Oral history of Māori mental health nurses goes live

23 June 2016

The stories of pioneering Māori mental health nurses who trained from the 1950s onwards and helped to develop today's Māori health services are preserved on a new oral history website.

The website Tuia Te Ao Mārama was launched this month at the culmination of a project lead by a team of Māori caucus members of the College of Mental Health Nurses (Te Ao Māramatanga).

The aim was to collect and record oral histories of Māori mental health nurses who practiced between 1950 and 1990 to ensure their knowledge and experiences were preserved for the future.

The 15-video interviews include Ora Guptill recalling as a 17-year-old starting her training in 1967 at the then Oakley Hospital as the only Māori nurse training for a "long, long time" and feeling the need to prove herself by being better than everybody else. She says the positive side was that she built good nursing skills and only got hit once by a patient, "whereas some people got hit every day".

She speaks of being a young nursing student and taken under the wing of "wonderful" older Māori nurse aides who cared for her, and sometimes, on the afternoon shifts, which were often dominated by Māori staff, putting on boil-ups for the Māori patients.

Fellow interviewee Timoti George recalls his nurse training in the days when electro-convulsive treatment was an everyday occurrence and when Māori spirituality was rarely acknowledged. He speaks of a Māori cleaner having to step in and tell nurses that a patient they believed was hallucinating in their room was actually saying a karakia after wrongly being admitted to the hospital.  He also tells of initiating a kapa haka group when working in the National Secure Unit for forensic patients that brought people together, despite some being divided by gang loyalties.

Winston Maniapoto, a nursing and mental health services veteran of 50 years, talks of cycling off to start his nursing career on 2 January 1959 with all his worldly possessions on the handlebars of his pushbike and with his mother's advice that "either you love or you perish" still ringing in his ears. 

That same day, he vividly recalls being announced as the new nursing student to the patients gathered in the day room of a Tokanui Hospital ward. "This elderly Māori gentleman walked up and extended his hand and I took it and came to him and I hongi-ed. And the harder he squeezed my hand the harder I squeezed his."

He says those were the days when to offer karakia or other culturally based care was to risk being castigated or sacked. "We didn't do it – the threat of losing our jobs was too much."

The website includes short biographies and video clips from the interviews with the 15 Māori nursing veterans, including some in te reo Māori.

Check out Tuia Te Ao Mārama (Oral history of Māori mental health nurses) website at: www.maorinursinghistory.com.

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