Returning birth to the marae

Aroha Harris of Te Kahu Pōkai O Rauroha on returning birth to the marae


Decolonising Aotearoa’s Midwifery care and health care systems more broadly relies on the recognition that Māori are best placed to provide care to Māori from a Te Ao Māori perspective and that by integrating Māori worldview, returning birth to the marae, Māori Midwives lead a movement to assert authority, creating pathways for healing and a sense of pou and mana motuhake for whānau. Here, we speak with Aroha Harris of Te Kahu Pōkai O Rauroha, about how to envision a new way forward for Māori birthing that centres on liberation, restoring mana motuhake over their worldview, their whānau, health and wealth of whenua, life and hauora.

Ko wai au?

He uri au nō Te Taitokerau ki Muriwhenua, nō Te Aupōuri te Iwi ki Te Kao te tūrangawaewae, I tipu ake au i raro ki ngā parirau ki ōku kaumatua, nōku te waimarie.

For those unfamiliar with your mahi, how does Māori midwifery differ from the colonial health system indigenous wāhine have been forced into adopting?

This is a pretty big pātai; however, Māori Midwifery care is led by tikanga and has a holistic approach weaving kaupapa Māori traditional practices into hapūtanga, labour and birth. It encompasses manaakitanga and aroha whilst naturally placing whānau in the centre. Māori Midwives have an innate understanding of the tapu that exists during this time, appreciating the power of wāhine as they bring forth whakapapa. The natural guidance of tikanga ensures the whānau become the rangatira of their journey, reinstating their taonga tuku iho, breathing life back into their whakapapa and therefore having mana motuhake.

Also, I am passionate about the re-inclusion and upholding the mana of our tāne within hapūtanga, as it was our tāne who were predominantly our midwives back in the rā—something almost forgotten. So it is important to me that they are the faces their pēpē see first, their voice their pēpē hears first as their hands are first on their whakapapa. I am just their to guide and keep whānau safe.

You work with wāhine Māori and their whānau. What do you want people to know about your practice? How can people contact you and access your services?

I provide kaupapa Māori care for whānau Māori, therefore, you must whakapapa. This is intentional to bring my people to the front of the line to receive the care they deserve. I mahi in South Auckland, which is also intentional as this is where a majority of our people reside and then furthermore Ngāpuhi. I often have Māori midwifery students doing the mahi with me. I am a big believer in tuakana tēina and nurturing ngā Manukura ō apōpō–our leaders of tomorrow.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises the “dual reality of many Indigenous people who live in two worlds, their indigenous world and a colonised world.” How does your work seek to return birthing practices to Māori?

I have been working closely behind the scenes with Manurewa Marae to open a birthing whare and also whare hauora, and we're almost there. This creates a direct line to Te Ao Māori for our people. Breathing life back into our worldview, returning birth to the marae, re-introducing/reconnecting whānau to marae, to culture, tikanga, te reo Māori, karakia, waiata, wānanga katoa. This will further whakamana our whānau, reigniting the ihi, wehi and the wana, sparking a remembering. This not only returns birth practices but also addresses trauma as we realise what has been taken, especially for our kaumatua. Trauma then becomes realised addressed and gives opportunity for healing and growth. Opening pathways of memory, sharing of pūrākau, taonga tuku iho, kupu tawhito, te mea te mea.

A big piece of your space is reconnection and re-inclusion of tane. What experiences can you share that speak to this?

Tāne often arrive as a spectator to the initial “booking visit” a direct result impacting on our tāne from colonisation. However, for Māori this is whakawhanaungatanga, and therefore, they soon realise that an appointment with a Māori midwife is different. They feel seen and heard as their mana is upheld. They become more invested and intrigued. I  speak to them early of how our Tūpuna were our tohunga, Midwives and the like, and so therefore, it should be their hands that are first on their whakapapa, not mine. I explain, wouldn’t you want to be welcomed into the world by your whānau?

I literally see them rise before my eyes–what at first was a surprise to hear a little out the gate, maybe? All of a sudden, it makes absolute sense, and that to me is when the embers in their puku (almost snuffed out from the unsettlers) catch some of the oxygen and wooft into a flame. From then on, they are the rangatira learning karakia, reconnecting with whānau (nannies and koro, aunties and uncles, for example), hearing the stories and ways of practice that existed in their own whānau–maybe it's using a certain shell to cut the cord or a tapu place where the whenua is buried whenua ki te whenua or an old oriori.

I liken our tāne to Ruaumoko – the unborn pēpē in papatūānuku they remain so closely within yet through the effects of colonisation have had their very existence within hapūtanga, so severed they have almost…. “almost forgotten the importance of their place however I see the embers, and I see them reignite…and then I see them rise and become the Father, the protector, the provider–so long in short I believe upholding the mana of tāne will heal our tāne in many ways mentally, lower incarceration rates, increasing the way we see our tama thrive and realise their potential, healing whānau and again creating a sense of pou and mana motuhake for whānau.

What ideological or aspirational shifts need to happen for Māori to access and reclaim their birthing traditions, which are so critical with respect to pre- and post-natal health?

Our cultural beliefs and practices need to be recognised and respected by our health system. With a respect and understanding that we are innately whānau and therefore it is whānau that often keep us safe–ā wairua, ā tinana and therefore erasing their rules and restrictions to who we can have in the room for any visits and, most importantly, during labour and birth. Upholding mana in this way means we are the rangatira over our body, our labour and our birth, and collectively, we can decide and make informed choices for our whānau.

Upholding the mana of Māori Midwives showing respect and support, understanding that we are the beholders of this knowledge specific to our own people and we are the experts to best understand how to provide care for our own people from a Te Ao Māori perspective and that if we say this whānau need these people in their room then understand that they are sovereign and that is their right as tangata whenua of this country. This applies postnatally also, for example, NOT separating our pāpā from māmā and pēpē after birth and sending them home. Instead showing aroha and manaakitanga to them as whānau. By supporting us as Māori midwives, you create better access to Māori midwifery care for whānau Māori. Furthermore, remembering that we are all here to SERVE our whānau and that if you are working from a place of power and status, then you need to get!

Non–Māori staff need to be attending decolonisation wānanga, Te Tiriti workshops regularly, recommended by Māori and delivered by Māori. Learning basic tikanga such as a paku whanaungatanga when entering a room, addressing ALL whānau, and asking if they are happy for you to provide their care–they’re the rangatira remember. Offering the māmā and the pāpā kai afterwards to whakanoa–not just tea and toast?! Hospitals need to understand the importance of kai within our culture, the connection it brings, and the restrictions it lifts after such tapu events.

Having an understanding of how to awhi should a whānau choose to have muka to tie the cord for example, as well having muka available (within hospital) as an option to tie the cord, asking whānau if they’re wanting to have karakia maybe. Asking how to pronounce names correctly. Showing whānau and explaining to whānau the importance of their whenua whilst checking it after birth.

Up holding all their wishes for their birth spaces whether at home or in hospital  and encouraging them to bring their photos of their tūpuna, lighting, their own blanket (nannies knitted blanket for example) wahakura and taonga in the room. Use of waiata, karakia, oriori, karanga. Kai to snack on in labour, and to care for the manuhiri and to whakanoa once pēpē is here.

Addressing the health inequities and taking the lead from Māori midwives and whānau under their care on how to identify and create better approaches, systems and guidelines. Understanding whānau better and being brave enough to create change can build trust, which our whānau currently don’t have within the health system–again, something as simple as the offering of kai and recognising tikanga could move mountains.

Strong community connection and support, such as returning birth to Marae where we can care for our own in unique ways specific to our people. Grow and support our own through iwi funding, marae funding, health initiatives for Māori–having the training organisation recognise their responsibility to create pathways for tauira Māori to be able to serve our community and not allowing the big DHB money to prey on our tauira when they have no idea where and how they want to work at the beginning of the degree only to discover they are serving the masses.

Having a Māori Midwifery school from a Te Ao Māori perspective so we don’t have to continue to be assimilated within the patriarchal scaffolding of the universities.

What are you learning from other wāhine and their whānau within your practice holding this (traditional or sacred) ceremonial space?

That taonga tuku iho and traditional ways are endless, that our matauranga Māori within birthing is steeped in evidence-based practice and passed down through the many generations before. Every whānau brings something different and new. The main thing is to lead with aroha and tikanga and the rest will naturally unfold. That all this is way bigger than me or them and that it is a necessary path to ensure that our mokopuna of tomorrow and their mokopuna of tomorrow have mana motuhake over their worldview, their whānau, health and wealth of whenua, life and hauora.

Mauri ora


Te Kahu Pōkai O Rauroha

My Māori Midwife series

Manurewa Marae