New Zealand Law Society - Kia Hohou te Rongo: restoring balance through dispute resolution

Kia Hohou te Rongo: restoring balance through dispute resolution

Kia Hohou te Rongo: restoring balance through dispute resolution

Wi Pere Mita (Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Waikato – Maniapoto) looks at the future of dispute resolution in Aotearoa New Zealand and the significance of it in our future.

Hohou te rongo is an umbrella term commonly used to describe methods of resolving disputes using principles and values from Te Ao Māori. This goes well beyond the western concepts of mediation, arbitration and the like. The term ‘hohou te rongo’ derives from the Māori god of peace and cultivated food, Rongo-mā-tāne. Therefore hohou te rongo processes can be deeply spiritual with a strong emphasis on the use of tikanga Māori as a means of guiding people towards resolution. Tikanga are cultural norms informed by what is considered correct or tika, given the circumstances at hand. Tikanga practices have developed and evolved over time. For this reason, the practical application of tikanga is often described as being diverse and fluid.

The use of tikanga to resolve disputes is an ancient practice entrenched within Te Ao Māori. Māori creation and navigation traditions as well as tribal histories evidence the use of tikanga in the context of traditional dispute resolution. Those same tikanga principles remain central to hohou te rongo practices today.

Hohou te rongo practices are not bound by one single way of working. In light of the evolving nature of tikanga, models and methods of dispute resolution must be adaptable and flexible to ensure that tikanga are not simply ‘add-ons’ to western processes.

Given the spiritual and therefore sacred nature of certain elements of tikanga-based dispute resolution processes, it is important that such processes are lead or supported by tikanga experts. Equally important is the need for practitioners to be proficient in Te Reo Māori. This is because tikanga is a complex and nuanced set of customs, traditions and protocols. Without a deep understanding of tikanga, practitioners may inadvertently cause offense, misunderstand the perspectives of the parties involved, or fail to create a safe and respectful space for mediation to occur. Transgressions against or breaches of tikanga can bring about severe physical and spiritual consequences that could carry through successive generations. For these reasons, practitioners should be cautious when applying tikanga in the context of dispute resolution.

In recent years, the important role tikanga can play in resolving disputes has been recognised in many formal dispute resolution spaces. For example, the Farm Debt Mediation Scheme (under the Farm Debt Mediation Act 2019), which aims to help farmers, other primary producers and creditors to work through debt issues, allows for tikanga approaches to mediations conducted under the Scheme.

Wi Pere Mita

Another example is the ‘Aotearoa best practice dispute resolution framework’ which was developed by the Government Centre for Dispute Resolution. The framework consists of four elements which includes a set of best practice dispute resolution standards. Standard 1 identifies the need for dispute resolution schemes to be consistent with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This includes ensuring schemes design and deliver Māori culturally responsive dispute resolution services which recognise Te Ao Māori and the use of tikanga and Te Reo Māori.

In 2019, the Tūhono Collective developed a tikanga-based model of dispute resolution derived from Mātauranga Māori unique to hohou te rongo practices. In partnership with Resolution Institute the Tūhono Collective also provide training and formal mediator accreditation in tikanga-based methods of dispute resolution. The main driver behind establishing the Collective and developing the model of practice was to ensure that practitioners seeking to use tikanga when resolving disputes can do so safely and competently. In this respect, there are a number of considerations that practitioners must take into account when facilitating hohou te rongo processes.

Spiritual world – Reciting karakia (in hohou rongo processes is not merely procedural. Decision-making can be wairua based, meaning divine intervention or influence is invoked to guide parties towards resolution. Therefore, the practice of karakia enhances the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds.

Gender-specific roles – Some tikanga can only be observed by a specific gender. A hotly debated example of this is the right afforded (or not) to women to speak on the marae as well as speaking sequences which are dictated by tikanga and kawa. Practitioners must be aware of how these boundaries impact on an individual’s ability to participate in certain processes.

Community structure – Whakapapa is a foundation of a whānau and it places individuals within the whole context of the wider community. This approach also provides, whether intended or not, a hierarchy within society. Therefore, consideration must be given to either perceived or actual power imbalances that might result from whakapapa connections.

Astronomy – Astronomy is also an important aspect of hohou te rongo processes. According to Māori astronomy experts, certain phases of the Māori lunar month present unpleasant days of low productivity. This is the case with the Whiro moon phase, which takes its name from Whiro-te-tipua, the lord of darkness and a symbol of evil within Māori mythology. Certain tribes will not practice hohou te rongo or other tikanga at night. There are varying reasons for this, but there is a common belief that the night brings bad omens or unwanted spirits.

Settlement – Outcomes of hohou te rongo processes do not necessary centre around ‘settlement’. Tatau pounamu, for example, is a tikanga practice around peace making using pounamu as a metaphor to seal peace agreements, traditionally between warring tribes. In 2015, Ngai Tahu published an article in its iwi newsletter, Te Karaka, which detailed a marae and tikanga-based hohou rongo process over an incident which involved the taking of kereru by a high-profile leader of another tribe. The article speaks of the gifting of a carved sperm whale tooth as a tatau pounamu to symbolise the restoration of peace between the tribes. Local elders described the process as “marae justice being served”.

Ultimately, anyone wanting to practice hohou te rongo must have sufficient and adequate knowledge of tikanga and Te Reo Māori. Remember, if you are unsure simply ask. The following proverb captures these sentiments well:

Mā te kōrero, ka mōhio, mā te mōhio, ka mārama, mā te mārama, ka mātau, mā te mātau, ka ora – through discussion comes awareness, through awareness comes understanding, through understanding comes knowledge, through knowledge comes wellbeing.

Wi Pere Mita is Principal at Laidlaw Law & Consultancy and mediator, trainer and assessor with the Tūhono Collective which represents a community of organisations and individuals dedicated to growing Māori cultural capability, capacity and competency. It delivers bespoke services from a Māori perspective including, coaching, training, mediation services, conflict resolution and facilitation services, cultural support and supervision and more -