Being Māori in the public service can often mean being the only brown face in the room, and standing in for all iwi and all Māori. For Aroha Gilling, it’s work that sometimes chafes unbearably.
Not long ago, I went to my mate’s work farewell. It was well attended by government staff and iwi organisations in our community. A kuia waved me over, patting the seat beside her. As we happily caught up on gossip, I looked up and noticed that all the Māori were now on our side of the room, and all the Pākehā on the other.
For us on the Māori side, it seemed natural to gravitate toward each other, despite our varying ages, roles and whakapapa. In these strange times, when our tikanga and whanaungatanga is mediated by computers, zui, and peering at each other from a safe distance over our face masks, we were eager to catch up on news in person.
Perhaps for my Pākehā colleagues, it was a similar impulse. Or perhaps it was fear of intruding on us, or getting something wrong, that kept them firmly rooted to the floor on the other side. But, for a moment, it felt like I was looking at a snapshot of our society where a chasm between the two worlds still looms large.
In my professional life, it’s my job to walk between the two sides of the room. I try to explain each to the other — what’s important to the different sides, what might cause offence or be welcomed, how to move projects forward in a way that works for both.
My mate, who we were farewelling, had done this work with me. His departure, after five years, to another wing of the public service means our office has lost a quarter of its Māori staff. I’ve lost my friend, wise counsellor and enthusiastic cheerleader, who always understood at a glance the meaning of my raised eyebrows.
Later, I found myself thinking not only about how we have to navigate two worlds, but about where exactly I fit in on the Māori side, too.
I am Te Whānau a Apanui through my birth mother. I was a whāngai baby and grew up among Ngāi Tahu in the lower South Island.
In 1996, both of my whāngai parents passed away, and several months later, I met my birth mother and sisters and my extended whānau for the first time. It was joyful, revelatory, terrifying and confronting.
When I looked at my sisters, I could see all the similarities we shared but also the deeply-rooted differences. Their confidence in our whakapapa was unshakeable. Their intimate relationships with the whenua, the moana, the awa, our marae and our many uncles, aunties and cousins came from their decades of experience and familiarity with their history.
When I visit them now, I frequently muddle up our whānau names and connections, I still get lost going to the rubbish dump, and I can’t remember which channel is the best one for swimming. I have no reference points for all the stories that fly around at gatherings and no shared language of in-jokes, catchphrases and old memories. Often I feel invisible.
The strangest thing is that this feeling also comes over me when I go back to my own life.
For nearly 30 years, I’ve lived among the eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu o te Waka-ā-Māui at the top of the South Island. I’ve made my life there, among these iwi that I don’t whakapapa to, and among a predominantly Pākehā population.
This life came about by chance when, in the ‘90s, my husband decided to buy a business in the area. He soon discovered that the job and lifestyle weren’t a good fit for him, and I in turn discovered that he wasn’t a good fit for me. By mutual agreement, we went our separate ways.
Through a series of turns, opportunities and gentle nudges, I stumbled into Te Tiriti o Waitangi education and discovered what has become my life-long passion: teaching others about Te Tiriti and how we can understand it and apply it in our lives.
This work helped me build relationships and make connections with local iwi in my new rohe. I’ve been fortunate to be mentored and supported by key figures from the Māori communities where I live. Their guidance and protection have been invaluable, and I’m grateful for their patience as I hang on to their coat-tails.
So now I work for a government department in an iwi-facing role, even though I’m not from the eight iwi I work with. I’m paid a steady and welcome government salary, but I rarely feel like I fit in a Crown agency. At times, I’m downright ashamed to be a Crown employee.
I recall the time my colleagues insisted on referring to tracts of land as “wasteland”. They were taken aback when the iwi they were talking to took offence at such a description of Papatūānuku, not realising, or not caring, that those words stripped her of her mana.
Something else that I regularly struggle with is when senior government officials insist that iwi ceded sovereignty in exchange for tino rangatiratanga. They conflate both Treaty of Waitangi texts, redefining our ideas of power and authority in favour of the Crown, and they assume tino rangatiratanga is something the Crown has the power to confirm or deny. Auē!
In these moments, my work feels like an ill-fitting kākahu that pulls, rides up at embarrassing moments and chafes at me, sometimes unbearably.
I know I could give up this work and take a role with my own iwi, because I also have a background in social services and adult education. But that choice seems problematic, too. I’ve never lived among my iwi and don’t have the network of deep connections and understanding that comes with that shared history.
I could do this work for other iwi but as development programmes and initiatives become more and more focused on tikanga a iwi, tikanga a hapū — and rightly so — I feel my outsider status more acutely.
Instead, I remain in the public service, often as the only counter-narrative, and the only Māori voice, in innumerable projects and meetings.
I have colleagues who are incredible allies and committed to working well with whānau, hapū and iwi. But I also have many colleagues who struggle to see beyond the western perspective they’re accustomed to. They’re unwilling to move out of their familiar world and experience the unfamiliar in te ao Māori. It highlights the privilege many of them have. They can simply look around and see their own values and beliefs reflected back at them.
I remember one kuia calling me over before a pōhiri and saying: “Kare, that lady you work with has forgotten her skirt!” I looked over at the senior manager she was pointing to and realised that she was wearing a skirt, but it was so minuscule it had disappeared beneath the hem of her jacket.
Still, I have persisted and built my own space. Although I can’t speak for the iwi I live among, and I don’t live with my own iwi, I still see value in my job of educating my colleagues. I present perspectives that take into account our Māori worldview and I push my government department to be better and to do better.
I told my boss once to think of me as his little brown canary down the mine. If I get annoyed or upset by something, then chances are the iwi in our area may feel that way too. Once I get beyond my initial emotional reaction to an issue, I see it as my task to puzzle out why I reacted the way I did, to identify the issues, talk them through, and then coach my colleagues to uncover alternative approaches and ways of thinking.
Something I think is peculiar to western culture is that there’s not a lot of space for making mistakes. When you speak, you must be an expert. So I try to help them through that, to accept that they’re going to get things wrong, to work through it, and manage the tension of that.
I’ve been privileged to take part in a number of projects that have borne fruit and achieved results for Maōri well beyond anything I managed in social services or education.
As a Crown agent, I’ve also had to grit my teeth, try to maintain some semblance of my own dignity, and remain steady in the face of iwi anger, disappointment and sometimes personal attack.
That’s when the garment chafes unbearably. I want to say to them: “I know why you’re angry. I get it! I’m angry too.” But on these occasions, I have a job to do, so I take it, support my colleagues and try to explain the issues more clearly to them. Often, inside, all I want to do is rage and scream along with the iwi.
I’m also a witness to my colleagues’ own anger, confusion and sometimes ill-considered remarks. I’ve been at meetings where their frustration with iwi boils over. I’ve learned that when an attack feels personal, it’s very difficult for people to rise above their feelings and get to the heart of the issue.
When I’m caught in the middle, as the two worlds push up against each other, the garment I’ve chosen to wear twists and pulls tight.
I sometimes wonder if it was my start in life that means I will always be adrift between two worlds, never firmly moored in either. Sometimes I see that as my greatest strength. It’s allowed me to navigate the choppy waters, including nearly 30 years in Te Tiriti o Waitangi education. It’s also my greatest vulnerability, which tips me into deep introspection, as happened after my friend’s leaving do.
After that farewell, I took a long walk with my dog. This is where I landed. No matter what we do for a living or who we trace descent from, or wherever we fall on the Māori identity spectrum — whether we are iwi tūturu or still finding our way — when we come together as Māori we gravitate toward each other because the mauri inherent in us all calls out loud and clear. It keeps calling whether we’re in heated disagreement or at an enjoyable social event. It cries: “See me! Know me! I am of you and you are of me!”
When that recognition comes, then the kākahu rests easy on my shoulders, neither rubbing nor askew, but warm and reassuring.
Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a background in adult education and social work and currently lives in Nelson. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago.
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