A Māori Girl from Gore?

A good friend in the North, Wimutu Te Whiu, would often refer to me on local Marae as “the Māori girl from Gore”.  True, I was born in Gore, but I can’t claim any ancestry other than Scottish, Irish, and a little bit of English.  Nā Kotirangi, Airangi hoki ngā tūpuna, often out of solidarity not including the imperial Ingarangi in my mihi.  Matua Wi bestowed something very precious to me and yet I feel very hesitant to claim it and risk stepping into arrogance.  He affirmed a belonging among the whanau whānui (the family at large) in the Whangaroa area of Northland. Somehow this was so, perhaps because I was there with them in many different places as one of their ministers for tangihanga (funerals) and at significant hui; away outside my comfort zone, willing to be totally governed by tikanga and te reo Maori (customs and language), and stand and do my best to speak if and when I was called on. 

Now that I have returned to the south, I know that something got added to me during those years with the people of Whangaroa and Northland, something that can never be taken away from me.  Yet returning home, I return also to my “Pākehātanga”, to the social and cultural ways of southerners, friendly yet reserved, close-knit and pretty comfortable, content with their world and in no hurry to change.  These are the kind of people I grew up with. As noted in an earlier blog, it has been a “dislocating” experience.

Rural Eastern Southland in the 50’s and 60’s was very monocultural and that is not just the white faces.  The heritage was predominately Scottish (Presbyterian) or at least from the British Isles. It wasn’t till High School that I knew anything about the reasonable sized population of Māori living in Mataura for its employment opportunities. But it wasn’t close contact because the school had 1,100 pupils and the Latin class I chose to be in was unsurprisingly all Pākehā. It didn’t help that I was hopeless at sports.

What made up for lack of interaction was the philosophy and cultural attitude of the home I grew up in. I was aware that my family consciously stood apart from the mainstream in being respectful and accepting of other cultures, be it the Chinese greengrocer or people who were Catholic, or Māori the first people of the land. Through church involvement they got to know people of many different cultures. My father’s war experiences contributed to the overall inclusive attitude, and also his father’s independent thinking and non-conformist stance on many things that he inherited. My mother’s proto-feminism, as it could perhaps be called, added to it. She was the oldest in a family whose father had died when many of the children were still young. She didn’t accept gender stereotyping. Nor did she consider fitting in with others more important than thinking for herself and staying true to her values.

So philosophically there was an underpinning of the worth of all people, regardless of whether they were like us, “us” feeling we were not really mainstream anyway. Also philosophically, the Christian faith I grew up with was clearly articulated as practical Christianity, primarily about ethics and justice, caring for people and caring for the land.  For my father, to be a farmer is to be in relationship with the land – and the weather. Living with the variables – that is faith. Words like animal husbandry, agriculture, and pastoral farming all carry connotations of working in relationship.  Not objects to be managed and manipulated, but living beings to nurture and look after.  

Ethics and justice. Conversations at the dinner table introduced us to the inequities in society, and around the world.  Conversations continued into teen and young adult years and through the 1970s this included injustice for tangata whenua, with the hope and expectation that we would change as a nation. We thought that the next generation would all learn Māori in school and that the Treaty of Waitangi would be taken seriously across the board. As that was very slow to happen there continued to be the question “why not?”  What is getting in the way?

In the years that followed, and particularly when I took on church ministry, my learning increased exponentially. My philosopher’s brain maintained a high level of curiosity and a drive to expand perspective. An innate shyness helped me willing to keep silent and hold back my point of view and listen. Listen to people who knew the negative consequences of colonisation and loss of land and identity and thereby get a glimpse of truth from a totally different place than my own.  

It was while doing ministry in Mid-Canterbury and attending a training event in Sri Lanka that I had the Kiwi classic overseas experience of feeling the beauty of belonging of te reo. During a Christian Conference of Asia service, all the languages represented in the gathering were used during a prayer.  When it was the turn of Aotearoa, I was deeply moved and tears came to my eyes. Once home I got advice about learning Te Reo, whether it was right for me as a Pākehā to do so and whether the Correspondence School was a good way to go. The answer from a kaumatua (Māori elder) I served on a church committee with  was “yes”.  So the journey began, with the help of a Tūwharetua kaumatua living in Ashburton. The local church was not all that receptive to the use of the reo – there are no Māoris [sic] in our church – but there were occasional community events, like prayers for a Play Centre Conference, where the tikanga of the organisation was to acknowledge the Treaty. A formative moment was when Rotary held their national conference in our town and asked for prayers first thing on Sunday morning. I planned to end with the grace in te reo, which I had committed to memory as part of my study course. In the front row of the gathering was Hiwi Tauroa (former Race Relations Conciliator).  As I spoke the words, kia tau ki a tātou katoa…, I saw a huge smile appear on his face. Even though my pronunciation was atrocious!  

When a parish in Northland became a possibility in the early 2000s, a large part of the appeal was how different it would be from the south. I knew I would be challenged and that my world would have to expand. I look back on it as an amazing experience, a real blessing. It has been a gift that keeps on giving and what I may have given back will never match what I have received. As teina (younger sibling) to them as tuakana (older sibling), I sat at the feet of the hapū of Whangaroa and their many relations around the wider district. The College students laughed because of my accent when I first led karakia at Assembly, but as I listened, spending many days in many hui and tangihanga, slowly things got better and with every affirmation for my reo, I could sense that they were proud of who they were helping me become. 

Patient listening was my commitment and that came from two directions. One was simply tikanga Māori. That is the way to learn: ideally starting in childhood, being present, absorbing, and then, when directed to, standing and contributing. I was starting later in life, but I was determined to make the most of the time living in the North.  The other basis for this commitment to listen stemmed from what I learnt working as a church minister. Being counts as much if not more than doing in the role of minister. Just being with people. Not racing round solving problems. Not necessarily even knowing the right words to say, but simply being a companion on their life journey, whatever it is that they are facing. Using words  to draw out from people what is important for them; hearing them to speech to find their way forward. 

But more significant than what I might have contributed myself to this learning experience in Northland was what was given to me.  The manaakitanga – the welcome, the inclusion, the kindness – of the people of Te Tai Tokerau. The atawhai nui – the amazing grace – with which they received the halting attempts of a Pākehā Southlander to do justice to their tikanga. I was never growled, rather I was mentored. I got feedback all right, but it was always focused on the future, giving the expectation that I’d be back and the understanding that I would always be welcome. I learnt to stay silent during kōrero until it was my turn – if there would be a turn. Even when assumptions were being made about me because of the colour of my skin, I just let be, knowing that opening my mouth would make it worse. The best way was for people to get to know me on their terms. 

I sense that many Māori have had the proverbial gutsful of Pākehā talking back (“yes, but…”), of wanting to establish the truth as they see it, and requiring resolution and agreement on issues before the end of the day. An example of this became apparent as we worked together in Whangaroa to mark 200 years since the tragic events surrounding the ship “The Boyd” in 1809. Widespread antipathy among local Māori towards holding an event stemmed from their expectation, based on past experience, that it would be Pākehā driven and for the purpose of settling the problem of the Boyd.  Pākehā would say “sorry”, forgiveness would be expected to be given in return, at which point the pain and the disagreements would be history.

But for 200 years the only known history of the raid on the Boyd was based on Pākehā records, which contained known inaccuracies and conflicting evidence. The history and the māmai (pain) tuku iho (handed down through the generations of local Māori) had never been heard, with the result that their mana continued to be trampled on.  That was the key issue.

Our Remembrance event focused on the word “healing”, seeking as one of our committee put it “the peace of understanding”. As that was understood, more and more got involved for what was in the end very much a joint effort, Māori and Pākehā. On the day, as we listened to kaumatua and kuia share what had been handed down and speak of the pain that had ensued, we felt our whole community take a step forward towards that peace of understanding. We together felt the wairua of Whangaroa – a new spirit which was reflected in many subsequent events. Like a funeral of an elderly Pākehā woman whose family were invited to bring her to the Marae next door to her home, en route to the service at our church. The funeral director got a bit schedule-anxious as the time drew on, but what was happening was much more important than any schedule. The family were totally embraced and we all treasured it as a moment of journeying together as two peoples united in loss and friendship.

Again we experienced this journeying together in our commemorations for the centennial of the World War 1 battle at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 involving the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). From April 2015 each year through to Armistice Day 2018, we gathered as a whole community, weaving tikanga Māori and Pākehā formalities to create a distinctively Whangaroa remembrance. It is a spirit of remembering that feeds into the present, giving our young people – and all of us – a clear understanding that what matters is how we give of ourselves for the sake of all people. 

A sign of the patience mentioned earlier, in listening and working through concerns until there is peace of understanding, is how long it took for one remaining issue after the 2009 Boyd Remembrance events mentioned above to be settled. It was the issue of the plaque.

An Historic Places Trust plaque had been put in place in 1994, but got damaged and ended up in somebody’s shed.  Our committee recovered it during our preparations and put it in a safe and suitably tapu place (a local church), until it could be decided what to do with it. In 1994, consultations with local Māori had been rushed, with a decision presented almost as a fait accompli. Subsequently many were not surprised that it would not settle where first laid. Patience was clearly required in order to get a genuine resolution. It was not until 2017 that agreement was found among all who held mana in the harbour or who had a significant stake in the matter. Finally we were able to settle the plaque in place in Whangaroa.

For photos of these events, click here 

Māori and Pākehā working together, we did not give up: Mā pango mā whero ka oti te mahi.

That has become my story. Even here in the South, I live and think and feel that drive towards true partnership that we continued to strive for in the North.