Suicide Bereavement amongst the Maoris in New Zealand
New Zealand comprises of two main landmasses – that of the North Island and the South Island. New Zealand is situated approximately 900 miles east of Australia and 600 miles south of the Pacific islands. In 1840 the British Crown and Māori’s signed the Treaty of Waitangi, making New Zealand a British colony. Many Maori’s were converted by missionaries in the early 19th century and now embrace Christianity and its concepts. However, they are also strongly influenced by their culture and previous beliefs, which can often cause conflict for many.
In traditional Maori culture, suicide was associated with those who were bereaved or shamed. Women would often end their lives following the death of their husband (regardless of the cause of death). However, the high level of suicides occurring amongst Maoris is a recent phenomenon. The numbers started to increase dramatically from 1996. Maori suicides are heavily concentrated amongst the young.
Michael Naera is a Maori health worker and provides an important link between New Zealanders and Maoris. As a Maori he is in a unique position whereby he can communicate with elders of tribes and help change practice etc. His work is funded by the Ministry of Health. Michael has an interest in postvention, hence, the reason why I had arranged to meet him during my travel fellowship.
Michael spent a considerable amount of time explaining to me how the Maori and Western culture differ. In that much importance is placed on genealogy. He explained that every Maori can be traced back to a specific tribe, and anyone who is deemed to be in that tribe are considered to be family. Consequently during any important event such as a wedding or funeral, hundreds of people will attend. With regards funerals, the traditional Maori event is held over three days and hundreds of people attend. This is an extremely important ritual for the bereaved.
This important custom is held for everyone, except for those who die by suicide. It is even provided for those who have committed heinous crimes. Those who die by suicide are not permitted to be buried on consecrated ground; they are forbidden a head stone and denied the Maori burial rites provided for all other Maoris. Shame is bestowed up on all of the family, which consists of hundreds of people within that tribe. Such an example demonstrates how one death can affect hundreds of people, not just 6-10 often quoted researchers.
I explained to Michael that similar responses occurred hundred years ago in the UK. In that anyone who died by suicide were not permitted to be buried on consecrated grounds and would be taken out of the village and buried on a cross road with a wooden stake placed through their heart. Michael then asked if I had evidence that this occurred in the UK. I explained that I had provided evidence in my PhD. Michael then explained that it is possible that the Maoris had learnt this maladaptive and insensitive practice towards the deceased and those bereaved by suicide, from the missionaries who converted Maoris to Christianity. He asked if I could send him evidence of this practice occurring in the UK, so that he could show the ‘elders’ of the tribes. He explained elders are very influential and can change attitudes and practice within Maori tribes. He explained that many elders were receptive to information that could be proved to be factually correct. Hence, the reason why he asked if I could send extracts from my PhD which provide evidence that this practice used to occur in the UK.
I must say I felt really proud that I could provide information that might be able to influence the way Maoris perceive those who end their life or those bereaved by suicide in the future. Exchanging this information might mean Maoris bereaved by suicide might receive the same rights and privileges as the rest of their community. Needless to say, the first thing I will do when I get home is send Michael the extracts from my PhD.
I would like to thank Michael Naera from ‘Kia Piki Te Ora’ based in Rotorua, New Zealand for teaching me about his wonderful and fascinating culture and the work he is currently conducting.