I have two very vivid early memories. The first is of being bullied for my physical appearance. Growing up in Rangiora, North Canterbury was an interesting experience for a young girl like me: different from most children in my class and in my neighbourhood, all too aware that the colour of my skin signified the fact I was Māori. The sense of shame that this afforded me was sometimes too overwhelming and my mother would find me huddled in a ball on the floor of the shower trying to rub off and wash away that “dirt-coloured, Coco Pops skin.” Children can be cruel. Adults also.
My second earliest memory is of my Grandfather. My mother’s father was a fifth generation mechanical engineer—always tinkering, building, and fixing things. The most extraordinary, out-of-the-box thinker I’ve ever met and very eccentric. Buying sedans and converting them into utes, converting containers into sheds, building garages and inventing machines that nobody else could think of. Once he invented a fruit picking contraption from a retractable fishing rod just so he and I could pick banana passionfruit from high up the trees on one of our many excursions around Banks Peninsula. A fisherman, hunter, builder, engineer, apiarist, property developer, tree planter, tea-cup collector, and business man. That was him, a hard-working, nothing-is-impossible kind of man. How I loved and admired him.
But, he was also a bully. In fact, he was the worst of the bullies I had encountered. His views toward Māori people and Māoridom in general were harsh and unforgiving. He would often tell me to “remember that I was more French than Māori.” He would make sure I knew that “to be Māori is to be dumb, lazy, poor and stupid, and you don’t ever want to identify with the likes of that.”
Both of these early memories would leave a lasting imprint on my life.
My father came from an environment where te reo Māori was the predominant language spoken in the home, but moving from Putaruru down to Christchurch where he met my mother, he found out very quickly how hard it was to navigate the Southern regions as a Māori man. He spent 41 years living in Christchurch not expressing or acknowledging his Māoritanga (Māori side), an attitude he passed on to me and my siblings. At school, I studied Japanese as my second language.
All this was to change for me. At the end of high school and during my university years I met many rangatahi Māori who were alive in their Māoritanga. Many of them were very involved in the Māori world – kapahaka, tā moko, Māori sports and representation (like Manu Kōrero Speech Competitions), and through these relationships I was also exposed to the unspoken values that underpinned te ao Māori. One friend taught me about manaakitanga (service to others); not just the hospitality part—like serving manuhiri a cup of tea or ensuring they have food to eat—but also the belief that every person has mana and that every action I take can either build up or destroy someone’s mana or dignity.
The more I embraced and discovered my Māori identity, the more I became the person that I felt I was meant to be. I found the teachings were wholesome, the things I was discovering about what it meant to be Māori were beautiful—so unlike what I had been led to believe by my Grandfather. I was learning about humility, putting others first, respect, doing things with excellence, the power and importance of prayer. As a result, I was seeing the beauty in nature and I felt my vision for life changed from a narrow lens to a wider, more holistic view of what life is all about.
Last summer I found myself standing out by the waharoa on the freshly cut, sweet-smelling grass in front of Ngā Hau E Whā Marae in Cambridge. I was standing next to a small contingent of people who were about to step foot on the marae for the first time, all waiting for Whaea Virginia Heta (Ngāti Haua) to start the karanga on the tangata whenua (marae side) which would initiate the start of the pōwhiri. It was my job to answer, to bring them on to the marae as the Kaikaranga (caller for the manuhiri, the visitors).
I was nervous. I have done the karanga several times, but this time was different. I was about to bring my Grandfather onto a marae for the first time in his 78 years on earth. I would be the conduit bringing together two very different worlds—two worlds I thought would never, ever come into contact. I was excited and anxious. I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to set the scene. I wanted to de-mystify the unknown, knowing that many first-timers to a marae are scared about what to do, what not to do, what to wear and what certain parts of the ceremony mean and represent.
I started explaining to my Grandfather what the pōwhiri was about.
I talked about what the word pōwhiri meant. That it literally refers to an opportunity for us to unravel the darkness, for us to peel away the plaited layers of unknowingness to come face to face with one another—to be seen, to be known, to therefore to be one in community, common unity. The realm of the pōwhiri, as I was taught, was also a process that could be used to assess someone’s true motives. It would allow for the host side (tangata whenua) to know if the party arriving came as friends or foe. This was usually determined at the time the rau (leaf) would be placed upon the ground when the Kaiwero (Challenger) would come out with his taiaha in hand. But for most occasions these days, those who would enter into the process of pōwhiri come in the context of their own community, bringing their loved ones with them, their own aspirations, ideas and intentions to contribute positively to the kaupapa (the reason for gathering).
I told him about the karanga, that it is the first voice to be heard calling on the marae. A woman’s voice, signifying new birth, beginning the weaving together of new relationship. Two voices—call and response—their combined sounds a sign of the coming together of people in a spiritual and physical sense. I walked everyone step by step through every part of the pōwhiri process, including the korero from each side, where heated discussions, conflicting ideas, and the sharing of vision has free rein. I’ve seen no better example of freedom of speech: saying what needs to be said, but in the context of manaakitanga with great respect and love. Love for those living, those past, and those yet to be born. The korero process differs from tribe to tribe. But usually the host side speaks first, then listens, and has the right to finish. Waiata (songs) would flow from each side to whakamana (strengthen and show support) the talk.
Finally, I shared about the hongi: the embrace, face to face, noses pressed together in a physical meeting, the sharing of breath, the ultimate acknowledgement of the Te Kaihanga o Ngā Mea Kātoa (the Creator of all things). An action that brings us together, acknowledges our humanity, the breath we both share that keeps us alive, that reminds us that we are one in the same.
I shared all of this and then I thanked them all for having the courage to step into our world and then I turned to call…
“Karanga mai, karanga mai ra, kua tae mai matou ki tēnei marae, ki tēnei wahi tapu…”
I said it. In my karanga. I acknowledged that we had come to this sacred place. But it was more than a sacred place that had meaning because of the physical location, it became a sacred place to me in my head and heart because I never thought this moment was possible. I was escorting—voluntarily—onto the marae a man who for most of my life verbalised his hatred towards people of my shared ethnicity. I felt his humility, I felt his willingness to go there, and I sensed his change of heart. In between the walk from the waharoa to the marae, I glanced over in his direction and I could see the tears rolling down his cheek and I felt them roll down mine also. Indeed, this was a sacred place and sacred moment in time.
He came into the marae and was fully present and engaged in the proceedings, and then he stood to hongi the men and women of the marae and they received him warmly as I knew they would. Descendants of the great ancestor, Wiremu Tamihana—a great Māori leader and man of faith—receiving my grandfather with great aroha and hospitality. He was received by and into the community that calls Ngā Hau e Whā [the Four Winds of the Four Corners of the World] marae home and he experienced a sense of belonging and acceptance that kept the tears falling. After his time at the marae I walked with him: “Pops, did you enjoy your first experience on the marae?” He turned to me and said, “Yes, I did. You know, I’ve never been in a place where so many people are smiling and happy, it really is a special place.” He experienced what I experienced many years ago when I first stepped onto my marae and started the journey of discovering the fullness of my identity and language. He was welcomed, no matter his difference or lack of knowledge. He saw that contrary to what he had told me, being Māori wasn’t actually about deficit, poverty, or any of the things we so often see in public representations of our people. Through manaakitanga, through my people’s unique act of welcome and invitation, I was able to share with him the truth that I had found in the sacred space of the marae—a sacred korero that spoke to me and still speaks today, saying “you matter, you belong and you are home.”