A theatre project giving a voice to homeless people, a music therapy centre providing life-changing benefits to its clients, an artist who uses his art to engage people in social and environmental issues, a ballet company building new and diverse audiences, and leadership in delivering arts programmes in prisons were all recognised at last week's presentation of Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019 at Parliament, hosted by Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Carmel Sepuloni.

Among the winners was Arrin Clark (Ngatiwai, Tainui), who said one of the biggest rewards of being the kaitiaki of tikanga at Northland Region Corrections Facility at Ngawha was seeing the faces of the men he worked with light up when they understood who they were and where they came from.

"It's so good to see their reaction when they learn something they've been hungry to learn for a long time, usually about their identity," he said.

"These men live in a world so far from our Māori culture, and often they don't realise how far away they are," he said.

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"For many, learning more about their whakapapa and reconnecting with whānau helps them gain a deeper understanding of the impact that their offending has on others, and sets them on the path to rehabilitation.

"The biggest thing I see is a greater awareness of the impact on their family and the vulnerability their family experiences as a result of their offending." Mr Clark had been responsible for delivering the tikanga programme at the prison, where around 60 per cent of prisoners are Māori, for the last 13 years, his award recognising his outstanding contribution to using tikanga and the arts to encourage cultural identity and support pro-social living.

The award judges said Mr Clark was responsible for transforming the prison into a Māori therapeutic community focused on rehabilitation.

"He sets the benchmark of how to integrate tikanga across everything, and his cultural programmes empower the men to reconnect with their culture, gain a sense of identity and make positive change. His role extends into the community, to support the men's reintegration back with their whānau and iwi," they added.

Mr Clark runs two programmes at the prison, the first a four-day, noho-style (residential marae) tikanga course that uses Māori philosophy, values, knowledge and practices to foster the regeneration of Māori identity and values. The other is an 11-week Mauri Tu Pae course that teaches prisoners the skills they need to change the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that led to their offending.

He has also been involved in a wide range of projects for the Department of Corrections, including youth offender programmes, the Gang Exiting Strategy and Te Whare Burglary programme, and runs specialist Māori cultural assessments to identify the men's cultural needs and help develop a rehabilitation pathway.

For many of the men, what they learned could be eye-opening, he said, for example the fact that Māori did not paddle in canoes from Tahiti to Aotearoa, but sailed.

"The men generally have no understanding of where our people originally came from and what the purpose of whakapapa is," he said.

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"In our tikanga programme we give a whole lot of presentations around migration and celestial navigation, and we look at things like how tā moko is aligned with cultural and social order and structure."

Over the past eight years he had also played an integral role in the planning, design and placement of carvings, tukutuku panels and artworks in the prison's Te Pua Wānanga, the facility's cultural heart and used to run many of the cultural programmes.

Graham Fletcher, principal adviser of rehabilitation and learning at Ngawha, said Mr Clark's long-standing commitment, his knowledge of tikanga Māori, his deep roots in the Northland community and local iwi (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Rangi) were integral to the prison's cultural identity.

"Working out their whakapapa is a major part of the men finding their identity," he said.

"Arrin relates back to their whānau, understanding who they are and who their whānau are, because he's been doing this a long time and knows the region so well."

His mana also enabled him to help some men break away from their involvement in gangs, often an important first step towards breaking the cycle of re-offending.

His knowledge of tikanga had enabled the prison to develop a range of cultural programmes, including te reo classes, whakairo workshops and a Māori performing arts programme. He opened the door for all cultures to participate, and many non-Māori gained just as much out of the courses as did Māori.

He also actively encouraged contact with whānau, inviting them to attend community outreach days and graduation ceremonies at the end of each course, which usually included a hangi prepared by the men.

"These events enable the men to show their whānau what they've achieved through kapa haka, music, te reo and whakairo," Mr Fletcher said.

"Arrin goes above and beyond to make sure that the site has a cultural identity and that the men he works with understand who they are. This allows them to start the process of healing and reintegrating back into society, and with their whānau and iwi groups."