Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waitangi Day Special

I can never quite remember the first time I thought about what it meant to be Maori. I knew that my Poppa was brown obviously, my cousins too. They called each other “bro” or “cuz” and they ended their conversations with “catch you up, ow”.

Once our family sang a Maori song at church. Kia kaha. It went down a treat, and for a wee while I felt like I was part of this special elite group.

I never really connected as a Maori at high school. I said I didn’t want to be tagged as one of the smokers and drop outs. Its kind of sad, but that’s really how I saw it. Looking back, I wonder if I was too busy being ‘Christian’ to be ‘Maori’, and whether I thought that the two identities were mutually exclusive, or at least too difficult to mesh. It was unknown territory. It was ground that I didn’t feel steady on (I mean, the extent of my reo was prettty much ‘Kia ora’ and ‘whanau’ and ‘kai’) and I was a pretty awkward hongi-er. I preferred the solid turangawaewae of being teachers pet, eldest sibling, ticking all the boxes on the ropes I knew by heart.

Like many others before me, my university years signalled a change. For the first time in my life, I was an individual. Not a Harris. Not the big sister. Not the A+ student. Not the house captain. Nobody knew me, or expected from me, it was like a fresh start. I don’t think I realised it at the time, or really appreciated it. To be honest, it felt a lot more scary and uncertain than it did exhilirating. I felt lost in a world where everyone else seemed to be confident and sure of where they were going and what they wanted from their life. I felt more like I had nothing left.

Now, I don’t want to waffle on with rubbish about ‘finding myself’ and ‘inner peace’, but I guess my uni years were the perfect time to figure out some stuff. I signed up for a hip hop class,joined the gym, volunteered with disabled people, played some soccer, and started to learn Te Reo. I remember being on the marae one night and thinking “I feel like I belong here”, which was strange because I hadn’t really felt like that before in a traditionally Maori setting. And strange because it was right – of course I belonged. I was one of ‘them’.

What I was noticing was that in some strange way there were layers to my identity. At one level there was this underlying truth. Abosolute. I am Māori. I am European. There’s no changing that because my whakapapa tells the story. Māori 1 begat Māori 2, Pakeha 1 begat Pakeha 2...and so the list goes on, until somewhere down the chain...on a beautiful mountain named Taranaki, Māori 156 and Pakeha 893 begat me (Talking about my birth here, I would never go into details about my conception, even if I knew them). It’s in my blood.

There’s a layer above this where I am shaped by the past, I walk on the paths that have been laid down for me by my tipuna (ancestors). Whether I agree with their decisions or not, I live in a New Zealand that has been molded by them, and it would be silly not to acknowledge that. It doesn’t mean I have to be tied down to the past, but that in order to move forward, I have to look back and recognise where I (we) have come from.

Above this layer is yet another. A layer of my own choice. Where I can stand and look at my whakapapa, my biological roots. I can look at those who have gone before me – those of my own flesh and blood, and those who shared only a common humanity - and glean from their lives, experiences, errors and triumphs. I can choose to what extent I will allow these layers to affect my beliefs, my outlook, my whanau values, the way I see myself, my community, and the world around me. The way I speak, and present myself, the things I pursue, the taonga I treasure.

This is the layer I’m still trying to figure out. A layer I think many of us are still trying to form. What does it mean for me to be a Maori/Pakeha New Zealander in the 21st Century? Today it means that I stem from a strong and beautiful heritage. There are peoplethat I hope to be more like, and there are others who remind me that this world is not perfect. My place in this world, my value is not determined my belonging to a specific group, and yet at the same time, my connection with diferent groups, whether it be my family, my extended whanau, or my ethnic group is what reminds me that I am not in this world on my own. There are things about different cultures which remind me of different aspects of God, of life and the world.

Each of these three layers are different, and often it is only the third layer that is really obvious to people. For most of us kiwis, the first two layers are probably quite similar. For me, I want to make sure that there is consistency between the layers, that what the world sees reflects my whakapapa, the roots that I have come from. I want to preserve that which is good and precious which has been handed down from generation to generation to me. And I want to leave something for the future of NZ that demonstrates the fullness of where we have come from.

If my writing is jumbly,rambly and incohesive, it is probably a true reflection of my mind. This isn’t an easy topic to write about given that my thoughts are still forming. Fumbling, scraping baby thoughts. Usually I like to let things simmer into a flavoursome, full and more identifiable mix before I serve them up for public consumption. But I guess I want to acknowledge that this is an important thing to think about, even if, like me you don’t have anything new or intelligent to say just yet. Because this is our country. This is us.

“E kore e ngaro nga tapuwae i nga wa o mua, he arahina ke tatou ki te huarahi nei, me hangaia e tatou ano.”

We can never erase the footprints of our past, they lead us to the path of the future we carve for ourselves.


  1. Good questions, about what does it mean to be a NZer today....and what do we bring from the past (individually and collectively). I've been part of groups that asked those questions and tried to take some action (group called "Project Waitangi"). It seems to be a question we need to keep asking. Thanks for sharing what goes on in your head, especially since the questions and answers are evolving....