I grew up not knowing I was Māori.
One day, when I was 18 or so, my father passed a comment and the vegetables across the dinner table.
“Are we Māori, Dad? I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “Now give me the salt.” And he would say no more. It took decades for me to understand his hesitation. After the passing of the Tohunga Suppression Act, 1907, being Māori was not a wise thing. It was not unusual for teachers to beat in school children for speaking Te Reo Māori (the Māori language), and Māori people were looked down upon by many Pākeha (white people). For many of my father’s generation, getting on in life meant leaving their culture behind or, at the very least, putting it one side, in being more Pākeha than the Pākeha. Taha Māori went underground for many years.
By the 1980s, things were beginning to change. People were talking about the Te Tiriti O Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), and the Māori language was starting its slow return to the front of the stage. Opportunities began coming to me to engage. However, I was not sure I wanted to walk in such a foreign and somehow unsettling land. I, who had studied five other European languages, ironically felt a distinct unease every time I went near Te reo Māori. Here there be dragons.
But I went that way anyway, dragged kicking, screaming and fearful, onto a path I have since realised I was taking anyway.
By the beginning of 2015, I was living back in my birthplace of Ranfurly, in the Maniototo district of Central Otago. I was working as a contractor to Ngāi Tahu, the iwi (tribe) whose rohe (area) is Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island. I had almost completed my work, developing a set of affirmation cards based on IO Matua Kore, The spiritual tradition predating colonial times.
My Māori friends, many of whom were matakite (seers), were telling me to go home (to the Far North).
Why? I would ask.
Because then you will know who you are.
I know who I am, I would reply.
You need to go home.
In August 2015 after a journey of 6 months, I made it to the Hokianga and settled in Rawene. Then I began to engage with my own (whakapapa) genealogy. In the three years I was there, I found the trail back to my waka ( canoe) and the name of the tupuna (ancestor) who had arrived with the great Polynesian navigator, Kupe. I learned of my descent from a line of Te Rarawa chiefs, and my connection to that place and to Te Puna I Te Ao Marama.
A pepeha is a way of describing yourself and who you are, which ties you to iwi and to the whenau (land) of your people.
I am the sum of all who have gone before me, and who stand with me even now.