Te ao Māori offers light to prisoners
Prisoners at Otago Corrections Facility listen to Rue-Jade Morgan when he tells them they can change their lives for the better. That’s because they know he’s been where they are now; that he once spent several years inside for aggravated robbery.
These days, Jade (Kai Tahu) teaches a foundation studies course at Otago Polytechnic. As part of his role, he also teaches a tikanga programme at Otago Corrections Facility. Called Te Hokai Manea Tipuna (the glowing footsteps of our ancestors), the programme runs once a week over eight weeks and is offered four times a year.
“One of my tools is transparency,” Jade says. “I share my history with the men and tell them, ‘I’ve been where you are and if I can do it, you can too’.”
Over the eight weeks, the men learn tikanga, kapa haka, waiata, whaikōrero (oratory), and mau rakau, mau patu and ti rakau (martial arts). On the final day, there are demonstrations, a presentation of certificates and speeches. The course is a recognised NZQA qualification and the men gain credits for their achievements.
“Te Hokai Manea Tipuna is about giving the men hope, guiding them out of the dark and into the light through te ao Māori,” Jade says. “After the eight weeks, we have built up a cohort of positive men who can mentor and support others.”
Phill Ngeru (Ngati Ruanui) is the Area Advisor Māori, South Region, Department of Corrections. He says that once the men meet Jade and learn his history, they respect him and see him as a role model of what’s possible for their own futures.
Credibility and mana
“Jade is a skilled teacher and speaks te reo, which gives him huge credibility and mana,” he says. “A lot of the men have gang associations and that continues inside for their own self-preservation. They see that Jade chose an alternative to gang life and that his pathway was through te ao Māori.”
In 2016, Phill saw Jade working with young men on probation in Dunedin. “I thought, ‘I’d love to take him into Otago Corrections Facility. And that’s how it all started.”
The following year, the Department of Corrections contracted Otago Polytechnic, where Jade has been working since 2013, to deliver Te Hokai Manea Tipuna. Phill describes the programme as a “first step” in the partnership, which can also offer other educational and employment opportunities when men are released.
Phill describes himself as a “door-opener”. Before the eight-week course begins, he runs an introductory session for any of the interested prisoners. “’What does it mean to be Māori?’ I ask them. ‘What is te ao Māori and if I learn te reo, what am I going to do with it?’”
Looking beyond te ao Māori
He also attends the first and final days of the course. “When the men first come in they’re often shy and holding back. Then as they learn, they step forward. They start to bond with each other and work together. And after a while, they start looking beyond te ao Māori, and committing themselves to other educational and addiction programmes. A lot also start getting employment in prison.”
Back in the 1990s, there were no formal tikanga programmes when Jade was in a Christchurch prison. Fellow prisoners, however, shared their knowledge of tikanga Māori and te reo Māori.
One man in particular, Te Mairiki Williams, was Jade’s “Superman”, who taught him mau rakau and taiaha. “He was the light-keeper, holding the light at the end of the tunnel and guiding me out. He saved my life and as a gentle, compassionate man, he was the antithesis of most of the men who had been in my life.”
When Jade was released in 1999, he worked with Te Mairiki delivering “cultural needs” programmes for Community Probation in Christchurch. “All the knowledge I had gained inside was now helping me feed my family,” he says.
"My life was gangs"
One prisoner at Otago Corrections Facility, who has been doing Jade’s programme for a year, has been in and out of prison over 28 years. “I'm from up north. My life was gangs. I never would have guessed that I would have to go so far from home to find myself.”
Māoritanga, he says, has helped him understand “where I am in the world, who I am in the world” – that he comes from a bigger world than just himself.
“This makes me accountable for my actions. If it wasn't for the people who came before me, I wouldn't be here. So I need to honour them by continuing on a better path and making sure that the people who come after me have a world that's worth living in.”
He says he would like to help people, is studying social work, and wants to go to university or a polytechnic.
Jade describes this prisoner as “an inspiration” and says it’s all about changing lives through education. “My main aim in this is to help change traumatised minds and reduce criminal offending.”
Rue-Jade Morgan was Highly Commended in the Arts Access Corrections Māui Tikitiki a Taranga Award 2018. For more information about the Department of Corrections’ kaupapa Māori programmes and interventions, visit its website.