Like many Māori who’ve been disconnected from their Māoritanga, Tarryn Ryan has been on a journey to reclaim what she’s lost. It hasn’t been easy, she writes, but most days she feels and notices the changes taking place.
It’s only a few years ago that I learned that if someone can whakapapa Māori, then they’re Māori. There are no measurements.
Still, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question: “What percentage Māori are you?” By friends, colleagues, strangers, and even family.
Most ask without malice and with genuine curiosity. For most of my life, I’ve answered with what I thought was an honest and correct explanation: “About a quarter, I think.”
Like many Māori, I grew up assimilated into a Pākehā environment. Despite whakapapa Māori on both sides of my whānau, none of my immediate whānau can kōrero Māori. Less than half of us know or can confidently recite our pepeha. Most don’t embrace tikaka Māori in our day-to-day lives and wouldn’t feel at home on the marae.
This is in no way a criticism of my whānau. It’s the reality of the system that we were raised in which perpetuated the belief that Māori are lesser. The generational trauma has run deep.
I’m now on the journey to reclaim my Māoritaka. It’s been a fragmented work in progress and not an easy journey, but I feel and notice the changes happening most days.
I whakapapa to Kāi Tahu on my dad’s side and Ngāpuhi on my mum’s. My parents split up when I was quite young, and my brothers and I moved with our mum to Christchurch, while our dad stayed in Bluff, my tūrakawaewae.
My brothers and I kept up a strong relationship with our dad and Bluff, but our formative years and all of my schooling were in Christchurch. My whānau there had limited contact with te ao Māori, except around food or when someone passed away. Although it’s been a while, I have clear memories of eating boil-up, pork bones and puha. It’s an unmistakable smell that I just need to close my eyes to remember.
We even had the occasional backyard hāngi. We’d collect stones from the river, and, when we lived in Hei Hei, a suburb in Christchurch, we could pretty much just dig around our yard and find plenty of usable stones because the Waimakariri once ran through there. My grandad on Mum’s side (Tom Cross) was usually front and centre when any of this was going on, but there’s been much less of it since we lost him.
I was only 10 when he died after a long battle with lung cancer. Losing him was devastating for our whānau. He was the life of the party, and everyone gravitated towards him. He and I were like peas in a pod.
But even though we were close, because I was so young when he died, we never really got the chance to talk about the important things. I just knew him as Gang-gang. I never thought of him as Māori. And most of what I know about him, I’ve learned later in life.
Grandad was fairly dispossessed of his Māoritaka, which I assume is mainly because of the generation he came from. He came from a very large whānau but had contact with only a few of his siblings. It had been many years since he’d returned to his own tūrakawaewae in the Far North. His home was where his whānau were, and that was in Christchurch.
Looking back on all that now, I assume that having a taki on his marae would’ve been out of the question.
When he passed, it seemed only natural to have his taki at my uncle’s house. My young cousin’s bedroom stood in for the wharemate where my grandad lay in state. And even now, 26 years later, I can still clearly see the room and all its detail in my mind’s eye.
Dozens of people came through to pay their final respects. I don’t remember leaving the house over those few days. My whole whānau slept there on mattresses, spread out all over the house. To my child’s mind, these things made us different, and I supposed it was because we were Māori.
After my grandad’s death, I have very few positive memories of expressing my Māoritaka growing up. Just two, actually: doing kapa haka at school and going to the Tītī islands with my dad.
Recently, though, I found some of my primary school report cards and I was happy to find some of my teachers saying that I was engaged with the “Taha Māori” programme. But I have only vague recollections of doing anything Māori at primary school — just some waiata and listening to “Aunty Jane” read us pūrakau about Māui and his exploits.
Turn the page to the not-so-positive memories and I could write a whole book. Of course, there are the microaggressions and prejudice you face when you have brown skin. But the most painful ones are more personal, and I can still feel their sting.
Like when I was 17 and my then boyfriend called me “plastic”, a term used by Māori against other Māori who they deem to be fake or not Māori enough. Or when I was 15 and my dad suggested I learn te reo and I didn’t want to because “it wasn’t worth anything”. Thinking about this one still cuts deep.
Or, as a 23-year-old, celebrating Waitangi Day in London on the infamous pub crawl, which I still have mixed feelings about. There’s warm nostalgia for the kotahitaka experienced that day, but as my understanding of tikaka Māori has grown, there’s also the tinge of shame.
These are just three examples from a deep pool of memories, and they bring with them feelings of mamae, whakamā, riri and pōuri — hurt, shame, anger and sadness.
On my haereka, my journey, back into te ao Māori, I’ve experienced these same feelings again and again. By no means did I expect it to be an easy journey — my rational brain knows there’s so much to learn and unlearn. But I couldn’t understand why these painful emotions continued to bubble to the surface.
It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise that I felt this way mostly in Māori spaces that were trying to fit into colonial structures where Māori ways of being still had to accommodate the Pākehā world — and lose things along the way to do that. Tikaka is being compromised. Values are being compromised. Mana is being compromised.
It’s not necessarily that I felt let down by individuals, but rather by the structures these individuals were trying to adhere to so they could fit into a Pākehā world.
So I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard about the Wānanga Sector Framework proposal to develop new rules and governance structures for wānanga Māori that will allow them to fully inhabit te ao Māori without trying to conform to mainstream requirements.
Wānanga or wānaka Māori come under section 268 of the Education Act, which means they’re bound by the same rules and regulations as other tertiary institutes. Not only does this not reflect tino rakatirataka but, given the plethora of evidence that shows Māori have poor educational outcomes in mainstream education systems, it’s baffling to me that wānaka don’t already have their own framework, similar to our kura kaupapa. Change is long overdue if we want to see real success for our people.
As we continue the work of decolonisation, it’s not going to be enough to say you’re a kaupapa Māori organisation if your practices and reality don’t reflect that. We can’t allow ministries to dictate our kaupapa and our tikaka. We can’t allow their promises of funding to cause us to compress or deny parts of what make us Māori.
Our people are coming into these Māori spaces that they believe to be safe. But, instead of feeling supported, they’re experiencing feelings of hurt, shame, anger and sadness. I’ve found there are always well-meaning people, sometimes Māori and sometimes not, trying to do their best to work within this broken system we call New Zealand. Yet time and time again, I’m shown why it doesn’t work.
You only have to look at the number of Māori going into institutes to learn te reo Māori and, after a year, sometimes even two or three, they come out with certificates, yet they still can’t kōrero Māori.
Early last year, I attended my first ever kura reo with the iwi Rangitāne o Wairau. There, I experienced what it felt like to be surrounded by te reo Māori for four days. Surrounded by tikaka Māori. Surrounded by people who were all on the same waka as me.
I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it was life-changing. It made me realise that I didn’t have to continue my te reo journey in the “traditional” western way. I didn’t need to go to a Pākehā institution to reclaim my Māoritaka.
Later in the year, I went to another kura reo in Arowhenua, one organised by Kotahi Mano Kāika. That’s Kāi Tahu’s iwi strategy to have at least 1000 homes speaking te reo Māori by 2025.
Surrounded by my whānauka, hearing the Kāi Tahu dialect, learning our karakia and waiata, knowing that my tīpuna were present, was an overwhelming experience.
Here, there were no issues of governance that required me to deny parts of myself. No funding regulations that required boxes to be ticked to “prove” I’d learned something. Rather, the trauma of intergenerational language loss was not only recognised, but also supported and healed.
I’ll take one order of tino rakatirataka, hold the assimilation, thanks.
That sounds flippant, but assimilation is still real and ever-present. Sometimes, I need to remember to not be so hard on myself when I do or say things that are habits learned from a lifetime of assimilation. I need to remind myself of that even more when it comes to older friends and whānau from the generations where it was “assimilate or face the consequences”.
With every generation, there are steps forward. My tama (Thomas, who’s three) won’t grow up without his reo me ona tikaka or without feeling connected to his marae. If that means nights and weekends away from him while I reclaim these taoka, then that will be our sacrifice.
Even if it’s painful, we can’t make compromises anymore. My tama will feel secure in his Māoritaka from the beginning and, hopefully, one day understand why Māmā always insisted that we kōrero Māori.
I don’t remember now when I learned that my whakapapa alone is what makes me Māori.
I just remember realising my answer was different when someone asked me again “How Māori are you?” — and the feeling of relief at not having to quantify myself, and being confident to say I am Māori.
It’s how I hope anyone like me can undertake their journey. As Māori, on our own terms, without reference to anyone else’s measurement.
Tarryn Ryan (Kāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi) is 37 and lives in Ōtautahi with her son Thomas. She’s a reo Māori advocate and is working towards a master’s degree in history which is looking at representations of Jewish persecution in German cinema between 1949 and 1979.
Made possible with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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