New Zealand Law Society - Mahi a Atua: using stories to fulfil big dreams of systemic change

Mahi a Atua: using stories to fulfil big dreams of systemic change

Mahi a Atua: using stories to fulfil big dreams of systemic change

Gisborne couple Di and Mark Kopua are innovators in mental health – changing systems to improve outcomes. They developed Mahi a Atua, an approach that allows people to examine their feelings and actions against the attributes, trials and tribulations of the different Atua (Māori gods). Could their success hold lessons for integrating tikanga Māori into the law?

How justice is delivered is changing all the time. Tikanga was the first law of the land. Then came the British system, imposing their system of law with an attempt to co-opt certain parts of tikanga into that system. We have seen calls over the past centuries for a complete overhaul of our justice system. These calls remain the same today. The justice system continues to operate in ways that disadvantage Māori and the consequences of colonisation are still taking a negative toll on tangata whenua.

Understanding what those impacts of colonisation mean for individuals is at the heart of a different approach to supporting Māori that’s been developed within clinical mental health environments. The Mahi a Atua approach designed by husband and wife team Dr Diana Kopua and Mark Kopua, promotes a positive identity for indigenous communities by celebrating the power of Māori deities, narratives, and healing practices that were marginalised and suppressed by the forces of colonisation.

Could Mahi a Atua hold lessons for integrating tikanga into the law? Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa tumuaki wahine (female co-president) Jamie-Lee Tuuta travelled to Te Tairāwhiti to talk with psychiatrist Dr Diana Kopua, and historian, whakairo and Tā Moko expert Mark Kopua.

Sitting in Di and Mark’s home Jamie-Lee (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Toa Rangatira me Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri) reflects on her own journey as a lawyer.

“We’re at something of a crossroads within the legal profession. We’re still working out how to integrate tikanga into the law. Or whether in fact that this should happen at all. As a Māori lawyer I feel it’s a bit of a nervous space.”

The Christchurch barrister is a qualified Mataora or changemaker, courtesy of Di and Mark’s immersive training experience. She says she found that the Mahi a Atua approach has enhanced her perspective and helped her to continue to focus on her clients as people and product of a system of colonisation, rather than simply trying to find the quickest and tidiest solution to their legal issue.

“We need to help whānau at the same time as having systemic change.”

Mahi a Atua

Mahi a Atua is an approach that encourages practitioners to actively engage in Māori interventions that draw from the Māori creation and custom stories known as pūrākau to understand how Māori ancestors understood and made sense of their realities.

Mark and Di Kopua

Mahi a Atua allows people to examine their feelings and actions against the attributes, trials and tribulations of the different Atua (Māori gods). This sparks motivation to respond differently to obstacles and challenges in life. “It’s by Māori for all, rather than a kaupapa Māori for Māori by Māori. And that was never really known in mental health before, but we did it.”

Developed by Di and Mark over a number of years, the Mahi a Atua approach is about building a foundation so that organisations are culturally safe and connected to history. Mahi a Atua teaches the critical awareness to understand the cultural, historical and social context of the individual. “Treating everyone the same will restrict a practitioner’s ability to grow. Growth occurs when we as practitioners explore our individual and collective contribution to how and why things go wrong”

Mahi a Atua operates with three core values: oranga whakapapa – keep our stories and genealogical ties alive, Tatai Hono – prioritising engagement and everyone’s relationships, and whakangahau -levity, having fun, embracing creativity. The guiding principles are: Tēnei te po, nau mai te ao – to indigenise our space, Ka mā te ariki, ka mā te tauira – be an active learner, and Hongihongi te wheiwheia – to embrace feedback.

The beginning of Mahi a Atua: from reggae to psychiatry

Of Ngāti Porou descent and raised in Porirua under the umbrella of Ngāti Toa, Di’s journey towards becoming a psychiatrist began with leaving a nine-piece reggae band to undertake nursing training. Te Reo Māori became an official language in 1987, and Di says she feels like she piggy-backed off that, becoming the first Māori mental health nurse in Porirua in 1992. “I was trying to promote being Māori, while still learning about what that meant for me” she explains.

Di took a year out to learn Te Reo Māori, and developed Mahi a Atua in the mid-90s. Di would work with troubled teenagers and tell them pūrākau (stories) of various atua. She used Māori creation stories as a form of healing, connecting alienated Māori to their whakapapa.

Determined to bring about real and meaningful change within the mental health system, Di began studying medicine at the University of Otago in 2002. In 2014 she completed her specialist training in psychiatry and spent several years as a Consultant Psychiatrist and Head of Department at Hauora Tairāwhiti.

“I was in a pocket of New Zealand society rich in culture, rich in knowledge and arts. Māori were 50 % of the population, but at one point were 77% of the consumers of mental health services, with coerced care rates among the highest in the world. So I had lots of statistics to support the development of an indigenous framework inside a mainstream service.”

As Head of Department for Hauora Tairāwhiti, Di led the ground-breaking development of Gisborne’s Te Kūwatawata service which tripled the walk-in rate for Māori. In addition to this the Māori access rate was doubled, coercive care rates were reduced, as were youth admissions. “What we know about suicide is that people don’t come in to get help – they would rather suffer than come into a system that makes them feel worse.”

She says that their understanding about what was needed in services changed, as the statistics changed. “We reduced the need for crisis workers to work at night. You’d think you’d need to fund an overnight 24-hour service as people frequently present during the night. But they present at pretty good hours of the day when it’s a service worth coming into.”

Another service developed while Dr Di was the Head of Department was Te Hiringa Matua. Formal evaluation of this programme by Malatest International showed that Mahi a Atua was getting positive results. Numbers of completed care and interventions in Te Tairawhiti began to outstrip other areas such as Hawkes Bay, and the Far North. Despite the success of both services in Gisborne, Di became frustrated as she saw American programmes being imported and applied in New Zealand. “The national roll out of the Integrated Primary Mental Health and Addiction programme was funded without evidence that it addressed Māori inequity.” Di believes this is a case in point of how racism is perpetuated.

With a vision to grow, nurture and sustain mātauranga Māori (māori knowledge) approaches outside of government institutions, Di moved out of the District Health Board system and her company Te Kurahuna won contracts for service development in Wellington and then more recently in the Waikato. With Di as the Lead and Mahi a Atua as the cornerstone philosophy, services such as Te Kūwatawata ki Hauraki (under Te Korowai Hauora o Hauraki) aimed to improve Māori outcomes and address institutional racism. A recent report highlighted that since their organisation transformed their mental health and addiction services to ‘Mahi a Atua’ Māori referrals doubled, Māori self-referrals increased by over 200%, Māori youth referrals more than doubled and staff morale improved significantly.

Di continues to lead change through her collaboration with her husband Mark and together they are growing a collective of Mataora (change agents who are trained in Mahi a Atua) who work to indigenise their respective communities of practice. Their company Te Kurahuna has 11 employees, all of whom earn the same salary, from personal assistants to the chief executive.

A master artist and tohunga

Ta moko practitioner Mark hails from Mangatuna, north of Tolaga Bay, where he was raised by his grandparents. He affiliates to Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Porou.

This image is reflective of stories relating to some of the ailments and sicknesses that afflict us and are known to kill mankind, and how Rongo is called upon in his capacity as the God of well being and health to revive us back to good health.

Mark was the master carver for a number of meeting houses on the East Coast and lower North Island. For many years he was on the board of national Māori art advocacy organisation Toi Māori Aotearoa. A professional artist, he now runs Te Kurahuna with Di “well she runs. I walk!” he jokes.

His gallery space in Gisborne showcases his art and that of other represented artists such as Turumakina Duley, the walls filled with intricate and colourful depictions of atua. The gallery is also a living and active space where ta moko (traditional Māori tattooing) and whakairo (traditional Maori carving) are performed and taught. Even on a quiet Monday morning, there are two tattoo artists working, accompanied by the buzz of the tattoo gun, as skin becomes living art.

A skilled storyteller and keeper of ancient Māori knowledge and whakapapa, Mark is reflective, each carefully chosen word landing like a smooth stone on still water. “In real life, tikanga is the law. In the court, it’s something to use in a circumstance….”

Lessons for legal practice

As our courts and universities develop ways to incorporate tikanga Māori, the success of Mahi a Atua within mental health may have something to offer practitioners. Di observes that both fields have different institutions, but some of the same systemic issues which reinforce inequity.

She tells a story of receiving a phone call from a lawyer to get a bail address for a family member who has physically abused his ex-partner. The lawyer’s focus on extracting the address information omitted the crucial role of talking to whanau. “All you care about is where he’s going to go, but you’re not going to sit in the problem with me or ask me how I’m feeling about this – and I feel stink!” she says. “Why couldn’t she say ‘that man needs a pathway to support him to shine like the moon’? I needed that lawyer to work with me as whānau. The best relationships come when there is a fracture, and you work through it.”

With Di as the Lead and Mahi a Atua as the cornerstone philosophy, services such as Te Kūwatawata ki Hauraki (under Te Korowai Hauora o Hauraki) aimed to improve Māori outcomes and address institutional racism

For Jamie-Lee working as a barrister, she says that we need to help whānau at the same time as having systemic change. Working in the Justice system, “we’re not taught to talk to whānau”. She says that becoming a Mataora (changemaker) has flipped her perspective and made her look at things differently. “When someone walks into my office, I now focus on understanding who they are before exploring their legal issue.”

Di says that bringing real engagement into the system is key. “Lawyers come in with big hearts and wanting to make a difference, but the system is such a stuck beast. Even your goodwill will keep that going.” She suggests asking clients for feedback “was there anything that I said that made you angry?” or acknowledging the unspoken truth in the room is key: “I’ve been assigned to you, even if I’m not the right fit, how do we work together?

“The real challenge for us as lawyers is how can we make change, in our everyday practice and to ensure of system changes to reflect who it should serve.” says Jamie-Lee. She believes that the Mahi a Atua approach provides a foundation of knowledge and tools that will support all lawyers, Māori and non-Māori, to be the best lawyers they can be and to ensure we create a system appropriate for our communities in New Zealand.

To learn more about Mahi a Atua:


Pūrākau: Maori Myths Retold by Māori Writers, Ed. Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka, May 2019.

Navigating the Stars by Witi Ihimaera, October 2020.

Atua Māori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop, August 2021

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