Ko wai ahau? Who am I?

I am a māori descendant. I am a māori woman who works in IT. But although I feel a sense of pride watching Māori come together to protest the TPPA. I never felt like I was part of the people. I am a fraud, because I don’t believe I am part of the māori people.

The number of te reo words I know can be counted on one hand. The number of times I have entered a marae can be also. Although I am part of a very large māori family, my grandmother had twenty two children, but we did not visit the marae or attend huis with the family due to disagreements. I was never brought up around our maori heritage. My grandmother who was māori, and actually lived with us for a period of time while I was young, had a stroke. As far back as I can remember she struggled to speak. She would get frustrated getting her words out. I guess as well because we only spoke English, that is what she spoke to us when she tried. I had been told that she understood the māori language perfectly and whenever clips came on TV I would see her nodding and smiling or shaking her head furiously at pieces she heard in te reo.

However, I yearned for the culture I felt I didn’t deserve. I wanted to speak te reo, I wanted to be able to give a karanga. Watching a karanga gives me chills. The power and spirituality I feel when listening to them makes me feel like I can connect with my ancestors.

When I step into a marae I feel the sacredness. How amazing it would feel to step inside a marae that was part of your family. To see your ancestors carved into the wood, it must be so powerful. Yet I removed myself from my culture as I felt I was ‘too pale’ or didn’t necessarily know my full tribe details to think that other māori people would respect me. People who I should consider my own people.

It was a small conversation that literally changed my life. I was at a māori meetup at the annual Nethui conference where I had felt like I suddenly understood who I might be. I had sat down the back of the māori meetup, as I had done every year before that. I felt like I didn’t deserve to sit any further forward. I didn’t introduce myself during morning teas because I was terrified I would be called out as a fraud. It was during an afternoon break that I took a chance. I very nervously introduced myself to a māori gentleman who had been in all the sessions. I ended the sentence like I did most conversations talking about māori “I know I don’t look like it but I am part māori on my mother’s side.” The man just smiled and with a simple response started to tear down the feelings of fraud I had felt. “I knew you were māori, you looked like it. We just come in many colours, but we’re all the same.” I don’t know if he knows but this has stayed with me throughout the past year. It seems silly but it’s like he gave me permission to be someone I have always wanted. I sit here thinking about this encounter and my eyes start to water.

I still long for a sense of understanding for my heritage, my ancestors and who they are. But I have started to take steps to learn the culture I have yearned for. To learn te reo. I am the only one that can change the situation.

I would personally like to thank two people who have helped me through this journey. Chris Cormack who is @ranginui on Twitter and Sarah Lee, both of whom have supported me and created a safe place for me to ask questions and build my confidence around who I am as a māori woman. I research my family name and who we are through Wikipedia and other pieces found on the internet. I have also been doing some work to help others in New Zealand understand what the māori culture is and why they should know about it. Although I lost my grandmother when I was younger, I like to think that she would be proud of what I’m doing. I sit and wonder what she would think about all of this? To be honest she would probably think I’m being too serious, would make a funny face and we would burst into laughter together.

An interesting trend that I’ve noticed now that I am open about feeling like a fraud, I have found quite a few similar aged māori descendant friends who also feel this way. This is terrifying. Terrifying because I just need to google māori ancestors and you’ll get a sense that everything they do is for their mokopuna, their descendants. Every māori meetup I go to, it’s always about making a better world for their mokopuna. We shouldn’t stand by and let our feelings of fraud remove us from a culture that our ancestors fought hard for us to maintain and keep. Fought for us to even speak te reo. I feel like it should be an honour and I’ll look to try to use it where I can. I have set myself a challenge. If someone speaks to me in māori I am going to give them the courtesy of writing a reply back in māori. Even if it will take me a while.

So who are you? Will you join me? Will we take back a culture that we totally deserve. Let me give you permission so you don’t have to wait for a conversation with someone at an event. Let us be who our ancestors fought for us to be and more.

Feature image by Wikimedia Commons