Around one in five Māori now live in Australia, with the highest concentration in Queensland’s Gold Coast. That’s where Ngāwaiata Eve Henderson was born and raised. Ten years ago, though, she came “home” to Aotearoa with her New Zealand-born tāne and their daughter. Here she writes about growing up Māori in Australia, and her efforts to connect with her taha Māori.
The death of my kuia in 2000 was my first real encounter with te ao Māori. Ngāwaiata Ani Henderson (nee Paiaka) was my last Māori grandparent, and I was named after her.
At Nan’s tangihanga in Horotiu, I had my first experience of pōwhiri, karanga, whaikōrero, waiata, harirū — and, of course, the endless kai.
I had no idea what anyone was saying, or who everyone was, but, as whānau pani, the family in mourning, I remember feeling special and being showered with love and warmth as groups of people came to farewell my kui.
I was 15, and although we’d visited our whānau in Aotearoa throughout my childhood, I’d never heard any conversations in te reo. I’d never been to a marae, let alone one of my own marae.
And I had never seen and touched a tūpāpaku before, let alone slept beside one.
It was a surreal experience. And it sparked a flame, a curiosity inside of me, to know more about my identity and my history, and to find that sense of belonging, of community and whānaungatanga.
I was born and raised in Queensland’s Gold Coast, in a place called Tweed Heads. Both my parents were born in Aotearoa — my mum is Pākehā and my dad Māori (Ngāpuhi, Maniapoto, Tūhoe, Ngāti Hāua). They met in Tokoroa, where they’d gone to school and grown up — and they later reconnected in London, got married and hapū, and then came back to Tokoroa to have my brother, Nathan, in 1982.
Soon after, they decided to move to Australia. Dad, a boilermaker by trade, was working on overseas oil rigs as a driller, and he reckoned it was easier to organise his flights from Australia. The weather was better, too, and there were more opportunities.
I’ve always known that I was Māori, but I never had a full understanding of what that meant. I was Māori, but at a distance.
My early years were spent grappling with the idea that I was Australian but that half of my whānau happened to be Māori and the other half Pākehā.
As a young Māori growing up in Australia, I was lost in a liminal space, where I was always somewhat accepted and yet always somewhat on the outside. I’d tell people that my dad was Māori, Mum was a “Kiwi”, and I was an Aussie — because that’s where I was born and all I really knew.
At 16, a year after my nan’s tangi, I got my first tā moko. It was designed by my cousin in Waikato and I had to beg and plead and reason with my parents to get it.
I was at a time of my life where I wanted something to claim as part of my identity, because just saying I was Māori wasn’t enough.
It filled me with pride, a manifestation of the aroha and connectedness of whānau — something that I’ve never been good at communicating, but always felt around me.
I began to feel more comfortable saying that I was Māori.
In my early 20s, I was on a teaching placement at a Gold Coast high school that had a large number of Māori and Pasifika students.
During lunch duty one day, a group of Māori girls asked me if I was Māori.
I said, “yes”, and they proceeded to ask where I was from. Feeling a bit confused as to where this was going, I replied with: “Ahhh, what do you mean? From here?”
“You know, your iwi and hapū and stuff,” they said. I started to feel anxiety seeping in, stumbling on my words as I drifted into uncomfortable waters.
“Ahh, I’m from Ngāpuhi and Tainui . . . I think . . . I’m not too sure, though, because I was born here.”
“Oh,” they said.
I quickly moved along, walking away all flustered and replaying the conversation in my head, feeling very much “less than”, and embarrassed that I had no connection or understanding of the words that were coming out of my mouth.
Like so many Māori today, I’m a product of intergenerational cultural disconnect.
My tīpuna had moved away from their kāinga, their tūrangawaewae, to better provide for their whānau. My koro, Ned Henderson, was born in Kerikeri, and my nana in Piopio. Koro had worked as a farmhand in Morrinsville and Te Awamutu, and then as a welder on the hydroelectric dams at Mangakino before the family moved to Tokoroa when it was a booming forestry town.
When my parents moved across the ditch, urban migration turned into trans-Tasman migration, and my whānau became part of the Māori diaspora now found all around the world.
One in five Māori (170,000 of us) now live in Australia, with the highest concentration in Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Māori, like me and my whānau, often thrive on the Gold Coast, where the pulsating rhythm of everyday life revolves around the beach — and where our identity is based on our surroundings before anything else.
We’re often labelled as “Mozzies”, “plastic”, or even “Australian”, with some seeing us as having no real claim to Māori membership. It’s as if we ceased to be Māori once we left Aotearoa.
In Once Were Pacific, Alice Te Punga Somerville describes the complexities of our Māori diaspora as a manu aute soaring in the sky. The kite represents our strength, and our resilience and adaptation to new circumstances. The string is our connection to the essential essence of “home”.
For the manu aute to fly, the string must be held tight, and both ends must be connected.
As “Mozzies”, our Māori identity is fluid and multi-faceted. We are Indigenous, we are Pacific peoples, we are largely urbanised living in a colonial world. There are many nuances to our identity.
And yet, at the root of it all, we are Māori.
It was the birth of my first child to my tāne, who’s also Māori and grew up on the Gold Coast, that brought things to a head. We thought deeply about the life we wanted for our girl and for those to come.
We both agreed that we wanted our tamariki to have a strong foundation and understanding of their cultural identity so that they’d always know who they are, where they come from, and how they fit into this world.
And as there were no distinctly Māori environments on the Gold Coast, we decided to take the risk — to cross the ditch and lay the tūāpapa for our tamariki. To give them a chance to gain what we’d missed out on, by grounding them in the histories and mātauranga of their tīpuna.
And so, in 2011, we came “home” to Aotearoa. But how could “home” feel so unknown?
We arrived in Aotearoa with the naïve belief that, just by standing on the whenua, we would automatically be more Māori.
We had romanticised thoughts that we were moving to an Indigenous utopia, where we’d be immersed in Māori culture, with kapa haka and te reo, and with Māori identity and visibility at the forefront of everyday life.
But we were shocked to find that many Māori in Aotearoa were also largely disconnected from these things. That the everyday hustle of just trying to get by, pushed these ideals to the side.
We learned that te reo Māori was still in a struggle to emerge from the dangerous currents of Indigenous language loss, that the majority of Māori whānau choose to educate their children through mainstream education, and that many very rarely return to their marae- some unaware of their whakapapa connections and relationships.
I went straight into relief teaching in various schools in Waikato. When relieving in a predominately Māori school, in a predominately Māori township, the students could hear my Aussie twang and sense my insecurities.
I had no knowledge of te reo, tikanga, history or whakapapa, and I just didn’t cut it. It didn’t matter what my intentions were. They didn’t know me, nor did they trust me. I was an outsider and easily dismissed.
We realised then that being Māori wouldn’t just wash into us, filtering through our DNA. We saw that we’d have to actively go out and seek the baskets of knowledge.
And seek we did.
We’ve dedicated much of the last decade here to learning te reo Māori. It’s a journey that’s both humbling and terrifying, rewarding and confronting.
We completed multiple immersion courses and put our children through kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa and have tried to maintain a reo Māori home environment.
Watching our children grow in a world so heavily saturated in English pains me.
With children’s natural inclination towards popular culture, a limitless pool of English speakers to interact with and a desire to fit in, it’s no surprise that more and more English is heard in our whare.
But learning te reo Māori has been our key to enter te ao Māori. It has allowed us to stand confidently in the world, it has grounded us in our identity and whakapapa, it has provided us with strength, with understanding, and with the resilience to push through fear and various levels of discomfort.
Many of my whānau on the Gold Coast are longing for a deeper connection to their taha Māori — but they don’t know where to start.
Although it’s not an instant solution, it’s clear that Māori on the Gold Coast need spaces where they can gather, share kōrero, wānanga, mourn and learn.
There are marae overseas — in Hawai’i and London — but this concept has never come to fruition in Australia. Despite the many attempts to do so over the decades, things have always fallen through.
Although diasporic Māori in Australia often cling to memories and notions of “home” and hold onto the thought that they may someday return, it’s not realistic to expect that all of us will.
Nor should we feel that we must return in order to be “Māori” by the measure of anyone else’s standards.
Many express a hononga ā-tinana, or physical connection, to Australia and a hononga ā-wairua, or spiritual connection, to Aotearoa to explain the intricacies of what they feel.
That desire for cultural identity should be seen as an asset for Aotearoa and te ao Māori, whether or not we return.
One of the most complex things, for me, about being Māori on the Gold Coast is tied up in questions about Indigenous Australians: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Who are we to establish our customary practices in a land that belongs to other Indigenous Peoples?
The tiny corner of south-east Queensland where I was born borders on Tweed Heads, NSW. This is “my” Gold Coast which, in my (recent) understanding, is situated on the country of the Yugambeh and the Bundjalung language peoples.
Growing up there, I was fed the belief that Australia is a multicultural society full of equal opportunity. That those who seek to succeed through hard work and perseverance will succeed. Meaning that those who don’t have only themselves to blame.
As one of very few Māori on the Gold Coast in my younger years, people often mistook me as Aboriginal. I’d quickly deny this, not wanting to get stained with that stigma, always aware of the negative assumptions associated with being Aboriginal in Australia.
I’d been assimilated into the dominant culture to the point where I unconsciously played my role as a “settler”.
It wasn’t until I began learning te reo and about Māori culture and history that I was able to see the parallels between Māori and Indigenous Australians, and the impact of colonisation for health, education, mortality, and imprisonment.
What I didn’t see then, and what I’m understanding now, is that we, as Māori in Australia, can continue the oppression and erasure of Australia’s First Peoples. That we can be a part of the Indigenous collective and still be settlers on Indigenous land. That we can still benefit from colonialism in many ways by just not being Aboriginal.
But we can also be agents of change. Any future for Māori on the Gold Coast cannot, and should not, be considered without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. We must remain humble as manuhiri or manene under the hospitality of the original people of the land.
Is there a “right” way to make sense of ourselves? If we look at the word māori as it was originally used (to mean normal, natural), and not as an umbrella term for the Indigenous Peoples of Aotearoa, then perhaps we can find a way to construct our own ways of identifying.
Whakapapa is the one irrevocable requirement for being Māori, anything else is a bonus.
Perhaps it’s time to stop measuring and judging others’ “Māoriness” in terms of their direct contribution to Māori society within Aotearoa, and, instead, broaden our scope to encompass those who are trying to do the best for themselves, their whānau, tamariki and mokopuna — even if they’ve ventured from the homeland.
Today, I choose to foreground my Māori identity because it’s something that I’ve felt was missing for so long. This isn’t done to silence or disregard my Pākehā ancestry, of which I’m also proud.
Our colonial history is fraught and contentious, yet I will always claim my taha Pākehā when delivering my pepeha and will also state that I am Australian-born.
Although I now walk a very different path from that of my childhood, I like to think that my nan, that my tīpuna, are proud of the choices I’ve made. That seeing their mokopuna grounded in te ao Māori in our ever-changing world brings them joy.
I will forever be grateful and aware that I wouldn’t be where I am today without their sacrifices.
I hope to open a door for diasporic Māori to stand with pride in their identity, and in the ways they’ve shaped themselves to fit in their new world, and to survive.
We don’t cease to be Māori once we’ve left.
Ngāwaiata Eve Henderson (Ngāpuhi, Maniapoto, Tūhoe, Ngāti Hāua, Ngāti Pākehā) was born and raised in Queensland’s Gold Coast, Australia, and is now living in Waikato with her husband and four tamariki. Since moving to Aotearoa in 2011, she has taught dance and English at high school, and has been learning te reo Māori through various full-immersion, rūmaki reo programmes. This year, she completed her master’s thesis (Māori Diaspora: Being Māori on the Gold Coast) at the University of Waikato, Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao, in Māori and Indigenous Studies.
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