Kaupapa Maori and Kaupapa Pasifika - What are we afraid of?

Written by Joseph Houghton
NZ Born of Pasifika and European descent


I have been hooked on the recent debate concerning the idea of Kaupapa Māori prisons. I see it as an issue that is permeating all of our society, not just our correctional facilities. You see, the problems begin way before a person arrives in prison. To offer real solutions, we need to head to the place that most young New Zealanders spend their time between the ages of 5-17. School.

Now, over my nearly 10 years as a teacher, I have heard many of my colleagues cry out that we are not social workers, we are not counsellors, and most commonly, we are not “their bloody parents!”. This is balanced out by the hours of unpaid work that many teachers engage in when they go above and beyond in their jobs, to ensure that the students of this country get a world class and worthwhile education. I am not here to bash teachers.

I am a teacher. And this year we have established a kaupapa Māori form class at my school. Our school is just under 20% Māori, with about 220 students identifying as Tangata Whenua. However, it also has numerous students who do not ethnically identify as Māori, but believe strongly in the bicultural nature that this country should be defined by. They were welcome in this class too.

What’s this got to do with prisons?

Māori aren't born criminals. Like the rest of us, they are raised in a society - this society. A society, much like other postcolonial ones, that marginalise and trivialize the experience of its indigenous people. Māori attend our schools, and as the educational statistics show, “Schools continue to stand-down, suspend, and exclude more Māori students than any other ethnic group”. So perhaps this is where it starts? Despite being only a small percentage of the school population, Māori and Pasifika have a higher number of stand downs, suspensions and exclusions. Then they leave school and are far more likely to commit crime and be imprisoned.

The question of providing kaupapa Māori and Pasifika environments needs to be asked long before our young people are escorted behind bars. The Ministry of Education’s own research based website states that “The education system has been underperforming for Māori and Pasifika”

I agree with MP Kelvin Davis when he asks the question - ”Why don't we just try, have the courage to try one of those 18 prisons and run it along kaupapa Māori lines,”?

I agree with  Duncan Garner when he says that “It's time to try something genuinely new” and that it would be an example of “tino rangatiratanga” - Māori self determination.

Is our society afraid of kaupapa Māori and kaupapa Pasifika ideas? Yes. Why? Because they don’t understand them and fear is a the natural human reaction to this. Should we let our society’s fear hold us back? No! We need to educate and build relationships between the many cultures in this country. Let’s create kaupapa Māori and kaupapa Pasifika prison systems, by all means. However, let’s start with our schools, so our young people don’t have to end up in prison.

Mountains of research show that culture counts in all this. Read Berryman, MacFarlane, Bishop, Nakhid, Alton-Lee. You will discover that if we prioritise culture, we naturally prioritise people.


JOSEPH IS OF COOK ISLAND AND EUROPEAN DESCENT. HE IS CURRENTLY A SECONDARY SCHOOL TEACHER IN CHRISTCHURCH, WHERE HE HAS LIVED FOR HIS WHOLE LIFE. HIS JOB INVOLVES THE PASTORAL CARE OF MAORI AND PASIFIKA STUDENTS AT HIS SCHOOL, AS WELL AS TEACHING ENGLISH. HE HAS JUST COMPLETED HIS POSTGRADUATE DIPLOMA IN EDUCATION THOUGH MASSEY UNIVERSITY ON EDUCATIONAL ISSUES CONCERNING MAORI AND PASIFIKA STUDENTS AND HAS ASPIRATIONS OF STARTING HIS PHD IN THE NEAR FUTURE.