Faces of Innocents: High rates of child abuse among Maori can be traced back to colonisation, academic says

Associate Professor Leonie Pihama says colonisation is the root cause of the high rates of Maori child abuse.

Associate Professor Leonie Pihama says colonisation is the root cause of the high rates of Maori child abuse.

The high rates of child abuse among Maori can be traced back to colonisation, an academic tells Florence Kerr for the Faces of Innocents project.

Nearly half of all children in the child victim toll are Maori.

There's a reason for that, says Waikato Associate Professor Leonie Pihama. It's called colonisation.

All indigenous peoples around the world who were colonised show the same problems. And the government fixes are all based on the same white man's model, she says.

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"Things like smacking children for speaking Te Reo Maori, that came in with the 1867 Native Schools Act, where we began to see a denial of Maori language in schools. So from that point, we began to see generations that are told they can't speak.

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"Colonisation impacts on our children through the removal of every part of our cultural framework that enabled us to keep our children safe. And I think that model of the nuclear family, the domestic unit, is actually an unhealthy model for a culture of people who are used to having a collective relationship.

"Historical trauma caused by colonisation is the root cause of intergenerational issues, particularly child abuse within Maori families," Pihama said. 

Solutions needed to focus on reconnecting Maori, she said.

"We can run all the parenting programmes we like - they come out of America, they come out of England - but they reproduce the same structures that create the poverty and create the abuse that ruin.

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"None of them challenge the idea of a nuclear family. None of them challenge the broader collective way of being. They are all about individuals. None of them draw on reconnecting people to the land, or reconnecting people to their traditional knowledge, or reconnecting people to language."

It's not that Pihama thinks the perpetrators shouldn't be punished. She believes strongly that they should. 

But her interest lies in how and why Maori are in this predicament today. 

Pihama is the director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at Waikato University, and director of Maori and Indigenous Analysis.

She said the forceful removal of Maori from their whenua (land) and from their whanau, plus the implementation of the Native School Act of 1867, which punished children for speaking Maori, had a devastating effect that was still being felt. 

"Colonisation is what we call a historical trauma event. Research tells us that traumatic events like that impose themselves on an entire people and have major implications for the following generations who are trying to adapt to the trauma that their parents, their grandparents, and their great grandparents experienced," Pihama said. 

The loss of land left Maori without a way to make a living. Loss of culture and language left Maori looking for an escape, she said.

"When you have whole collectives that have been traumatised, they need to have some kind of out. You end up with issues of alcoholism, you end up with issues of drugs, you end up with up with issues of cigarette smoking.

"Abuse, eating bad food, unemployment - all those things accumulate around inter-generational experience of trauma."

Prior to colonisation, Maori children were not abused, she said.

"Early Colenso native schools, missionaries, all of those people commented on the fact that they had to be careful of how they treated Maori children in Native Schools. Because if they treated them badly, their whanau would come and take them home and they wouldn't return.

"So there is a whole lot of evidence that people were saying in the colonial schooling: treat Maori children carefully if you want them to be attending," Pihama said. 

"We have an opportunity, that our people have been saying about for a really long time, to implement programmes here that are really grounded and can be embedded here in knowledge that is actually useful for all people. The caring of children is something we all aspire too. No one in this country wants children killed."

"Until we deal with colonisation, until we deal with neo-liberalism, until we deal with the impacts of individualisation, deal with the impacts of oppressive gender ideas, until we are willing to do the hard work around that, I'm sorry to say that it's not going to change."

 - Stuff

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