Design: Archi Banal.
Design: Archi Banal.

SocietyMarch 6, 2023

Courageous kōrero is the first step to overcoming intergenerational trauma

Design: Archi Banal.
Design: Archi Banal.

At a wānanga between gang whānau and a Royal Commission of Inquiry, a talanoa occurred on violence committed by the government towards gang members as children.

Shortly after 9am on a crisp February morning, a karanga rang through the air in Manukau. A pōwhiri under Tainui kawa was beginning the proceedings on a historic day. This groundbreaking occasion saw – for the first time ever – representatives from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, Māori gangs (and their Moana cousins), community groups and churches share one room. On the invitation of Hikoi Nation – made up of senior members of the Mighty Mongrel Mob (MMM), Black Power and King Cobras – the Royal Commission was there to listen to how government actions caused intergenerational trauma and mamae. Since 2018, the Royal Commission has been researching this kaupapa, and they were keen to hear how the government could avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. 

The tangata whenua of the pōwhiri collectively represented many of the hundred lovers of Tāmaki Makaurau and the manuhiri came from across the motu. As such many whānau, hapū and iwi were present. When the manuhiri crossed the makeshift marae courtyard – a gravelly carpark strewn with motorcycles – one guest responded to the karanga with whaikōrero. Once inside the makeshift marae – an events centre – whaikōrero, mihimihi and waiata were exchanged between the tangata whenua and manuhiri. To round off the formal opening, a Pai Mārire karakia was recited in unison. 

Representatives of the various rōpū sat among one another to frankly kōrero and talanoa. From current and former gang members, lawyers and media to anti-violence campaigners, politicians, protestors and academics, the room was a site to behold. In it, courageous conversations were being had. Sir Pita Sharples, Tigilau Ness and Tracey McIntosh shared the room with survivors of vicious violence. Ness, representing the Polynesian Panthers, said he was “standing here as a witness to the unending injustice” and mentioned, “they tried to lock you up, but you are resilient.”  

Some Might Mongrel Mob members at the wānanga. (Photo: Tommy de Silva)

The voices that bounced off the walls were vulnerable, talking about traumatic episodes of violence – all in the hope that moko and mokomoko wouldn’t have to go through it too. But those future generations were also present, chasing each other around, subconsciously learning about a dark truth of colonisation – systematic, racist violence, even against children. One speaker from the Aiga Trust said, “I brought the next generation here to see what we’re doing today,” adding that “it’s a historic day.”

This talanoa required revisiting generations of trauma for those the state was tasked with “caring” for. “It wasn’t care – don’t call it that!” yelled one whaea, filled with anguish. “I live with the trauma from 45 years ago still today,” said one kaumātua. Representatives from the Royal Commission were there to hear about the long-term effects of government actions.

It is no surprise to anyone to say that some gang members commit violent acts upon others – that is a fact. But another fact that would shock most New Zealanders is that as tamariki many gang members were abused – physically, mentally and sexually – by so-called carers on the government payroll. Once out of state or faith-based care, formerly abused children rallied together out of shared experience, forming or joining gangs – a safety in-numbers gig. These were some of the sentiments shared not only by the gangs but by the Royal Commission officials, the media, the faiths and all present at February 20th’s “Abuse in Care” wānanga. 

A graph visualising the staggering difference in incarceration rates of Māori and non-Māori who were in state care. (Graph: Abuse in Care – Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care)

According to the Royal Commission, 80-90% of members in Māori gangs were in state care. The commission accepts that state care played a role in creating the gang landscape of today. According to a King Cobras representative, the state system was a horrible place that normalised cultural alienation and dissociation. It has been said that the gangs fill the cultural hole that hapū and iwi once inhabited. A MMM rangatira noted that “state care led to lifetimes of poor health, drug and alcohol dependency and repeat offending.”

But the agenda of the wānanga wasn’t only to restate facts that everyone in the room already agreed on. Instead, the wānanga was an opportunity to call out the government to spark a concerted effort for change. It was about moving progressively forward by taking into account past atrocities.  

Rua Maynard, an anti-violence campaigner, said that raising awareness about hard-to-talk-about kaupapa – like violent trauma – was an excellent first step towards mitigating further violence. However, he hoped it would be the first step of many. In that way, the courageous conversations on February 20 were the foundation for overcoming intergenerational trauma. Royal commissioner Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae said that abuse has deeper intergenerational impacts than we currently understand. 

Survivors of abuse were at the wānanga to “tell our stories so we can move forward,” said a third-generation state ward, who was “in it for my kids; I don’t want a fourth-generation state ward.” A MMM rangatira spoke about the day being “about protecting the tamariki and mokopuna.” One reformed former violent offender mentioned that in the community mahi he now does, he works four generations into the future to keep mokopuna safe. By centring on the next generations, the gangs were just as focused on solutions as they were on sharing their stories.

The gang whānau were unequivocal that the solutions must come from them, not the state. One kaikōrero said that if the government tried to tell the gangs what to do, they wouldn’t do it. “How can the paedophiles and the abusers determine the payout?” questioned one MMM leader. Commissioner Alofivae added to this kōrero. She noted that gang whānau are marginalised voices who – from their experiences of abuse in state care – rightly don’t trust the system. The solution must be “bottom-up policy change that reflects the reality of lived experiences,” Alofivae argued. She also said that “we need to treat gangs as the legitimate parts of society that they are” – designing their own solutions to problems they know best is a good start.

Cultural reclamation was the primary solution discussed by the gang whānau to stop intergenerational trauma. Many speakers talked about how reclaiming the culture stolen from them by colonisation sparked their journeys away from violence. Alofivae believes that the use of one’s reo profoundly grounds people. There were mentions of language classes and cultural groups inside of prisons that reformed abuse survivors from violent individuals to peaceful and deeply culturally and spiritually literate people. The Royal commission’s chair, Judge Coral Shaw, said that state care forcefully disassociated tamariki from their whānau, iwi, hapū and aiga. Disassociation caused “spiritual and cultural isolation from their whakapapa,” she said. To find solutions, Shaw believes “Aotearoa-New Zealand needs to learn, listen and respond [to gang whānau] so future generations don’t also suffer abuse in care.” According to Phil Paikea, a well-known anti-violence campaigner and former Black Power rangatira, to end the violence the government must give gangs more resources.

Gang whānau are eager for solutions, hence why they participated in the wānanga with the Royal Commission representatives. The first step towards salvation is having the courage to kōrero, as many of the traumatised men did both at the hearings and at the wānanga. They spoke about historically taboo topics, not only for their individual benefit but for their kids and their kids’ kids. 

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