I am not Indigenous

by Pākehā

A significant matter of concern to social work practice internationally, is work with indigenous populations. I am Palagi, Pākehā, Tauiwi and am a social work student soon to begin practice in Aotearoa with clients including Tangata Whenua.

The International Federation of Social Workers has a policy on work with indigenous peoples (IFSW, 2012) in which it supports the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007) .  Article eight of this declaration states: “indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture…states shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress” (United Nations, 2007, p5) where this has occurred. Māori were forcibly assimilated into British culture and are still suffering from the destruction of their culture. Social Workers have a role to play in decolonisation.

Pāora Moyle published a piece on the Re-imagining Social Work blog in 2015 . Moyle attests that Puao-te-ata-tu never got off the ground and Māori “remain unacceptably over represented in all systems – systems that are fundamentally Eurocentric and monocultural, not bicultural” (Moyle, 2015). Moyle believes that karakia at the beginning of meetings, harakeke design on documents or pōwhiri at social work conferences is merely tokenism. Moyle states that the Social Workers Registration Board labels their social workers as ‘culturally competent’, but most social workers cannot work at a kaupapa Māori level with Tangata Whenua. The challenge Moyle poses is “why on earth would you want to work for a system that is diametrically opposed to Māori well-being?” (2015). I ask myself this question frequently.

A common issue across the world is that social workers tend to be non-indigenous while the indigenous populations are over-represented as clients. Social Work Today is an American magazine which published an article  about the need for more American Indian social workers to work with American Indian clients. The article highlighted reasons why only 1% of social work graduates are American Indian. The reasons stated include economic and social inequalities. “Take the example of a family member’s death – the funeral may take four or five days. These types of scenarios can cause disruption in the individual’s pursuit of academic goals” (Getz, 2017). This is the view of a social work educator. I would reframe this: the euro-centric education system does not value nor allow for a five-day grieving process. Another barrier the article attributes to preventing American-Indians training to be social workers, is the stigma associated with the profession. “In many cases I’m not really sure the tribes understand what a social worker can help accomplish” (Getz, 2017) another social work educator adds, helpfully. This kind of pride and ignorance demonstrated by non-indigenous social workers contributes to the continued disadvantage of indigenous communities.

In Australia, a blog website ‘Metaphorically Speaking’ has recently started a podcast “Talk the Walk” which seeks to help social workers working with Aboriginal communities. The creator of the podcast found in their work with indigenous communities that they “continually questioned: am I doing this right? Am I making a difference? Or am I contributing to the problem?” (Van Sambeek, 2017). An Australian journal article  describes effective indigenous social work as ‘decolonising’ while accepting and including Indigenous views (Green & Baldry, 2008).

Similarly, Canada is grappling with how best to practice social work with indigenous people groups. A Canadian journal (Sinclair, 2004) article states that in current social work with indigenous peoples: “the assumption is that benevolence is extended to the less fortunate minority or disenfranchised group member of which the educator or practitioner is usually not a member” (Sinclair, 2004, p.59). The alternative practice is “premised on Indigenous knowledge that encompasses Aboriginal philosophical and healing methods” (Sinclair, 2004, p.59).

My question remains, how can I live as a Pākehā, in a colonised nation, and work with indigenous minorities in a profession originating in the place of my ancestors?


Getz, L. (2017). More American Indians needed in social work. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/enews_0912_01.shtml

Green, S., & Baldry, E. (2008). Building indigenous australian social work. Australian Social Work, 61(4), 389-402.

International Federation of Social Workers. (2012). Indigenous peoples policy. Retrieved from http://ifsw.org/policies/indigenous-peoples/

Moyle, P. (2015). Talking my walk from the inside out: An indigenous practitioners view of child protection in Aotearoa Blog post 26 August 2015.  Retrieved from http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2015/08/talking-my-walk-from-the-inside-out-an-indigenous-practitioners-view-of-child-protection-in-aotearoa/

Sinclair, R. (2004). Aboriginal social work education in Canada: Decolonizing pedagogy for the seventh generation. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 1(1), 49-62. read here

United Nations. (2007). Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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2 Responses to I am not Indigenous

  1. Grace says:

    This blog is so dope, and speaks so many truths about how I feel about embarking on my social work journey as a pakeha.


  2. Fellow Student says:

    This is such a important issue that does not get discussed enough and as seen through the huge gap in our education. Not to mention the tokenistic paper on Te Tiriti in first year that was taught by two white men… The continuous mentioned phrase of “bi-cultural practice” has been indented in our minds, but how is this truly translated into practice?!

    Liked by 1 person

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