Navigating My Māori Identity: It's More Than Skin Deep

Navigating My Māori Identity: It’s More Than Skin Deep

You know when you’re a kid and someone says to you, “I bet I can beat you to that tree!” so you break into a sprint and run like your life depends on it, just to prove them wrong?  My sprint towards proving my identity started well before I could tie my shoelaces.


“Look at us, a bunch of white girls living in Bali,” laughed the woman with her legs in the pool next to me. It was my first day of a month-long writing retreat on the Indonesian island, and a group of us were sitting around getting to know each other.

It took me a moment to realise that, yes, to her I did sit in that category of “white girl”.

I plunged in to a self-reflective state. Why did I feel so irked by this comment? Something in the pit of my stomach began to churn.

It was a harmless enough thing to say, but when someone calls me “white” it reminds me of how I spent the better half of my life trying to prove I’m not.

What is a “white girl” anyway? Someone who is Caucasian? Of European descent? Someone who lives by western standards? I don’t know the answer, but these are questions I ask myself all the time.

My family and I are New Zealanders. My dad is Māori, and my mum is of European heritage. I was raised in a kōhanga reo, which is a preschool held in a Marae (traditional house); I was taught Te Reo Māori (Māori language) from the age of three. I then went to kura kaupapa, a full-immersion Māori school, where we spoke Māori all day.  I learned maths in Māori, to read and write in Māori, all our sports were done in Māori – you get the gist, I was raised in Māori culture. As far as I knew, I was as Māori as they get. What’s weird is that I never felt I belonged to it.

I got my mother’s genes. My skin is pale. My brothers got my dad’s genes, and people are always so quick to point out the difference. Finding my place in primary school was pretty shit. I was constantly bullied for being white. Kids used to say to me, “Go to a normal school, this place isn’t for you – your people stole our land!” At the age of seven I didn’t understand. How could “my” people, steal “your land”? Aren’t we of the same people?

From here, I was hell-bent on proving people wrong. At 13, I started high school and sat all three of my Māori exams in just two years — something most people take three years to achieve and don’t start until the age of 15.

There’s not much more the standard education system can do for wannabe over achievers, so, I signed up for Kapa Haka (Māori traditional performance), as it was essentially the only way to participate and be active in the Māori community at school. I worked so hard in perfecting my Poi (type of Māori performance). I put my hand up to perform the karaga (welcome call) in a singing competition. I did so much shit because I felt I was constantly trying to prove my Māoridom, trying to prove to others that I deserved to be there. But, yep, I was still put in the box of being a “white Māori”.

I have a long Māori name, so introducing myself can be an ordeal. If I am in New Zealand, I generally get raised eyebrows accompanied by the question, “Where are you from?” When I answer, “I’m from here; I’m part Māori,” I almost always get a surprised face and sometimes even the, “No way, I wouldn’t have guessed.”

I’ve come to realise that people have a very narrow idea of what being Māori is. Humans don’t see heritage, we see color. I’ve also come to realise that my sense of identity is missing something. Why have I not felt just as connected to my European ancestry?

In Māori, by way of introduction, you state your whakapapa or pepeha. Whakapapa means genealogy, and pepeha is a form of introduction that establishes identity and heritage. When I introduce myself in a formal Māori setting, I would go into detail about where my ancestry dates back to, like where my people’s mountain is, the river we belonged to, the Marae (traditional house) we hail from, our tribe and even the boat that brought us here from across the seas. I can tell you exactly where my siblings’ and my placentas are buried, right next to my great aunt’s home. I learned this all before I was six years old and could recite it proudly on command.

So what did I learn about my European history?

Well, almost nothing. That’s no one’s fault, it’s just not the way European people introduce themselves. So I didn’t particularly feel a sense of belonging there either, and because I was so aware of my Māori heritage, it made sense to cling to that, to search further for that sense of belonging.

Another note about being “white” in New Zealand is that we call people of European heritage Pākehā. The word Pākehā in the Māori dictionary directly translates to “foreigner, alien”. In recent times, this term has become a point of controversy. Third generation New Zealanders don’t feel like they are foreign; they feel they are people of this land. My mother is an example of this.

Two of my best friends are of European descent and were brought up in Māori culture. They have blonde hair, blue eyes and speak Māori better than some Māori do. They live within Te Ao Māori (world Māori view) and have a deep understanding of everything that encompasses. So where do they belong?

My friends came up with an innovative term that they feel represents them better – ‘Peoples of the Treaty’. The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document that brought an understanding of European and Māori people to live and work in harmony. They have talked about trying get this term recognised as a legitimate identification, so they have a more accurate box to tick on official forms. This would also include people of all races that consider New Zealand home.

This is a great example of the lack of a sense of belonging and identity within my country. Over the past 100 years, we have had to dance this battle of where we sit in post-colonial New Zealand. I am Māori, but I don’t feel Māori enough. I am Pākehā, but I feel that term is a misinterpretation of my identity.

I’ve learned I sit somewhere in between. Yeah, I’ve had a hard time proving to others that I am Māori and that I deserve to be. And yeah, I sometimes get triggered when people call me white, but I have learned my identity belongs to me, and only me. In recent years I have spent time asking more questions about my European ancestry and even got a DNA test to help understand exactly where I come from, and to help aid my journey in discovering all sides of who I am.

Our family home, near our river, belonged to my great, great grandmother who I am so proudly named after. This home is considered the anchor of our family’s celebrations and traditions. While sitting in the garden sipping on tea, my Māori grandmother – who is also fair skinned and grew up blonde – once said to me after seeing how affected I was by my mixed heritage, “You know who you are, you know where you come from, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

That advice has been my mantra, and forever will be.

Image supplied by the author

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