Mahi Atua1Mahi a Atua: Indigenous models of practice as ‘usual care’ approach.

Mahi a Atua as a Maori therapeutic intervention was developed in 1996 by Dr Diana Kopua.  This intervention involves retelling and sharing of stories (pūrākau) between a Mataora and whanau providing a platform from which to effect meaningful changes in all aspects of their wellbeing including both spiritual, psychological and relational aspects. In addition, the pūrākau hold important messages of how Maori ancestors understood and found meaning to their realities.  Mahi a Atua provides an opportunity for Mataora and whanau to use the pūrākau as a mechanism to reinstate an authentic cultural lens.

Mahi a Atua as an intervention makes explicit therapeutic use of pūrākau that represent historical knowledge.  These particular stories allow Māori whanau to access their cultural heritage through discussing narratives of the Atua (ancestral gods) in a therapeutic setting.  Understanding these stories and the qualities of the many Atua can provide an opportunity to explore a Māori psychology.

Sharing pūrākau with whanau is viewed as having immeasurable spiritual therapeutic value and gifting these ancient taonga (treasures) to those who are disconnected from them is also seen as an act of aroha (compassion).  This act involves listening for messages that are sometimes found in the darkest spaces.  For example, consider the role of Uru who after the separation of his parents, stayed grieving. It was Tāne, who could see his brother’s worth as Uru's tears provided light via the sun, moon and stars.  Despite Uru being the tuakana, the eldest child of Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (Earth Mother), he became so far removed from our consciousness. Yet his journey can help us consider our own relationship with depression and how this pūrākau can shape culturally relevant solutions.

The approach assists whanau find meaningful solutions in ways that are not always rationalised cognitively.  Deliberately ‘gifting’ pūrākau such as that of Uru is a bold and confident way of reinstating Matauranga Māori (Maori knowledge systems), even when there does not appear to be any apparent connection to the immediate problem.  These can at times be the most powerful sessions.  Most importantly when Mahi a Atua is used and pūrākau are shared, the response from whānau is meaningful and powerful in creating shifts that provide space for movement and healing.

By engaging these pūrākau, Māori are taking ownership of their identity and reclaiming their voice.  In essence the approach calls for the deliberate reinstatement of Matauranga Maori as a way in which to address the historical impact of colonisation on Maori and consider more meaningful formulations that are Maori-centric.

At the end of 2014 Dr Diana Kopua and Mark Kopua introduced Mahi a Atua into Hauora Tairawhiti Mental Health and Addiction Service (Te Ara Maioha) to better address the mental health problems that individuals and whanau present with.  Mahi a Atua is an approach that encourages practitioners to actively engage in Maori interventions that draw from the Maori creation and custom stories known as pūrakau to understand how Maori ancestors understood and made sense of their realities.  This approach is founded on ‘He Oranga Whakapapa’ which acknowledges that everything has an origin that can be traced back to these pūrakau. 

Mahi a Atua allows people to examine their feelings and actions against the attributes, trials and tribulations of the different Atua (Maori gods). In doing so motivation to respond differently to obstacles and challenges in life is ignited. This approach reinstates a Maori Psychology into health services whilst ensuring Mātauranga Maori is prioritised.

A tohunga waka, a master way finder and chief navigator, Hector Busby once shared with a group an experience of being out at sea for a long time:

‘When the waka is in the doldrums and the crew have lost faith in their journey it only takes the sighting of one bird to reignite them and give them hope.’’

The current health status of Māori and the disparities in equitable outcomes for Māori can be a likened to a ‘waka in the doldrums.’ For many Māori and non- Māori practitioners, strategists, politicians and economists, there can be points where they become a ‘crew’ who ‘have lost faith in their journey.’

In this instance, the ‘one bird’ is Mahi a Atua, a kaupapa Maori therapeutic approach that utilizes traditional forms of knowledge, stories and understanding to promote positive health outcomes for Maori and their whanau. In addition to the Mahi a Atua approach being described, this paper outlines the way training is conducted with the workforce, from across sectors, and a future vision of a centralised space for the continued growth and development of Mahi a Atua and other Maori approaches.

Mahi a Atua is a wero (a challenge) for us to change the direction of the waka to make practical, positive and meaningful changes. By changing the direction of the waka and deliberately investing time, resources and energy into this one bird, Mahi a Atua, it is envisaged that hope will once again be reignited and positive meaningful outcomes for Maori can be actualized. The premise of Mahi a Atua, is that by reinstating Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) through the daily use of Mahi a Atua, the collective workforce will provide a pathway to improve Māori health and social outcomes.

Dr Diana Kopua coined the phrase Mahi a Atua as a way to describe the utilisation on our tipuna stories, pūrakau and, contextualising our stories to engagement with whanau in distress.  The overarching Whare Wananga for Mahi a Atua is Te Kura Huna.  Te Kura Huna is led by Purakauologist – Tohunga Toi Tohunga Ringa Taa Mark Kopua.  Together Mark and Diana sent the Karanga and wero to Managers within the Health sector to invest staff in 2 hours wananga per week.  Below is a list of organisations that initially invested 16 staff to Te Kura Huna and Mahi a Atua.  From 2016 that number has grown to over a 100 people, cross sector, involved in learning through Te Kura Huna and Mahi a Atua. 

The wananga include developing the skills and knowledge needed to stay a learner, awareness and understanding of a culture of feedback (taken from feedback informed treatment) and upholding the principles of Te Kurahuna.  These principles are:

  • Ka ma te Ariki Ka ma te Tauira – be an active learner
  • Hongihongi te wheiwheia – embrace negative feedback
  • Tenei te po nau mai te ao – Indigenise your space

To date the specific organisations supporting the overall kaupapa of Mahi a Atua and Te Kurahuna  include Te Kupenga Net Trust, Emerge Aotearoa, Turanga Health, Te Runanga o Ngati Porou, GP for High Schools, Mental Health and Addictions, Hauora Tairawhiti Human Resources department, Women, Child and Young People department, Mental Health and Addictions Department (Child, Adolescent and Adult),   CYFS, Planning and Funding, Tairawhiti Maori art collective, Te Whare Wananga o Aotearoa, Tairawhiti Safer Communities, Ruia project, Kura Kaupapa Maori and several others.  The number of organisations and individuals that want to be part of wananga is growing weekly.

The initiation of Mahi a Atua through deliberate workforce development by Te Kura Huna, and in conjunction with Hauora Tairawhiti, Te Kupenga net Trust and Pinnacle Midlands Health Network, the successful implementation of Te Kuwatawata as per the "Ground breaking response to whanau distress" article - click here to read...


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