racism still very much alive in Aotearoa. And at the same time, across the ditch, Australians rejected the option to constitutionally recognise Indigenous people in the Voice referendum.

Taking all these things together, it’s easy to slip into feelings of powerlessness, and hopelessness.

I texted a friend: “How are we supposed to make any of the gains we want to make as Māori when thousands of children are being killed and the world can’t even manage to stop that?” I was wondering if I was alone in my despair, until she texted back: “Exactly. What hope do we have?”

I’ve gained some hope back just by witnessing the uprisings around the globe in support of Palestinians, the protests here at home in support of Māori, and the acknowledgment that we’re all part of the same struggle for self-determination.

But the enormity of the struggle can bring with it guilt and feelings of not doing enough.

I spoke to clinical psychologist Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki about how we can manage our time and energy among so many competing pressures.


Siena: Sometimes it feels like the only way to stay sane is to switch off and disengage, but then I think a lot of us feel extreme guilt for doing that. How do we combat those feelings?

Waikaremoana: It’s okay to withdraw. I have a colleague in Australia who is a senior, well-respected leader in the psychology field — and, after the Voice referendum, they just had to say: “I’m out for a couple of weeks.” And that’s okay. That’s better than just pushing through. Because then you can start asking: “How long do I need? And what sorts of support do I need to come back?”

Of course, there are those who are working at 100 percent, day in and day out. But they have to recognise that they can’t keep that up forever. You can’t run that fast for that long.

I know people can feel guilty about stopping. They can feel guilty about going back to enjoying things, eating good food, going out. But you need to do these things so that you can have the energy to keep coming back. The people we’re fighting for, whoever and wherever they are, need us to be functioning well. They don’t need us to be falling over because we can’t attend to ourselves.

What are some strategies that we can use to take care of ourselves?

Māori have a different way of thinking about what wellbeing is. You get a lot of people talking about practising self-care, and that’s helpful, but self-care is just another idea of the individual. For us, if the whenua is well, then we feel well. If our whānau are well, then we feel well. That’s the different perspective we bring.

So, I think, first and foremost, it’s important to talk to people and tell others what you’re going through. Find someone you trust or even just ring a helpline number.

Another thing is that you do have to disconnect at some point. That’s always the first thing when it comes to social media and the news. You need to turn it off at a certain time and not scroll through the reports 24/7.

It’s really heavy. And we can only take in so much. Turning it off doesn’t mean that you’re not caring. You need to understand that your body can’t take that much. Your wairua can’t take that much. You want to live well and be well enough to do the work that you need to do.

We also need to pay attention to what’s going on in our bodies, to recognise when things are starting to shut down on us, or when we’re starting to hype up. Are we no longer able to work and focus? Are we making mistakes? These are signs of stress.

And when we recognise those signs, then we’ve got ways of getting our ngākau sorted, whether it’s having a karakia or a waiata, or just taking a moment to pause and breathe. These things are rongoā. Things like good sleep, good kai, getting out in nature.

I know when I talk to people about these things, some of them can be a bit dismissive. But this is how you say to your body: “You have to be well so that you can do the next day or do the next week.”

One thing you can do is to have a plan for the day, or even just the next hour, for something that’s going to make just that little bit of difference. It might be just that you have a coffee with a friend, or you FaceTime somebody. It’s about disrupting and resetting the circuit.

But when the guilt disrupts those moments of resetting, the cycle starts all over again. Then what?

Often, guilt is telling you something. Some of us have this belief that we just don’t deserve things. Things like rest, and aroha. We can grant those things to others, but not always to ourselves. However, as children of ātua, we do have the right to receive aroha as well as give it. So, while your guilt is telling you one thing, it doesn’t have to define you or how you act.

There is just so much to do, and we as individuals can’t do what needs to be done, alone. If we’re talking about tackling the Israeli industrial military complex and the American funding of it, and all the violence that brings — that’s dealing with mechanisms that require systemic and global change.

So, part of showing aroha to yourself is accepting that you can only do what you can do. Some people can do more than others, and some people go about it differently, and all of that is okay as long as you’re doing something. The little things that we’re all doing come together to make a difference.

At the moment, we’re in a situation where the coalition government is attacking Māori culture and identity under the well-trodden path of ‘we are all one people’. I think Te Waka Houorua’s recent protest at Te Papa was incredibly powerful. Te Papa had disregarded advice from leading academics that their exhibition of the Treaty of Waitangi was misleading and false. Yet, they continued to display that text, in a national museum, as an accurate English translation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

It’s irresponsible for Te Papa to continue to promote a false narrative, in the centre of the museum and alongside Māori taonga. That protest really highlighted what we’re continually up against in our country.

So, when I’m asked about wellness strategies, I often comment that activism is a source of wellness. Peaceful protest is embedded in the land on which Te Papa sits. Think about Te Āti Awa narratives – even while experiencing the violent invasion of Parihaka, they held peaceful protests.

Therefore, navigating wellness for some, means highlighting how the foundations of this country continue to erase our presence.

For some, the protests are a respite, a sanctuary, a landing place for our manu to have a rest and go: “Okay, something’s happening now. We can do this.” And then for others, that’s not a process they want to get involved in, and that’s okay, too

Sometimes we can’t go to a protest, or we can’t make our views known publicly because it’s not safe. So sometimes it’s letter-writing or petition-signing or buying pins and flags, or just making a statement somewhere. If we keep ourselves well, we can do the big things when we can, and the little things in between.

If nothing else, think about what happens if you do burn yourself out and fall over. Then you can’t do anything at all. So it’s about pacing ourselves so that we can keep coming back, consistently and effectively.

What’s happening with our government at the moment is deeply troubling. We’re worried and we’re scared. But all of the same strategies that apply to reacting to Gaza, apply at home as well. Just show up for yourself and your whānau first — and do what you can. We can’t carry it all ourselves, but we can carry it together.

As long as we’re living as Māori, we’re decolonising. Just by doing that, we’re doing enough.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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