By Jennifer Leahy, Sector Services Manager Southern, Ako Aotearoa

The concept of historical trauma can be applied to the effects of colonisation on Māori in New Zealand.

Traumatic events take a serious emotional toll on anyone involved. In particular, these events can have a profound impact on an individual’s identity and are beyond a person’s control. The effects of being traumatised are very distinct and people who have experienced trauma are impacted physically, emotionally, behaviourally, cognitively, spiritually, neurobiologically and relationally.

Regardless of its source, trauma contains three common elements: it was unexpected; the person was unprepared; there was nothing the person could do to stop it from happening.

In New Zealand many services have taken steps to work towards achieving a trauma-informed practice beginning with rape crisis and domestic violence groups in the 1970s as well as child abuse teams and the mental health community in the 1980s.

A trauma-informed practice means that: everyone understands the barriers created by a traumatic experience, so the result is better for everyone; we realise the impact of trauma; we recognise the signs and symptoms of trauma in staff and learners; we respond by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices and settings; and we create a culture that promotes safety, trust and compassion. (Te Pou o te Whakaaro Nui – Trauma-informed care information and training resources, 2018).

And trauma has a range of impacts. It causes changes to the brain; compromised immune systems; increased physical and mental stress; decreased trust; attachment difficulties and conflictual relationships; hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance; and rigid or chaotic behaviour.

There are different types of trauma: interpersonal trauma (childhood abuse; sexual assault); external trauma (war; victim of crime); developmental trauma (witnessing violence in the home; child neglect); and historical trauma (disconnection from families and cultural practices).

Much of the research on historical trauma is from Native Americans and Holocaust survivors and the impact of these experiences on following generations.

The concept of historical trauma can be applied to the effects of colonisation on Māori in New Zealand. Historical and intergenerational colonisation impact on whānau and communities by contributing to negative disparities in poor health, education and housing and low incomes culminating in severe social and economic disadvantage. Many Māori describe colonisation and its impact on them as an overwhelming trauma: a denial of voice, opportunity and potential on an intergenerational scale – a loss of rangatiratanga, mana and dignity, stolen identity, culture and language, stolen land and dispossession, a loss of place and for many, disconnection from whakapapa (Moana Jackson, TV One, 2018).

Dr. Keri Lawson-Te Aho reinforces this by noting that “the wounding of Māori spirit cuts through generations”(TV One, 2018). In addition, as identified in the Government report He Waka Roimata: A Vessel of tears, “we need to be clear about the impact of colonisation and how current trauma is an extension of historical trauma. The system needs to acknowledge Māori are in pain” (2019, P. 9).

It has been suggested that colonisation consists of the three M’s: the missionaries, to pacify the people; the Military, to keep the people pacified and then the Masses, to over populate the people. And decolonisation is about reclaiming the three Ms: the Marae, the home of the people, the Mauri, the life essence of the people, and the Mana, the power and authority of the people.

Historically the approach to addressing trauma was to provide people with fragmented services that did not consider the person as a whole. There was a separation between emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. As trauma affects the whole person, recovery also has to take into consideration the whole person. Through the nurturing of healthy relationships, attending to basic physical needs (i.e. sleep and nutrition), having adequate housing and food and security, people have a greater opportunity to engage in trauma recovery. The mind, body and spirit can then respond to these positive factors and therefore provide the potential for healing.

Sir Mason Durie’s model (1982) of Te Whare Tapa Wha, (a model that offers Māori views of health as a four sided concept representing the four basic tenets of life – spiritual, mental and emotional, physical and family component), is a helpful model to consider in managing trauma.

Tiaki koe I a koe ano

Remember the importance of taking care of yourself and connecting with others.

Some key tips for managing trauma are:

  • Safety first! If the traumatic situation is ongoing, get some help to make yourself safe. You may need some help in finding a safe place to stay.
  • Talk with someone you trust about what happened. Talking with family and friends may also be good. Support and understanding at a difficult time can be very helpful. You don’t have to face it alone.
  • Know that how you are feeling is very normal for someone who has been through a traumatic event.
  • Give yourself time. Know that the way you are feeling will not last, and by dealing with the fears and thoughts, you will be able to get on with life. Be kind to yourself. Accept that it might take a bit of time to adjust.
  • Spend time doing nice things – relaxing, going for walks, visiting beautiful places, seeing friends. Plan to do nice things each day.
  • It will be important to confront situations associated with the traumatic event… but do it gradually. You may decide to go back to work, but go just for a few hours at first and then build it up slowly.
  • Don’t use drugs and alcohol to cope. They will only make it worse. Try to find other ways to relax.
  • Finally one of the most helpful approaches to consider with learners is that ‘It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s happened’.

For further information and/or interest in the possibility of this workshop being provided in your area, please contact