Sergeant Whiti Timutimu is the first female officer in the New Zealand Police to have a moko kauae. She shares her journey with reporter Shaan Te Kani . . .

"Kua reri – I'm ready."

That's what Whiti Timutimu said to herself when she made a life-changing decision to join the New Zealand Police Force.

That was in 2005.

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Thirteen years later and Whiti found herself saying it again. And, for another major milestone in her life.

Just over a month ago, Whiti received a moko kauae — a traditional Maori chin moko for women.

It was a first for the NZ Police Force, with the Maori responsive advisor becoming the first female officer to have a moko kauae.

But it was definitely not a first for her whanau. Whiti is continuing a legacy that is within her whakapapa. Some of her Ngai Tuhoe, Ngati Awa and Ngati Porou kuia (elderly nannies) had moko kauae.

For Whiti, it is a reconnection to her tipuna, her ancestors.
"I had desired it for a long time," she says.

"The first time I thought about it was when I was a teacher in Ruatoki.

"It was something that was inside of me and eventually I wanted to have it.

"But you go through those feelings of 'I'm not worthy', and you think it's sort of an elitist thing.

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"You internalise different things, and I thought, the time will come when it will feel right.

"Six months ago I thought, 'kua reri, I'm ready'.

"I made contact with tohunga ta moko (ta moko expert) Mark Kopua, who had already asked me if I wanted one a while back. He said when I was ready, he would koha (gift) me my moko kauae.

"It wasn't a thing where I wanted to be the first in the NZ Police Force to get one.

"For me, it was that missing part that would make me feel fulfilled as a wahine Maori.

"For a long time now, I have given of myself to my hapu, iwi and community. This was the one thing that was for me. And it's a huge journey for me, a privilege."

It is a journey that has been backed by the support of her whanau.

"I had to ask my sister, as she is the eldest, for permission and she said 'kei te pai'. Then I went to my wider whanau and they were very supportive."

But the permission of the Police Force was not something that Whiti sought.

Instead, she informed them of her decision and her reasons why.

"I told my bosses that I have generations of kuia who wore moko kauae. This reconnects me back to them, back to my iwi and hapu.

"This allows me to be my true self. 'I'm just letting you know, I'm informing you of what I am going to do'.

"My boss came back to me and said 'we support you'.

"I was a little surprised by that, of how embracing they were. I thought I may have a few issues, but it was really good."

In terms of moko being visible in the Police Force, Whiti wants it to be normalised.

"In our role as Maori police officers, we bring everything to our mahi.

"It's not just about our reo (language), it's about everything that encompasses being Maori — including moko.

"I hope that our young ones with moko kauae, who want to come into the Police Force can feel that they can."

And even though the ink is still fresh, Whiti says she is already feeling comfortable in this new phase of her life.

"Even in the short time that I've had my moko kauae, I feel the difference. I feel a little bit more uplifted.

"I've been working in Auckland's women's prison recently, and when you're a wahine going into those environments — with a moko kauae — it actually removes barriers and changes things for you.

"People do treat you differently. There is another level of respect."

Whiti is passionate about helping Maori who are in prison, to help re-integrate them into the community when they are released.

She had a five-year secondment with Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou from 2012-17, which worked on integration programmes for whanau.

"I had the privilege of working under the mantle of Uncle Api Mahuika.

"It was an opportunity for us to create solutions in our community for some of the problems we were facing.

"We'd travel to Hawke's Bay men's prison and engage with men to support them in coming home.
"Our work was always focused on whanau, making whanau resilient.

"Uncle always said, 'Everything was achievable with a bit of planning and commitment'.

"This kaupapa was about investing our time into our people. And to open our minds, ears and hearts to them.

"Some of them would say, 'We want to reconnect to our iwi? How?'

"We started a te reo Maori level 2 course at Hawke's Bay men's prison through Eastern

Institute of Technology. That led to level 3 and further units. In one year we had around 36 graduates.

"We developed a plan with them for when they would come out of prison, and we would support them at home — accommodation and steps towards employment.

"And sometimes you've got to have straight up conversations with whanau, to get themselves sorted.

"Being a wahine Maori helps. Sometimes our whanau need that Nanny or Aunty who gives them that straight up korero, but said with aroha."

In her national role, Whiti sets up new locations for these types of programmes and teaches the facilitators.

Whiti also mentors three programmes aimed at supporting young people, including a community youth support group; Tuakana Teina, which supports children with a parent in prison; and Atawhai, which strives to keep at-risk Year 7-8 kids engaged in school longer so they are less likely to go through the justice system.

"The mentoring programmes are my personal mahi. I do it in my own time.

"I went through some traumatic times when I was a kid. I do this because I don't want other kids to go through what I did.

"It's a healing process for me. To help them is something that I'm really passionate about."