Indigenous | Suicide - Mate Whakamomori

Māori in Queenstown create play to support whānau who’ve lost loved ones to suicide

Finding the answers to suicide prevention can be difficult and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, especially for Māori.

A small community of Māori living in Tāhuna, Queenstown have taken matters into their own hands by organising a stage play, Toa, to connect and support whānau who may be grieving loved ones.

Toa is based on a true story, written and directed by Hud Rapata, of Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto. He wrote it 30 years ago after losing his friend Teremoana Atariki to suicide.

Toa is the name of the main character, who represents Teremoana in Rapata’s story.

“He was a big man, a humble man, a loving, caring man. He was only 21 years old. He was a gym instructor plus an apprentice welder, of Rarotongan descent,” Rapata recalls during an interview with Te Ao with Moana reporter Jessica Tyson.

He says writing the play was a way for him to deal with the trauma after losing Teremoana.

“I definitely didn’t know that it was going to be a stage play.”

Supporting grieving whānau

The idea to turn the written story into a play came to light after Rapata spoke with friends who had also lost loved ones to suicide.

“The whole point here is that the victim is gone but what about the bereaved whanau? What about the whānau aroha that have been left to actually pick up the pieces and deal with it in real life in terms of the trauma, pain, and everything associated with it? Don’t think for one minute that they don’t go through depression. We tend to overlook that because it’s so hush-hush,” he says.

“What we objectively want to do is create a platform where whānau aroha can speak openly and honestly without the shame and the blame and the guilt of the taboo that surrounds them.”

Play created through a Māori lens

The play was created through a Maori lens, focusing on the healing principles of Te Whare Tapa Whā including the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing as well as the connection to whānau. It was performed by a full Māori cast who all share one thing in common, the loss of loved ones to suicide.

Dion Freeman, of Ngāti Porou, Samoa and Irish descent, played the role of Toa’s friend George, who represents Rapata.

“I lost my best friend when I was 15 to suicide. We weren’t able to talk about that and as kids, I think it affected lots of us in different ways and for me I closed down and went off the rails.”

Freeman works as a honohono practitioner and Māori healer, and met Rapata during a healing session. Freeman says acting is way out of his comfort zone but he got involved because of how important the kaupapa was.

“This is done as a labour of love from all of us. There wasn’t funding gifted for this production. I think that’s the most beautiful thing; heart-based people have shown up to bring that,” Freeman says.

Healing journey

Misty Te Huna, of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi descent, played Toa’s mum in the play. The whole experience has helped her own healing journey centred on intergenerational trauma after losing two grandparents to suicide.

“Throughout my healing journey, there’s been lots of times where I’ve tried to find the space that sits so deep within me of grief and anger and sadness that I’ve never been able to really release. So no matter how many cold plunges I’ve done, or breath work sessions or counselling, I’ve never really been able to get to the crux of the pain that has sat within me for so long.”

But the more rehearsing she did for the play, the lighter she felt, she says.

“I’ve got more clarity around my mind. I have more understanding of the subject. I have a deeper understanding for my whānau and a lot of forgiveness came with it through this play because I was stuck where I was angry and hurt at my grandfather for doing the things he had done and how that affected his children and their children, my cousins – everyone.”

Te Huna, who is a rongoā practitioner, says being involved in the play has given her a lot of confidence to talk about suicide “without being real hush hush and quiet about it because people don’t talk about it because we don’t talk about it. It’s that simple.”

Difficulties for Māori living in Queenstown

Queenstown is one of the jewels in the crown of New Zealand’s tourism industry but it can be anything but a sparkling experience for some, especially Māori.

“A lot of places that were rentals before are now air Airbnbs and then you’ve got a lot of locals that are just really trying to make ends meet and that’s kind of a big trigger for suicide that has happened down here,” Freeman says.

Freeman and Te Huna have recently packed up their businesses to move away from Queenstown.

Te Huna says the lease on her house ran out last September. “There are people living in cars. People are losing their homes. I’ve even got my best friends leaving town and they’ve got businesses and it’s been really, really challenging.”

There’s also a sense of cultural disconnection.

Rapata says having no marae there is very difficult “because that’s our turangawaewae, right? That’s our standing place and we struggle with it. There’s no doubt about it. We struggle with it. We need somewhere to have our tangihanga. We need somewhere to have our wānanga. We need to have somewhere to have our whakawhanaungatanga.”

Having a sense of belonging for Māori living in Queenstown can be also difficult with so many living far from their families.

“As Māori, it’s been a really tough gig coming into this place. I remember when I was at high school here, I was one of a handful of Māori and I always felt really disconnected because I don’t come from here. I originate from Turangi and Whanganui and I’ve got no whānau here, Te Huna says.

“There are actually a lot of Maori that are based here in Queenstown and I hope [Toa} is an opportunity for them to come together and to help awhi and support each other.”

Full house

Toa was performed over two days on July 11 and 12. It received strong support from the community with a sold-out show on opening night.

The production was split into five scenes reflecting the lead-up to Toa taking his own life and the struggles he experienced beforehand, including a break-up and identity crisis.

Following on was a panel. Bereaved whānau shared how they coped with losing a loved one. But the focus wasn’t so much on the grief. It was more about what helped them find their place of peace.

Kai (food) was also provided to guests to whakanoa (remove tapu) following the play and mental health support services were available for people to speak to.

For Rapata, the most special part was having the whānau of Teremoana there, including Teremoana’s daughter Hinekaha Atariki, who was three when he died, and Hinekaha’s mother Vanessa Noble.

Hinekaha says she found it very emotional watching the play “but really good because it’s spreading the word.”

She also says it was difficult growing up without her father, so hopes people think more about how suicide can affect children.

“Think about your kids if you have kids. It’s hard growing up without a parent. It’s bloody hard.”

Vanessa says it was great that a play had been written to portray what happens in family lives after losing loved ones to suicide.

“I found it very raw. Even though, 31 years later, it still touches the heart after all those years,” she says.

“The thing is to be able to come up with solutions for people because at the moment the system does not seem to be working… I just hope that they can get help, that there is a way out no matter how dark it gets.”

Toa on tour

Toa ran for two nights in Tāhuna, Queenstown. The response was all positive and Rapata hopes to tour it across the motu (country) if he is able to receive funding for it.

“It’s absolutely wonderful, mind-blowing, all those things out there. If you can hear the chatter and the laughing and just coming from a tragic place such as suicide, it’s certainly remarkable.”

“I’m very, very proud of everybody. I wrote it, but without anybody else, it would never, ever come to life.”

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.