The healing nature of harakeke

18 January 2013

The sixty men in Te Whare Tirohanga Māori, the Maori Focus Unit at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison, are regularly exposed to the restorative nature of harakeke in the weaving classes they attend every week.

Weaving by men in Te Whare Tirohanga MāoriWiki Turner (Tuwharetoa, Ngati Hine), the manager of Te Whare Tirohanga Māori’s compulsory Tikanga Programme, says harakeke (flax) and mahi raranga (weaving) teach the men about family bonds and human relationships. They also teach them about the environment and kaitiaki tanga (guardianship and protection).

“When I talk about the history of harakeke, how our tipuna found it and extracted the muka, and how it was our first export in the 1830s, it opens up this new world to them,” she says. “But harakeke was not only useful. It was also a way of passing on culture, telling stories and affirming beliefs.

“It’s a very healing time in Te Whare Pora, where we work. We sing waiata and tell stories, and the men share their techniques and pass on their knowledge to the new men.”

Weaving by men in Te Whare Tirohanga MāoriHarakeke is often a metaphor for family bonds and human relationships in whakatauki (proverbs) and waiata (songs). Wiki quotes a whakatauki, which defines people as the most important element in the universe. “When the heart is torn from the flax bush, where will the bellbird sing? You ask me what is the greatest thing on earth. I reply, ‘He tangata, he tangata, he tangata’.”

Exposed to weaving from an early age through her nana and her mother, Wiki has been teaching mahi raranga for 35 years. She is also a highly regarded weaver, in demand to make large-scale commissioned works for public displays and private collections.

Only in the past three years has she been passing on her knowledge to the men in Te Whare Tirohanga Māori. Known to the prisoners as “Whaea Wiki”, she was contracted by the Department of Corrections to deliver a Tikanga Programme in 2010.

Three strand of Tikanga Programme

The Tikanga Programme has three strands: te reo Māori (the Māori language), toi whakaari (theatre) and mahi raranga.

When the men heard that Arts Access Aotearoa was writing stories about the Tikanga Programme and mahi raranga, they were keen to contribute their thoughts.

Weaving by men in Te Whare Tirohanga MāoriOne of the men wrote of the “calming and therapeutic effect” of weaving and the need to focus when weaving the various and, at times, complex patterns.

“I guess you have to experience it to actually appreciate the worth, insightfulness, knowledge and fulfilment of weaving …

“The harakeke has many protocols around it to ensure our safety while we are working with it, as well as ensuring safety for our environment.

“We are taught self-respect as we learn about the harakeke as a whānau. We learn that the plant has a tipuna, an awhi rito, a rito – all of these things that make us family. Through working with the harakeke, we see the way to nuture our own families and treat them with dignity and respect.

“For me, this journey has been a spiritually, physically and mentally rewarding kaupapa. Much thanks and much respect.”

Connecting with their tipuna

Wiki teaches four classes of mahi raranga a week, with up to 25 men in each class. When the men first come to her class, she says, they learn about a way of life and artform loved by many before them. “They too come to find a place of respect and love while they work with harakeke. The healing journey for the men is visible as they pick up the flax and connect with their tipuna.”

Weaving by men in Te Whare Tirohanga MāoriThe men begin by making small kete and roses. They then move on to intricate lilies, floral art and backpacks, which they wear proudly and enjoy showing to staff. At times, Whaea Wiki selects up to 20 men to work collaboratively to complete rapaki (rain capes), korowai (fine ceremonial cloaks made from muka) and papa whariki (large mats).

Wiki says the memory of their first lesson and the process of weaving make the men very aware that this is a way forward. “We see a huge movement in the men who have participated in weaving. They have heard the karanga of their tipuna.

“Our visitors are in awe when they come into the whare and see the energy that greets them.”

The men learn tikanga me onā harakeke (the customs of flax) and are taken to harvest it. “As you can imagine, we use a lot of flax,” Wiki says.

As with the carvings created in Te Whare Tirohanga Māori, the weaving is gifted to a number of community organisations, and to visitors to the unit and to the prison.


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