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SocietyFebruary 8, 2017

Trauma layered upon trauma: the fight to turn the tide in Māori youth suicide

Johner Bildbyra
Johner Bildbyra

Māori youth suicide rates are among the highest in the world. Some of the most affected rangatahi and their families talk to Jessica McAllen, while those at the grassroots striving to tackle the problem explain what they’re up to, and the obstacles they confront.

It’s summer in Raumanga and the pool is empty. Drained, awaiting demolition, the former school would normally be brimming with residents of the low-income Whangarei suburb.

Nearly four decades ago, locals fundraised to build the pool by selling bricks engraved with people’s names. Since then lifeguards have been hired every December, and families have cranked the free barbecue. It was a haven for those who lived too far from the beach and it was cleaner than the Raumanga Falls, which contained run-off from nearby farms.

The Ministry of Education is preparing the site — part of a youth and family hub called The Pulse — for demolition so they can sell the former Raumanga Primary School block of land.

The Pulse currently hosts 33 community services including youth groups, food-help and maternity programmes.

The ministry claims it can no longer hold onto the site, home to The Pulse since 2000, because it isn’t technically an education provider.

Many Whangarei youth say it’s places like The Pulse that help them find a sense of belonging that equips them to tackle the growing problem of youth suicide.

The bricks from the 1980s are retrievable but come with a warning that they could crumble in the process.

The Pulse, Whangarei. Photo: Youth One Stop Trust Charitable Trust presentation

Yuliana Haki Kare Drummond, 16, is upset at the decision to demolish the venue where she is a youth leader for Te Ora Hau, a faith-based organisation that helps rangatahi (young people).

“The rangatahi I have worked around this year down there treasure that,” she says.

“The Pulse and Te Ora Hau youth groups do a lot more than you think … this is pure cruelty to take this place away from the youth. This makes my blood boil to the max.”

Drummond is about to enter Year 12 at Kamo High School, studying English, Maths, Social Studies, Music and Employment. She likes old school music, reggae and “of course, Beyoncé”.

In the last two years she has lost six people to suicide.

Five years ago, when Drummond was 10, her sister killed herself aged 15.

In 2015, her friend, Shayla Wihongi, killed herself aged 15.

Last year, the close-knit group was hit by the loss of yet another friend, who was 16.

“It took a big toll on all of us … I was real close to those two girls in particular.”

A month before the latest suicide, by chance I met two of Drummond’s “squad” — “B”, now 16, and Jacinta (Cinta) Hoek-Ama, now 18, at Mataatua marae in Rotorua.

Haika and Hoek-Ama are part of a group of Ngātiwai youth involved in a suicide support and research programme, led by Lily George. They were at the marae to speak at the World Indigenous Suicide Conference last June.

The group was created after a spate of suicides in Whangarei in 2012. Most were students at Kamo college — where Drummond and Hoek-Ama study — and one was Drummond’s sister. Many of the deaths were Ngātiwai, so the trust board approached Bert Van Dijk, a performative research expert, and successfully applied for Lotteries funding.

As the adults fell asleep in the marae, phone lights illuminated the walls and the rangatahi traced out their whakapapa. One boy talked about “all my girlfriends” back home, others admired his 4000 Facebook friends. Later, those still awake talked about how many people had suicided in their immediate community — one rattling off family names like a shopping list.

The conference started early for each of its three days and it was the middle of a cold winter. The city’s events centre was split into two. On the left, a “youth” area promising games and a performance by King Kapisi. On the right, a formal affair for  adults and kaumātua. The event costs hundreds to attend so you had to be working in the sector, a fundraising whiz (like the rangatahi from Whangarei) or rich.

A disconnect immediately struck — while one side of the conference was despairing about children taking their lives, the other was providing insight and ideas for solutions. But the people who had power to implement them weren’t there.

The youth sleeping at the marae presented He Ara Toi Ora, a project which teaches art, drama, waiata and kapa haka as a safe space for tamariki to discuss suicide, mentored by researcher Lily George.

Role-playing addressed issues of bullying, violence and family conflicts. There were trips to sacred Ngātiwai spaces where kaumātua would impart knowledge. One night they had a pamper session with massages and facials. Another time, yoga instructors from Auckland offered free lessons. This all happened within eight marae-based wānanga, or forums, around Northland. Swimming was built into the programme after some said they found things a bit boring when it first started.

‘They need to hear the bad first, then the good’: Cinta Hoek-Ama. Photo: Jess McAllen

On Facebook the youth have a community in which they can discuss their upcoming meetings or problems. From memes to articles on youth suicide to quotes like “so many years of education yet nobody taught us how to love ourselves,” captioned “who can relate?”

All Ngātiwai children are welcome, regardless of mental health, but most had experienced suicide in some form.

“A lot of the kids live in difficult situations,” says George.

“They are teenagers — the most intense time of emotion in your life. There was a lot of bullying. Poverty is a big factor as well. The issues of teenagehood are exacerbated by living in poverty.”

At her presentation in Rotorua, she told the conference the simplest finding of her research: love.

“They need to be loved, they need to feel secure and they need to find some purposes in their life,” she told the audience.

“That’s really simple,” she says later, “but you’ve also got to be aware of the context a lot of our kids live within.”

Lack of identity within the Māori community, says George, contributes to youth suicide rates.

“There’s a lot of kids that are lost. They know they’re Māori. They’re treated within society as being Māori — often in a very negative way — but don’t know who they are as Māori.”

Holding the wānanga at a Northland marae was a no-brainer, she says.

“It makes sure the kids are welcomed into that space in a way that’s nurturing and accepting. Some marae you go on and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can get really denigrated.”

George is hoping to develop a model similar to He Ara Toi Ora to be used across the country.

“I really think marae-based wānanga would work for Pākehā and other kids. The point is coming together and supporting each other. That collective response to situations.”

While only two wānanga remain for the group, a strong message from both parents and rangatahi is they need to find a way to carry on. They will be fundraising to keep the monthly wānanga alive, says George.

“It’s just so necessary to have that time to build up resilience and hope for the month ahead.

“It broke our hearts because we got to know more about what the tai tamariki were going through — the challenges some of them face everyday are pretty bad. Our hearts were mended because we saw their beauty, potential and creativity.”

The problem in New Zealand today is as stark as it is urgent. The rate of Māori youth suicides is more than double that for non-Māori youth. Across all ages, it is male Māori who dominate the statistics, but the disparity is in fact greater for Māori women, and that rate has been steadily increasing: in 2015 it was the highest for 11 years. It is part of a wider pattern, too: in 2013 the intentional self harm rates for Māori female youth had risen 77 per cent since 2004.

According to data released by the Coroner’s Office under the Official Information Act, in the year to June 2016, 48 Māori youth killed themselves. Of that number, 28 were male and 20 female.

At Kamo High school, Cinta Hoek-Ama and Yuliana Drummond are unofficial counsellors. They’re often pulled out of class to search for students — “we know their hiding spots,” says Drummond — or to console self harmers.

Support for struggling students is New Zealand high schools is minimal, says Drummond.

“We could get one speaker in a year but that will fade throughout the rest of the year and everyone feels a bit lost.

“I’ve stopped people self-harming at school. I don’t think it should be my job. It should be the adults’ job to see this before a teenager does. Adults say the kids are going through a phase but it won’t be a phase any more when they’re gone.”

It’s not that the school — shaken by suicides in 2012 — doesn’t have counsellors, she says. They just don’t relate, connect, or understand.

“All these kids have bandages around their arms because they go to Student Support Centre who are like, ‘you’ll be all right.’ You can cover it but it’s not gonna fix what they’re going through. You’re just covering emotions that can’t be said.”

Drummond has lost six loved ones and Hoek-Ama lost two of her friends in 2012 to suicide. Both have had suicidal thoughts.

“I was 13 so it was hard for me to understand,” says Hoek-Ama.

“My own feelings towards the situation were unexplainable so I pushed people away and later became depressed which led to me attempting to take my life because I couldn’t deal with the pain. I felt there was no other way to express my hurt.”

The two don’t want other young people to feel the way they did.

“We help them because it makes us feel a bit better about ourselves and makes them feel like someone is actually listening to them,” says Drummond.

A common theme that comes up when talking to her peers is family problems, she says.

“If you’re living with your grandparents you need to know who you are because they won’t really tell you or let you communicate with your parents. I’ve got communication with mine, but only got it this year.

“There’s a lot of family violence that can go on in Islander and Māori families which can push a teenager to the limit where they just don’t want to be around the abuse any more. They just … go.”

Hoek-Ama says youth need people who relate to them and aren’t patronising.

“If you talk about something they don’t know nothing about they feel like an outsider and don’t understand because you haven’t been through what they’re going through,” she says.

“Like, ‘why are you talking to me about this stuff you’ve achieved but you haven’t faced the obstacles I’m facing?’ They need to hear the bad first, then the good.”

Hoek-Ama’s depression “clicks on and off” but she knows how to deal with it now and has “stuff to look forward to”. This year she wants to do youth work and help others.

“I’ve been through the dark place myself,” she says. “It’s made me want to make a difference but it’s hard. Different kids get different opportunities.

“A lot of kids that haven’t even had depression or had friends that have done that to themselves are the ones representing or creating projects for suicide. But they … sometimes … don’t even know what they’re talking about.

“That’s just the way it is — they’re looking for certain people to fit the part.”

Below: Peter Rudolph from Whangarei preferred to talk about suicide via music

Hoek-Ama left Kamo high school in Year 10 to attend Te Pumanawa O Te Wairua charter school as a self-described “naughty kid”, and returned to Kamo last year, winning three prizes at the final school assembly (Creativity in Language Cup, Māori Pupil Endeavour Cup and the coveted Principal Award).

Drummond is full of pride when talking about her friend: “She’s real out there, stands for her culture, doesn’t give up on anything and is real into helping people right to the end. She strives for results and is a good person.”

One of the suicides that shattered the Whangarei community was that of 15-year-old Shayla Wihongi in 2015.

Wihongi had recently moved to Papanui High School to live with her father and step-mother in Christchurch. A bright girl, she had won a music scholarship, a kapa haka award and a speech competition.

“She said that, as a young Māori, it was hard to be who you really want to be when you’ve got all these boundaries you have to fall under,” says her mother, Vanessa Wihongi.

“Her fear was about the future of our next generation.”

It’s summer in Sandy Bay near Whangarei and Vanessa Wihongi has just gone for a swim.

She is commemorating 16 months since the suicide by visiting the beach her daughter loved. Later the family will get burgers and have a picnic at Shayla’s favourite park.

She remembers: “Her magical smile, her directness, open, honest opinion. She was a real free spirit and wanted to see everyone happy and in harmony. That’s the reason I’m at this favourite beach of hers today in Matakauri, now it’s been 16 months, the 18th.”

Wihongi says suicide is a common problem up North.

“Māori  don’t get taught those things – emotional feelings and how to express them. Māori  children – even when I grew up – aren’t allowed to speak how they feel. A lot of parents aren’t the type to sit and listen. They are quite ignorant and arrogant in the fact they don’t have time to listen.

“The situation up North … it’s more common with the Māori  world. Never be afraid to speak out or tell someone you’re not feeling OK with what’s going on.”

The North is disproportionately affected by poverty, she adds. “They don’t have the funding to carry on and educate on suicide.”

After a difficult year – a non-suspicious house fire left Wihongi sleeping in a car last year – she is feeling good about 2017.

“I got a new granddaughter, that was the best Christmas present, finding a place for my children in Whangarei and getting a new granddaughter.

“It doesn’t bring Shayla back but it’s given me a lot of closure and I can move on and focus on my kids that are here. I’ve gotta be strong for them too. I’m talking to them all the time about when they feel alone and like there’s no one to talk to.”

Shayla Wihongi

At the first Wananga, one of the students (who was 15 at the time so we’ve decided to simply call her B) would sit with her hoodie over her head, glaring at everybody and trying to work out who was trustworthy. B was pointed out to George as one of the rangatahi on suicide watch.

Today, B “is our biggest success,” says George. “The hoodie came down.

“Her whole demeanour was dark. She was in such a deep, dark place but by the final wananga we did a performance for family and friends at Takahiwai marae and she was there: acting, singing, it was amazing. Her dad got up and thanked us.”

B has an extensive history of self-harm, her arms have cuts all the way up. She’s lost six cousins, one aunt and four friends to suicide.

“It’s not easy being a rangatahi these days,” B says. “There are so many different obstacles that we now face with cyber-bullying, peer pressure, verbal, emotion, physical and mental abuse. It’s half the reason I self harmed.

“When I was little I got diagnosed with sleep apnea and asthma and other sickness. I was always in hospital, always sick, I couldn’t do what other kids could do. I fell into a deep depression where I just wanted to sleep and eat but then I got big and started getting insecure about myself and started self-harming. It was the only way out at the time.”

Not long after the conference, B lost one of her closest friends to suicide – a loss that had a ripple effect on the Facebook pages of all the Whangarei youth and will be counted in next year’s suicide statistics.

“At the time we were really worried that B might attempt suicide as well,” says George.

“We rallied around her. We went to the tangi as a group, came back to Takahiwai marae and talked about it. That really helped the kids, to be loved and supported, to be able to grieve.

“We watched her on social media. That could have been the end of her life as well – I do believe the possibility was there but because of the support she had and the work she’d done up to that point … she could continue to express on social media and to us.”

After her friend’s suicide, with her parents permission, B got a Māori tattoo artist to create a tattoo on her cut-emblazoned arm to depict her healing journey. It outlined aspects of life close to her heart like ngatiwai and whānau .

“I wanted it to cover up my scars, not to take them away, just cover them up and get a tattoo that’s really meaningful to me,” she says.

B has her tattoo inked. Photo: supplied

The He Ara Toi Ora youth stood around her, singing and talking throughout the process. The boys did a haka.

“One young man, Cinta’s brother, he hadn’t really connected with his Māori  side,” says George.

“He talked about how he didn’t know much but his heart had been opened. So he did a haka on his own – he stumbled and forgot the words but the beautiful thing was, if you look at the video, everyone is supporting him. The mistakes weren’t important, the fact that he was trying was and finally, after three or four goes, he got through the whole haka by himself.”

Indigenous researcher Keri Lawson-Te Aho (Ngāi Tāhu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou) says the over-emphasis on westernised clinical approaches in the mental health system is not only not working, it is harming young Māori.

While there are plenty of good people working in Māori suicide prevention, contracts for services are made by people who “willingly disregard our shared violent histories and the generational effects of this,” she says.

“People say we need to talk more but what about more taringa [ears] that actually work? It’s one thing to keep talking and another to actually listen. We’ve been saying this stuff for a long time.

“How can we ever get real about suicide when our whānau are pōhara, incarcerated, in CYFs care, unable to access Māori mental health services with Māori clinicians who actively seek out alternatives to standard clinical treatment?”

Instead, she highlights Māori-based approaches like Mahi-a-Atua — a practice run by moko artist Mark Kopua and his partner, psychiatrist Diana Rangihuna, which draws from Māori creation stories (pūrākau) to explore mental health problems.

“I’ve worked with young people who have been to see Mark and Diana and had a ta moko done and they say it’s made a huge difference to their lives, having that constant reminder they’re Māori.”

Māori are legacy bearers of processes that began a long time ago, says Lawson-Te Aho, and it shows in the suicide statistics.

“Seven generations of violence, transference of poverty, massive loss of life through preventable disease. The whole story is just trauma layered on trauma.”

But the community needs to look forward as well.

Lawson-Te Aho is “bloody sick” of those holding on to traditions around the tangi process for a suicide.

When her nephew killed himself in 2012, aged 21, he was takatāpui and a member of the Christian church. At the tangi she had to convince members of the church to allow his takatāpui (LGBTI) community to participate.

“They had green, pink, white hair. Some of them were goths. They performed this haka while he was being brought in. While some people will say traditionally if a person committed suicide pre-colonial times they’d be buried outside the urupā or face down, I saw the impact it had on his friends, his mother — a solo mum, his dad died by suicide — who led the procession. She was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the outpouring of love to her son. Because he ended his life doesn’t make him any less Māori.”

There is palpable tension between Pākehā and Māori mental health models and ongoing disagreement regarding how to best address the epidemic.

‘The whole story is just trauma layered on trauma’: Dr Keri Lawson-Te Aho. Photo: University of Otago

Simone, a Māori woman who used to work in the mental health sector while suffering clinical depression, left her job frustrated by the culturally incompetent system.

“My role was mostly confined to giving advice over the phone,” says Simone (not her real name; changed at her request for employment reasons).

“Every fibre in my being resisted, because, as a Māori, a matter as sensitive as mental health should be discussed kanohi ki te kanohi, over kai and a cup of tea, with karakia, and whānau support present.”

She rejects the Five Ways to Wellbeing, a model adopted from the United Kingdom, based on 2008 research, as a “total farce”.

“Translating the slogan into te reo as a tokenised ploy to appear diverse for funding is a disgusting strategy employed by almost every mental health and community development organisation in New Zealand.”

It is no secret in community circles, she says, that the Ministry of Social Development has been draining the funding pool, pitting organisations which were once happy to collaborate against each other to streamline services.

“Your CEO or clinical director will sink their teeth into Anne Tolley or Paula Bennett over morning tea and pose for a photo for the community newsletter with them because no one dares criticise the hand that feeds them.”

Rural communities are often the first to suffer, where Māori organisations rely on volunteers and lack support — financial or otherwise — to stay afloat.

“It’s a loose net; roughly fixed to catch some but not all who fall between the cracks,” she says.

“We shouldn’t have to be identifying risk factors for Māori suicide because we need to be addressing the root cause of colonisation, which all contributing factors stem from.

“Mental health for Māori is an equity problem and extends to education, the teaching of our history, poverty and access to resources, healthcare, employment, housing — almost every facet of life.

“The lack of regard for Māori narrative results in compounding us to believe we must succumb to being a statistic.”

He Waka Tapu, a Christchurch non-profit offering health and social services for Māori, has a special taskforce assigned to Māori youth suicide prevention. Its members are Zion Tauamiti, Rudolph Diaz and Kylie-Jane Phillips.

For six months, I shadowed the workers on their trips to local schools and meetings about grieving families.

When Tauamiti first turned up to the East Side Christchurch office, he was wearing socks and jandals. He’d never done a formal interview but after an hour he was hired — he’s ditched the socks and jandals now but you won’t ever see him without his trademark guitar.

Spending time with Tauamiti, it’s easy to forget that He Waka Tapu is one of many non-profits fighting for government money to survive. He has a pure motivation to help and is actively involved with the community — even when not at work — and lacks the ego of appearing as “the one guy who solves suicide, the Māori Jesus”, as one co-worker puts it.

‘When you get an idea, you run with it’: Zion Tauamiti. Photo: supplied

Before joining He Waka Tapu, Tauamiti spent every Thursday at a mental health inpatient unit in Christchurch. He’d sing with the patients. It’s part of his life motto: The Healing Song. He believes everyone has one. A condition of his contract was that he gets Thursday afternoons off to go into the hospital and sing with the patients. When he’s told about a suicide training conference in another city that might eat into this time he’s annoyed. “It’s just old people not listening to solutions …”

In 2012, a friend’s brother was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and admitted to Hillside hospital for a manic episode. The friend asked Tauamiti to visit.

“It was like, ‘oh shit, this is the mental hospital,’” he says.

“I knew something was up, he’d entered another realm of vulnerability and I remember thinking ‘this is different, this is special’.”

On the footpath, near the ward’s entrance, were 20 patients. It was the smoking area. Tauamiti offered to jam with his friend’s brother.

“He’s a full-on smart, rich kid from Christ’s College but when he’s manic he’s like a rapper from Detroit so he was like, ‘yeah, man, rap to me.’

“He had to go to dinner and said he’d come back in 30, so I leaned over my car and started playing Bon Iver. People drifted over. This lady was stomping her foot. By then 10 people gathered around, just nodding their heads or trying to talk to me.”

So every week he went and played on the road: “There could have been 20 people, there could have been one — I’d just sit by the tree and rap or play guitar.”

But then the patients were no longer allowed to smoke on the road. Tauamiti turned up and was greeted with silence. They were smoking in an area inside the dorm, and you needed a badge or visitor’s pass to get in.

This didn’t stop Tauamiti. He rang the chaplain and offered to play music for church service once a month.

“The services were out of this world,” he says.

“The rawest form of church. Ever. You might be singing a song and someone would decide to break into a haka. It got called off one day — it’s only 30 minutes in, and this guy just started spewing everywhere. The chaplain was like: ‘All right, it smells too much.’”

Tauamiti is now an honorary chaplain and comes into the unit to sing with whoever wants to in a small lounge. It has a TV, old mystery books and paper to draw on. Some are enthusiastic, some are frazzled, a lot are sleepy but when they get to sing — no matter how out of tune — there’s a feeling of normalcy and connectedness that the sterile building is sorely missing.

Healing Song extends to a youth group that Tauamiti mentors, Waiata Ora. Since the earthquake there’s been a real need for Māori youth spaces, he says. A few months ago he hosted a leadership summit at a cafe and the cook made “fancy white people pumpkin dishes where the lid comes on and off”. He worried the kids wouldn’t like it but the cook talked about how she came from a hard background too, how grateful she was to have them there and it went down a treat.

While Tauamiti’s bosses spent time deciding whether or not to fund the summit, he went ahead and paid the $100 out of his own pocket to rent the space. It’s a classic Zion Tauamiti move. He isn’t one for stuffy bureaucracy.

At one school he visits, the high school counsellor grabs him. He wants to talk about a kid who is “playing up”.

There’s a good kid in there, the counsellor says. A leader, an athlete. Stoned every day. Mum died, he doesn’t like dad. Staying with a nice family but they also do drugs. Can you help? Will Mike King answer my email, asks the counsellor. “Yes.” He does this free of charge? “Yes.” That’s incredible, man.

“It’s hard because they don’t understand I’m not a clinician,” says Tauamiti later.

The counsellor gets a student to grab the boy from class. He’s very blunt about what is going on (“that was ugly wasn’t it,” he says of the boy’s mother’s death) and pressures him to try out for the top basketball team and win awards.

Tauamiti talked with the student away from the overbearing counsellor. “Weed wasn’t the big problem,” he says.

“It was his grief. He hadn’t learnt how to cope with it. When I asked if he thought of his mum every day, tears started to well up. Tackle the grief, then tackle the weed.”

As Tauamiti walks the student back to class, another student waves to him from a classroom. Tauamiti gives him the fingers as a joke, in time for the teacher to see and shoot a look of condemnation. His methods aren’t conventional but they resonate in a space where conventional methods haven’t been working for a long time.

“This monster is attached to so many things,” he says.

“It’s like a cancer. People say we can control stuff around cancer — eating, smoking — but there’s some things you can’t and it’s just growing silently. Then one day your balls are cancerous and nobody knows how it got there.

“It’s the same with suicide. Sometimes we can’t control the darkness — the depression in people — but there are things like sexual abuse, let’s fucking kill that monster.

“Saying ‘stop suicide!’ demonises this other thing. It becomes foreign. Suicide appears to be a dark, overshadowing cloud but actually suicide — with those contributing factors — is the uncle that keeps walking into the room at 3am and touching you up and no one is going to talk about it so you just grow up going, ‘I fucking hate myself.’”

If Tauamiti could change one thing at a governmental level in regard to suicide it would be responses to sexual abuse.

“I’ve been working here for two years now and when you get an idea you run with it. Right now, the most important thing for me is around sexual abuse. It’s huge. It’s a journey I’ve been discovering, especially in my healing journey, around my own experiences with sexual abuse.” Recent suicides among Christchurch youth had elements of sexual abuse, he says.

An early visit to the He Waka Tapu offices in Christchurch coincides with the arrival of a new employee, Kylie-Jane Phillips (Ngāi Tahu).

It’s September and her first week but she has big goals: to bring back the “Pā Games” from her childhood as a way of getting young people to participate and connect — an annual day of sports and activities between two “rival” Ngāi Tahu marae, Rapaki and Tuahiwi. We travel out to Tuahiwi, a settlement near Kaiapoi, to meet with her cousin — he wants the games back as well.

“The last games were in 2011,” she says.

“We lost the kaupapa there for a wee while. It became about the adults, about a game of league. The physical contact was pretty heavy. It became about getting wasted. It was no longer about whanaungatanga, it was just beefing out on the field.”

There was an incident where hapū rivalry got out of hand and punches were exchanged.

Phillips thinks these kinds of events — without the booze and punch-ups — are crucial to feeling like you aren’t alone, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.

“When I came back to New Zealand I just thought, ‘man, this is not only what I as an individual need, it’s what my immediate family needs, it’s what my extended family needs. It’s what my hapū needs.’

“When I got back to Rapaki, I’d been gone six years. We’d recently lost a matriarch in our family so there was a big grieving process because she was a mother of seven. I knew I had to move home to feel closer to her. When I got there, no one was there. All the oldies were there but there wasn’t many children — there’s maybe three or four in our pā now.”

They left for work, for houses, and only really come home when someone dies, she says.

“Our marae is a five million dollar complex. My grandparents and cousins’ grandparents and all our extended oldies worked their whole lives to build a space for us. They always said: ‘We will never get the fruits of our labour, the children will.’ But something happened and they’re not coming home.

Two months later, Pā Games 2016 is ready to go — after a lot of convincing the kaumātua.

The Ngāi Tahu Pa Games, 2016. Photo: Struan Purde

“Why are you doing this? What was wrong with the old way? Oh, your grandmother died, the matriarch, do you think you can fit those shoes? And who the fuck is He Waka Tapu? What have they got to do with it?”

When the event was created on Facebook the design implied He Waka Tapu was hosting the event (as it was set up from their account). A relative rang Phillips: “Hey, you fullas wanna host, eh? Is that right? Well, you’re paying for the kai! Go on, He Waka Tapu that!”

Phillips laughs while recounting the phone call as she drives a trailer-load of couches to a rugby field in Kaiapoi. All she wants is to bring back the connectedness she felt as a kid when she visited the marae.

“It was a place people died, occasionally got married, but actually it is our space that we need to honour and use and remember the connections and what happened before us. Life should be reciprocal but we’re falling short.

“This event tomorrow is an invitation to those disconnected from their marae. There’s a fear there, too, about going home. A fear of processes, of being ignorant to marae protocol. From the invitation comes the idea of ‘Hey, we’re having a Christmas party, open mic at the marae, bring your kids, we’ll celebrate your whakapapa, we’ll celebrate your genealogy — we’ll affirm you! In your own space!’”

She lights up.

“I don’t think there’s anything more powerful in the world than someone standing up in their turangawaewae, their standing place to speak, and telling their people who they are.

“That’s empowering, that’s our job, finding links that aren’t put together. Connecting people with their community, who they are, their own identity. That’s the shit that prevents suicide.”

This story was produced with the help of the 2016 NIB Canon Junior Health Scholarship and He Waka Tapu. An earlier version appeared in print form in Mana magazine (Feb-Mar), under the headline “The Last Good-bye”

Where to get help:

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email

0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email

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