“Māori staff must be able to replenish our emptying kete,” says Aroha Gilling, who’s worked in government departments for almost 30 years.

As government departments go to great lengths to educate Pākehā about te ao Māori, spare a thought for those Māori staff who help them navigate between the two worlds.


I’ve worked on and off for central government departments for almost three decades. In that time, I’ve been part of multiple initiatives to educate Pākehā about te ao Māori but in very few designed to support or uplift us as Māori staff.

Mostly, I’ve been left to look outside my work for opportunities to shore up my often-flagging sense of cultural identity, or to resolve cultural issues and find inspiration and support.

Meanwhile, it’s becoming more and more common for non-Māori staff to get help to develop their cultural capability.

This often takes the form of waiata sessions, noho marae or a structured learning programme and pathway. These are designed to encourage our non-Māori colleagues to engage respectfully with te ao Māori. They’re often Māori-led by staff members like me.

It’s common for us to do this over and above our own designated role and work, and for our leadership in this area to be unpaid.

Also unrecognised is how draining these sessions can be for Māori staff.

Waiata are a release for me and a joy. I love to sing and use the reo of my tīpuna. I’m happiest when singing with some of my very talented colleagues. I gather those moments and hold them tight, storing them in my mental and emotional repository, because they feed my wairua.

When I coach my colleagues in waiata, it’s a different story. I must continually confront colonisation.

Waiata Māori may use irregular rhythms, replicate natural sounds, or be composed to be performed with the beat of a poi underpinning them. They may have multiple verses, or be sung with gusto and volume.

The temptation to even out the timing to four beats in the bar, change minor keys to major, sing only one verse, or sing quietly, seems to be too tempting for my colleagues. While Māori aren’t strangers to modifying and adapting waiata, there’s a difference between creativity and defaulting to the easiest option.

My colleagues are also challenged when different iwi use various versions of some waiata. They desperately want to know what the one true version is. I encourage them to learn the kupu and the basic tune, so they can adapt to any version. But this advice doesn’t sit easily with Pākehā thinking.

If I’ve been separated from Māori friends and colleagues for a good while, and I’ve been unable to reaffirm my pleasure in waiata with them, my patience and ability to coach my non-Māori colleagues with kindness and compassion is severely diminished. It lessens the joy I find in waiata — and this makes me sad.

Noho marae or marae visits are also a significant source of unease. Colleagues sometimes ask for an allowance to be made so they may come on to a marae without a pōhiri. This is usually because they haven’t organised their travel plans. And it’s a particular problem when they’re waewae tapu which means they haven’t been to that marae before.

Government staff should never put their hosts in such an awkward position by asking for a dispensation. It’s disrespectful and not tika.

So you should organise yourself properly. Fly in well beforehand, research the travel times to rural marae and plan accordingly. There may be unforeseen circumstances that mean someone is late for pōhiri, but this should be an exception, not the rule. And, in those situations, a less formal acknowledgment of arrival may take place.

A waiver of pōhiri is a gift that the host people may give, but it’s not a right to be expected by a guest.

It also jars when I support colleagues onto marae and, once in the door, they treat the whare as though it’s a hired hall or convention centre — when really they’re cradled within the embrace of a tīpuna and all that entails.

When you treat a marae as a hired venue, you subvert the guest-host responsibilities, duties, and relationship.

I recall a female colleague who asked our hosts if she could wear her shoes into the whare because her heels lifted her hemline.

Another group asked if they could bring their shoes inside the whare to illustrate a presentation on what they had learned about tikanga-a-marae. It seemed to me they’d entirely missed the point.

And no matter how you brief people on the no-food policy in most whare, they still seem to think that a wee snack in their pocket doesn’t count, or that transiting through with a laden plate is fine.

Stop making up the rules as you go. Pay attention to coaching and workshops because how you behave does matter. You’re part of the collective and we’re all responsible for the impression we make on our hosts.

The burden of trying to avoid these embarrassments falls on us Māori staff. We mentor, coach and protect our colleagues, in case they offend our hosts or transgress in a significant manner.

Māori staff must also be able to replenish our emptying kete. Any organisation that recognises this need, plans for it and supports it, is demonstrating long-term cultural integrity and sustainability.

I was fortunate recently to attend a week-long noho marae for Māori staff in leadership roles. What a privilege and a treat. The rarity of such an event was driven home by a colleague who described it as “the first of its kind in 200 years”. It fed and replenished our cultural, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Such events pay off for the organisation too. They help create a strong and unified team culture among Māori staff who are often in dispersed roles without day-to-day Māori support.

Our sense of isolation is sometimes expressed by my colleagues using the term “Māori unicorn”.

Being a Māori unicorn means you’re the only source of Māori knowledge in your office or area. You field all manner of enquiries, some appropriate, some appalling, and you spend a great deal of time and energy navigating through these situations. You weigh up interactions, gauge intent and understanding, pick your battles and try to maintain mana and integrity.

You are, in other words, expected to be an extraordinary creature of myth and legend.

Actively combatting that sense of cultural isolation helps create longevity and stability in Māori staffing.

A strong Māori team is crucial when we’re asked to deliver cultural support to our departments and to be the cultural front people for our agencies. There must be a high level of trust among Māori staff leaders when dealing with spiritual matters such as karanga and whaikōrero, or even the question of which waiata is best to sing, and whether to swap that at the last minute if the content of the speeches suggests that’s the right move.

That type of trust grows only through time together and shared experiences — and, to flourish, it must be supported by the organisation.

Clear and appropriate lines of reporting for Māori at all levels are also essential. We shouldn’t have to keep explaining ourselves to Pākehā managers and supervisors. Māori staff shouldn’t have to be stuck in a continual loop of educating their line managers just so they can then have a talk about the daily challenges of their work.

Look at your Māori staffing and recruit carefully so you have Māori at all levels who are well supported and able to help each other. Make your organisation attractive to Māori by setting up responsive structures and attractive employment packages.

Whanaungatanga is at the heart of our Māori being, and reaching out to your connections and networks for support is integral to being Māori. I remember being struck by  something Tā Mason Durie wrote. He noted that being overly independent is considered “defensive” in te ao Māori — and a failure to turn to the collective in times of need shows a lack of maturity rather than strength.

Noho marae, hui and wānanga specifically for Māori staff are rich and important ways to build that collective support system.

They deliver information, analysis, and reflection within a Māori framework and, most importantly, they’re events where we can simply be Māori. Tikanga and kawa are our guides and our tīpuna are always with us. There’s no need to constantly explain, no need to lower our voices, to moderate our laughter or tears.

The opportunity to wānanga is particularly precious, because it’s a special Māori process for questioning ideas. In the spirit of the verb “ako” (meaning both to teach and to learn) everyone at a wānanga gets the opportunity to explore an issue irrespective of age, qualification, or experience.

It’s significantly different from a conference or professional development session where experts present to a largely silent audience, and where there’s limited opportunity to interact.

Wānanga allow for a wide range of information to be collected. They require participants to sit easily alongside multiple narratives and diverse perspectives, including the spiritual dimension. Passionate debate is normal, and emotion is to be expected when important matters are being investigated.

Everyone knows an aunty who will always circle back to her favourite concern, or the uncle who wanders off on a tangent, but the strength of wānanga is that there’s room for that to happen.

I often think that the underlying beauty of wānanga is that the net has been cast so wide that uncle and aunty are bringing clarity to the issue in their own unique ways. It just requires patience and time for the relevance and understanding to be revealed.

Wānanga create an environment where no one is invisible, and they travel at the tempo of the participants, in whichever reo suits them best.

It’s so easy in meetings to be marginalised if we’re not the loudest voice or the quickest to speak. A particularly galling facilitation technique is starting a countdown after you’ve been asked to respond to a point. This horrible technique allows no room for thoughtful consideration, or neural and cultural diversity.

The importance of providing Māori staff the time and opportunity to participate in noho, wānanga and hui on our own Māori terms can’t be overstated. Because, as departments venture further on their Treaty partnership journeys, they need to understand that Māori staff face a great deal of risk.

We can be pitted against our own whānau/hapū/iwi on government kaupapa. We may have to deal with angry cousins at tangi, derision on whānau Facebook sites and emails from an enraged aunty asking us to explain decisions our departments have made that have nothing to do with our role at all.

All of this, and more, must be navigated with care and aroha to craft a response that both honours our whānau relationships and our departmental duties. It takes a significant toll.

The only solace I’ve found is in sharing these trials with my Māori specialist colleagues and listening to their own stories. Together we can offer one another suggestions, brainstorm solutions, empathise with no explanation required or just laugh together at the absurdity of it all.

We work in a world of outdated and restrictive legislation mostly written when concepts such as rangatiratanga, co-governance or joint management were inconceivable to western minds accustomed to cultural dominance and control.

We come up with creative and adaptable ways to mediate and support relationships between whānau, hapū, iwi and our departments against this background of restrictive legislation and policy.

In turn, please look after us and use the full force of the organisation to keep us safe. If you sacrifice your Māori staff, you’ll lose your lifeline to whānau, hapū, iwi, and the growing Māori economy.

I live in a modest community of around 50,000 people and you only need to look around to see the growth in Māori business activity.

The eight iwi I live among all have expanding infrastructure and burgeoning social, education and business initiatives. They have companies operating across social and cultural development, real estate, agricultural and horticultural ventures. They run government-funded Māori health and social services.

There are many more private-sector Māori companies in creative industries, software design, hospitality and tourism, all showcasing a Māori sensibility, flair, and business ethics supported by Māori values and beliefs.

The public sector risks losing its Māori staff to this flourishing private sector, which can often entice staff with better employment packages, if it doesn’t offer the right support.

Yet, over the years, I’ve watched organisations blunder into cultural messes because of lazy thinking.

A pōhiri is so much more than a welcome. It is the interplay between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds where mana, wairua, and whakapapa are all at stake.

A tangi is so much more than a service, a cake, and a cuppa. It is a deeply tapu grieving, mourning and celebratory process, fortified by tikanga and kawa that ultimately uplift and cleanse participants so they can face the mundane world again without their loved one.

Departments must have Māori staff as navigators and guides into this world, or they risk damaging their reputation and relationships, or causing irreparable mamae.

We have a proud and deep intellectual, social and spiritual understanding of this whenua and we’re the cultural experts in our own knowledge. Don’t call us in just to sing a song or do a speech or translate some reo.

It’s possible to employ a project manager, scientist, or software designer from any country in the world, but you can only find Māori specialist staff in Aotearoa. We’re home-grown.

Look after us — and support us to refill our kete.


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.

Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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