PhD graduand Carrie Clifford hopes that Pūrākau, a powerful form of indigenous storytelling, becomes common as a healing tool in the mental health space.
Carrie Clifford (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu) will graduate on Saturday (May 13) with a PhD after exploring the use of pūrākau in contemporary mental health settings.
Pūrākau is a powerful form of indigenous storytelling, sharing historic narratives that are passed down intergenerationally.
“These are the stories of our tipuna and ancestors, a form of kōrero tuku iho (stories passed down) that create a sense of our identity. Pūrākau guide us about who we are, where we come from and what our purpose is,” said soon-to-be Dr Clifford.
“My thesis is an explorative study that looks into the use of pūrākau within current settings and also the benefits that come from it. It also explores how pūrākau might be beneficial in the mental health space.”
Clifford is the first generation of her family to attend university. Education was hugely important to both her parents, with Clifford finding a passion for both psychology and Māori.
“I began undergraduate study in psychology in 2012 with a minor in Biology. I picked a Māori paper out of interest and loved it so much that I changed my minor from Biology to Māori studies. It was a dual journey of being in the psychology department and Te Tumu.
“I wasn't sure on how to bring the two different topics together which influenced my post graduate study.”
She completed a Bachelor of Psychology before embarking on her Honours degree in 2015. Having completed her first year of professional clinical psychology training in 2016, she began her research for her PhD in 2018, completing both her PhD and psychology training towards the end of 2022.
“Between my undergraduate studies and beginning my clinical psychology training, I was able to embark on a journey with Kāi Tahu called Aoraki bound which allowed me to retrace the footsteps of my ancestors.
River crossing during the hikoi to Grassy Flats Hut. Photo: Hemi Tam
“Pūrākau was a big part of this 21-day haerenga, which inspired me to reconnect with who I was. It built my confidence and guided me to where I wanted to go in the future.
“The opportunity inspired me to bring some of the experience from Aoraki Bound into the clinical psychology space which is otherwise very prescribed and western. It motivated me to research the use of pūrākau within psychology, and so I embarked on that rangahau (research).”
In her thesis, she explored not only pūrākau but also indigenous storytelling practices of Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian peoples.
“My first study involved kōrero with kaimahi and kaumātua who used pūrākau. They had knowledge and experience with its use and shared with me the wide range of benefits.
“For me it was about understanding the cultural and intergenerational wellbeing practices, and what they can contribute to overall hauora.
“Although pūrākau often feel healing when listening to them, being able to listen to the informants gave me the words to describe the ways in which they promote hauora. Passing on the historical knowledge and guidance from our ancestors and creating a sense of belonging are big components of that healing process.”
For Clifford, it was a journey of reconciliation. Exploring how pūrākau could be adopted into the mental health space but also acknowledging that it was a practise that needed to be treasured.
“I acknowledge that these are the taonga from our tīpuna, and talking to the informants it became clear that they needed to be protected and cared for. It's about honouring the taonga so that we have accessibility to pūrākau in the future.”
Hikoi in Te Wai Pounamu during Aoraki Bound. Photo: Hemi Tam.
After strong encouragement from Pearl Matahiki, Carrie applied for and received the Fulbright Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga graduate award, allowing her to travel to the United States as a visiting researcher.
“Through this award I was able to embark on a second part to my research looking at the use of indigenous story telling practices more broadly with Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian people.
“During my time in the U.S., I was asked to interview them and heard the similarities of their indigenous narratives with those of pūrākau Māori.
“The scholarship was an opportunity to collaborate with other indigenous scholars, and I am hopeful that one day that their narratives would be further explored.
Narratives create meaning and frame the way we view the world around us. They are important in shaping identity, help us make sense of the events in our lives, and bring order in a chaotic, often unpredictable world.
Clifford's thesis summarises the benefits of pūrākau around psychological, cultural and therapeutic aspects.
“There are significant cultural benefits in pūrākau as it brings te reo and tikanga as well as te ao Māori values. This is significant because the values explored in pūrākau and values in the health system might clash.
“They can be used to externalise difficulties' and help whaiora feeling alone and isolated. Hearing these pūrākau reassure that our tīpuna went through similar challenges and allows us to come up with ideas and solutions.”
Some clinicians use it to monitor change between the start of the process where information is gathered, to the end to show improvement.
“While the benefits are holistic, pūrākau is built on Māori worldviews of health such as Te Whare Tapa Wha. Pūrākau is seen as important for a spiritual connection to our ancestors and physical wellbeing as well. It also influences our behaviour and action, improving motivation and willingness to change.
“It's not random that pūrākau is beneficial holistically given it is our worldview of hauora.”
At the Aspen Early Childhood and Health Forum, Colorado, Carrie and one of her Fulbright mentors, Associate Professor Michelle Sarche (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe).
This chapter of Clifford's research may be coming to a close, but she remains hopeful that one day people won't need to access mental health services.
“My biggest hope will be to see more pūrākau in the community - in our kura and schools so that it becomes normalised in our society.
“If people are choosing to access mental health services, they should be able to access these forms of intergenerational healing methods.”
She stresses the importance of encouraging Māori to take up psychology to enable capability and capacity.
“At the moment, Māori psychologists only make up 5% of the workforce. It is important that we build the capacity and capability, and act with urgency and intent to address the discrepancy.
“Psychology is so rewarding. People trust you with their stories, experiences and hopes for the future. Then you work collaboratively to identify helpful tools and ways to promote hauora.
“As Māori we often have shared whānau, social, cultural and political experiences. Putting a Māori psychologist in the same room as a whaiora (person seeking wellness) means that these experiences don't need to be explained, building a shared understanding and the bridge to better outcomes.”
Clifford's thesis is one of four Sciences Division theses judged exceptional in 2023.
“I'd like to acknowledge my supervisors, Professor Harlene Hayne, Dr Jules Gross and Dr Mike Ross,” she said.
Clifford expects to keep a hand in the research space but is hoping to start practicing psychology on the ground among Māori communities.
- Kōrero by Keanu Flavell