Image: Māori kākahu / Flickr
First published on Wednesday the 28th of June, 2017, this piece comes in at number 8 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.
“Who are Māori?” a friend from France asked me one night in the middle of my student exchange. I hesitated. “I am Māori,” I answered eventually.
What followed was a conversation (interrogation) familiar, no doubt, to many people in the same waka. I practically have to dig out my family tree to prove my heritage, because I doubt my identity as a Māori woman.
Growing up, I knew my mihi by heart. I knew the basics of te reo. I knew my iwi were Ngāpuhi and Ngati Ruanui, I knew my ancestry was strong. More importantly I knew my mother and grandfather, the two most influential people in terms of my whakapapa and my life.
In primary school I remember being absolutely chuffed to be a part of such a beautiful culture. I loved the language, the songs, the stories, the art, and never once doubted my place in it. While my parents didn’t have time to take me to our marae every week (it was several days travel away), they never kept me in the dark about who I was. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered you could be measured like box of RTDs with the classic: “What percentage are you?”
When I told people I was Māori, people wanted proof, like I’d committed a crime. With this came comments like, “you’re the whitest girl I know”, and I began to subconsciously question my right to identify as Māori. While I never denied my heritage, I grew quieter about it and eventually I easily, unashamedly placed the language and knowledge aside.
Then, on my exchange last year, I encountered that big ass question - who am I? The pursuit of the answers I sought inevitably involved reflection upon my Māori heritage and family. Being so far away from such a small country as Aotearoa gave me a fresh perspective and triggered countless panic attacks. Completely uprooted, my sense of self and place were as confused and scrambled as a paint pallet.
I constantly begged my mum via phone and email to tell me more about our family, and she happily sent me information with reassurances, but when I returned to Aotearoa I still didn’t feel like I had a right to be Māori. My lack of knowledge and my pale skin were so obvious. I hated the thought that secretly my friends and acquaintances might think I was somehow pretending, or taking advantage by claiming the face of a people often mistreated and misunderstood.
Worrying about what others think looms over this process I now find myself in. I dread the headshakes, the rolling eyes, the whispers accusing me of clutching at what they see to be only a small part of who I am. I imagine I am far from the only Māori with fair skin who feels disconnected from themselves because of doubts voiced by complete strangers, but partaking in arguments about the percentage of so-called ‘Māori blood’ running through your veins is incredibly isolating.
Sometimes I think I need to have my ancestry printed out on a card to slip into my wallet, so I can whip it out when the next person asserts their opinion. Then I can tell them, “Look! Here’s the proof you wanted!”
But I don’t think they’d actually care.
It’s all a reaction to the structures within our society, the images we see on NZ film, TV and in the media, and that’s how it gets ya. Classic colonialism, you old joker. Shaking things up since 1642.
Māori stereotypes still loom over our schools and workplaces. Mocking assumptions are made. Apparently the only ‘believable’ Māori come from poor backgrounds, are lazy, or have violent tempers like Jake the Muss (cue HUGE sigh). I’ve never had to personally face these stereotypes because of my white privilege, and I don’t claim any understanding of what it’s like to be discriminated against because of my skin colour or upbringing, but I find myself in a grey area... Because I have white skin it’s apparently okay for people to make backhanded racist remarks about Māori names or accents around me. And if I don’t shrug it off, I’m apparently overreacting, because these aren’t my issues.
And yet they are.
So what does it mean to be Māori? How do I reconnect with my identity? For me, the answer lies in the language.
My granddad spoke fluent te reo until he had to go to school where it wasn’t permitted, which is a polite way of saying that it was beaten out of him. Until the 1970s schools often took it upon themselves to punish the speakers of te reo. His family had moved to South Taranaki during the war, away from their marae, which was in ruins. There were no kohanga reo, no te reo classes nor kapa haka groups at his school. Everyone concentrated on being “English” and he encountered heavy racism.
My mother recalls a story about her father being called ‘boy’ by customers at the service station he owned. The mixture of sadness and fury at those people has followed us to this day. My mother’s understanding of her Māori heritage came only from knowing she had a Māori father and grandmother at an early age. Today she is still on her own journey connecting to her heritage.
These stories of the loss of a culture are not unique. They’re common to many modern Māori whānau. By trying to learn te reo, however, I’m finally making a move toward what’s been taken. I’m not saying that te reo is the only way to get closer to my culture, but it’s what resonates with me the most. There are other things to explore, for example, my sister is learning weaving online, and some people like to study and pursue careers in toi Māori (Māori art). The point is that there is an entire world that’s available to us, when we’re ready to seek it.
This is not a victory piece. I remain as confused as my country. I’m far from fluent in te reo, but I will keep attending the classes, I will keep trying to learn. I still stutter every time someone asks me how Māori I am, and it was only last week I called my mum crying to ask her “am I really Māori? Do I really have the right?!”
I know that the truth doesn't lie on the computer screen in the email attachment of the family tree, it is rooted deeply within us. No one has the right to say otherwise.
It’s been two steps forward and one step back, but already I know that I’m several steps closer to finding who I am.Support Villainesse