In search of ancestry. Catherine, pictured in the village of Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland, by the statue of Steve (Crusher) Casey, a world champion wrestler. (Photo supplied)

Catherine Delahunty grapples with the complexities of Pākehā identity in Aotearoa and what it means to move towards becoming Tangata Tiriti.


It was long ago that I first went to a hui on a marae, but the memory is still so vivid that it could’ve been yesterday.

I was lying back against the wall in the corner of the wharenui at Whāngārā as each of us took it in turn to stand and introduce ourselves.

There were those who were fluent in their reo, knew their whakapapa, and were able to paint a confident picture of where they came from and who they were. 

But there were also others who were clearly straining to present what little they knew in a language that had been taken from them. 

If my heart was pounding in my chest, what extra pressure were they under? As Tina Ngata has told us Pākehā, we should benchmark our “sorry for self” feelings against those who’ve been damaged by the theft of their land, their language, and their whakapapa. 

When it was my turn to speak, I described myself as a Pākehā mongrel. Mainly Irish and also English, but with some Scottish, Welsh and British Raj ancestry, as well as a mystery ancestor.

That prompted a laugh. But was it just a story made up for the whakawhanaungatanga process at the hui?

I had grown up not knowing much about the different strands of our family backgrounds. But that unawareness isn’t at all unusual among Pākehā. It’s common for us to have little knowledge of our ancestors. Some of us may know a great deal, but many more know only a few scraps.

My scraps include Irish, English and Indian scraps, but they aren’t peopled with significant memories, and I know I’m not alone there. Usually, this ignorance isn’t uncomfortable, unless I’m on a marae or at a hui where, in effect, we’re challenged to bring our ancestors. 

But I wonder at the damage that our unawareness and lack of caring may do to the whakapapa-based hapū and iwi, surviving their losses and fighting for all their people to know who they are, and to know who their tīpuna are.

In a sense, when the rest of us don’t know or don’t care about our own people’s past, it’s a way of demeaning or denying Māori their essence as Māori and, by extension, their rights as Māori. It’s as if whakapapa has no value.

In te ao Māori, you walk into the future while looking to the past, but many of us Pākehā have been raised to think the past is way behind us in that place we call the mists of time. 

Staigue Fort in Kerry County, Ireland.

There was plenty of that mist when, some years ago, my partner and I went to Ireland and Scotland in search of our ancestry. I clung particularly to various ancient rocks and pagan earth circles from Tipperary to Kerry in the south-west of Ireland. 

The mist clung to the stony ridges of the mountains celebrated in the song “Whiskey in the Jar”, and to the 2000-year-old Staigue stone fort (with rock walls four metres wide) where farmers wearing ties and caps passed us, chatting in the language of the country. That Irish language had been kept alive in secret schools — and it had nearly died, but it still lives on in parts of the west.

Driving down towards the coast in County Kerry, we were passing through the village of Sneem one morning when we saw a great gathering on a green central space.

We stopped and then wandered cautiously to the edge of the group near the statue of Steve “Crusher” Casey who, apparently, had been a world champion heavyweight wrestler. We learned that he was one of the seven sons of Bridget “Mountain” Sullivan, a champion oarswoman. 

But the crowd, so we were told, had gathered to celebrate the lives of two of their women — one who was 103, and the other who’d just turned 100. And they’d been planting some trees together to mark this memorable day. 

Our informant also told us that the ancient pair had been in the pub all night — “and they drank us under the table!”

We were invited to join the celebration lunch, but we were on our way to the Farranfore airport, not far from where my Kerry ancestors had left for Aotearoa in 1849. 

For us, the trail of living relatives is cold in Ireland, but the village of Sneem stays with me, as a reminder. We all come from a village, even if we’ve lost the links. 

Scotland was a different story. My partner had living relatives who baked us scones and walked us through graveyards. In the misty dawn of a fine spring day, we walked to the ruined castle keep, the fortified tower, on the headland at the Kyle of Tongue.

That was much like a defensive pā above the fiord at the far north of Scotland. We were watched by a giant bird looming over us on a dark branch. It looked like a cross between an eagle and a crow. I was thinking about Aunty Barbara whom we met the day before. 

Aunty Barbara lived in a thick-walled house to keep out wild winds in Thurso. She was a Gaelic-language teacher, and she told us it was a struggle to teach the young ones. 

That was 16 years ago, and now the Scottish government is pouring resources into teaching the first language. I remember Barbara now as someone who helped the language hold on until more people came to help, like some of the language heroes of Aotearoa.

The Highlands and the west of Ireland were a brief and gorgeous story for me, but, although it was ancestry, it wasn’t home. The Irish and Scots have peopled the world and largely ignored their impact on Indigenous communities in a successful bid for a better life. There may be no going back to those countries — but, equally, we can’t claim what is not ours as a way forward. 

So, these days, when it’s introduction time, I’ve started asking myself some questions. 

Like, how does that maunga in Aotearoa that you’ve claimed to be “toku maunga”, become your mountain? And what gives you the right to claim that river as yours? It’s not ancestry. It’s not an inherited story. So, what is it? 

I’ve been present when some Pākehā people have really pushed the boat out. 

“X River is my river because I go for holidays nearby and swim in it.” 

“X Mountain is my mountain because I’ve climbed it six times.”

“I consider myself tangata whenua because I was born here.”

Moehau maunga in Hauraki.

There are definitely influences in our lives that change us. Influences by people and influences by land. 

I’ve been deeply influenced by living in a small driftwood hut with grass growing on the roof, across the water from Te Moehau, a great rock that rises from the sea. When I first lived there, I was 19 years old and ignorant of history and Te Tiriti issues but not immune to the powerful shadow of that mountain in all seasons, filling the horizon. 

Betty Williams, a kuia and a close and important friend, once asked me: “When you leave, do you hate to turn your back on it?” And it’s true. I do hate to lose sight of the mountain and I feel a surge of joy when I see it from Tāmaki, or Mahurangi — or as we drive up the Hauraki coast. 

In the 1980s, our community fought to protect Te Moehau from a Canadian company called Otter Minerals which wanted to mine it for copper and gold. They came to our local hall at Kairaumati (Colville) and offered to flatten the mountain and give us all a view of the other side of the Coromandel  Peninsula. 

A kaumātua from Te Arawa was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Hauraki rangatira that night. He and others had come to assert the significance of that maunga to his people. Their great navigator Tamatekapua is buried up there, and the Arawa kaumātua was standing with Hauraki in their refusal to accept bribery or compromise. 

“Skin and hair will fly before you will touch our mountain,” he said. 

We were invited by tangata whenua to join them and be guardians of the mountain and this invitation was later painted on a piece of wood. For many years, it was nailed to the wall out the back of the Colville Co-op store. The battle against the miners was won that night. And that piece of wood was there to remind us. 

But it’s not my mountain. 

For many years, I lived beside the Umangawha river, although I didn’t know its name then. It’s a small, lively stream that turns into a raging, yellow monster in the big rains. Stripped bare, the hills leak earth into the water and the valley can disappear into a huge, swollen, tidal wash. 

I remember hundreds of lambs drowning in one flood and the days when a milking shed drained shit straight into the curve of the river. The water in flood used to come into our house.

I lived with its gentle summers and the terrifying easterlies spewing sediment that was great for the garden and wrecked all the fences. Strangely, the rivers at Harataunga (Kennedy Bay), surrounded by native forest and having a different relationship with whenua, did not wreak this regular havoc. 

Loved and feared, the river was our life. But it was not our river. 

Tikapa Moana/Hauraki Gulf (Wikicommons)

Tikapa Moana is the body of water that’s known by Pākehā as the Hauraki Gulf. Much abused, this food basket is still home to the fish and dolphins. There are mussels hanging now from ropes. There are pātiki in the ancient kupenga at Kairaumati.

I could wax on about its beauty and its dead zone of pollution, but suffice to say that living beside it, swimming in it and paddling on it can be like bathing in silk or wading in mud. 

Tikapa Moana reflects back to us all our dirty habits of “civilisation” since the day that James Cook and Joseph Banks rowed up the Waihou and tried to rename it the Thames river. 

Not my moana. Not their river. 

So, renaming places and claiming other ancestral relationships hasn’t felt right to me. 

However, when I learned more about Te Tiriti, and about colonisation, I started to think that we Pākehā or tauiwi, by our very name, are defined by our relationship with tangata whenua (which explains the resistance to the words by some). We’re here by way of a relationship that can be respected and strengthened if we put our shoulders to that wheel.

Now, when I stand to introduce myself, I refer to the rich ancestry that made my family, the complex identity of being Pākehā, the privilege of living in the Hauraki rohe. By right of Te Tiriti, that feels like an identity I can claim. 

This claim carries permanent obligations and uncomfortable ripples as it begins to form. We can’t yet be proud of how far we’ve come. But, if we stand up to own who we really are, it begins. 


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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