Kate Frykberg is a first-generation New Zealander and community consultant who is grappling with what it means to work in partnership with Māori. Her work with funders, community organisations, and as a Pākehā associate of Tūmanako Consultants, requires deep engagement with Māori.
She talked to Connie Buchanan about some of the mistakes she has made, and how Pākehā might do better.
I feel pretty shy about doing this. But I think it’s important that people like me, who are trying to figure out what it means to be a good Pākehā, step up and admit that often we just don’t really know what we’re doing in our relationships with Māori.
So, I’m going to share some of the mistakes I’ve made. A couple are pretty embarrassing. But I think that if we can be more vulnerable as Pākehā — and if we can stop pretending that we know stuff because we’ve taken a few te reo classes — then we’ll be in a better position to learn. And to help create a better Aotearoa.
First though, my background. My parents migrated from South Africa in the 1950s. They were teachers and we lived comfortably in Havelock North, which is hardly the most diverse of places. Mum and Dad were anti-apartheid, so I was aware of the need to be anti-racist, but it was only theory to me.
After university, I ended up in IT. Together with my husband, who’s also an IT geek, we started one of the first internet development businesses in Aotearoa. The company did well, and we sold it in 2002.
There we were, mortgage-free in a nice house, and we didn’t need much more. So, rather than carry on in IT, I wanted to do something which more directly supported communities. We set up a small philanthropic trust to support communities. I also joined the Todd Foundation and spent 10 years there as the executive director.
In both roles, we wanted to make sure that our funding equitably reached Māori, which it wasn’t doing at that time. So we had lots of conversations about how we could do better. Some of the feedback I got back made me realise: Oh, I need to do some serious thinking about myself as a Pākehā. About my right to be here in this land and the relationship between my own comfortable life and the dispossession of Māori from their land and culture.
But I didn’t really know how to work through those thoughts. So I just kept muddling along.
Here are three examples of the ways I got things wrong, and what I learned from them.
Don’t “dial a Māori”: Why organisations need to get ready before engaging
The first example of the mistakes I made is one that I call “Dial a Māori”. This happened about 10 years ago. I was involved with an organisation which knew it wasn’t doing very well engaging with Māori, and we wanted to change that.
So we looked around and asked ourselves: “What are the cool kids doing?” At that time, the thing to do seemed to be to engage a kaumātua. We thought: “Okay, that must be how you do it.” And we were very lucky. We ended up with two kaumātua who were willing to work with us.
Then we had our first meeting. There we were there in the boardroom, and I realised that I didn’t know what the role of kaumātua should be in this situation. I was sure that it had to be more than just opening and closing our meetings and teaching us waiata.
But I had no idea how to integrate these two amazing people into our board meeting. So it was super awkward. We kind of bumbled along on goodwill and with open hearts. You can go quite a long way on goodwill. But only so far.
Eventually, there were relationship tensions because we didn’t understand the gift we’d been given. We didn’t understand the depth and extent of the knowledge that we’d been offered. And neither side was benefiting from the relationship. There was a hiatus and then some difficult conversations. It took some years to get things back on track.
So, if I was doing that over again, I’d have admitted that I didn’t know how we could, or should, work together, nor what a reciprocal relationship looked like. If we’d done that, instead of copying others, we would’ve realised that we shouldn’t have been asking for the expertise of kaumātua.
It would also have been useful to have articulated what we were trying to achieve, and then made sure that we could create the conditions for shared aspirations and reciprocal benefit. Then we could have started looking at having Māori on our board, and Māori as executive staff. But before anything else, we needed to develop the skills to build relationships where there’s benefit for both partners.
I don’t think many of us Pākehā have fully developed these skills yet. It’s a new journey for most of us, and so we sort of grab on to what others are doing.
The fad of asking around for kaumātua has passed, which is a good thing. But what we often do now is hire Māori and expect them to do all the cultural heavy lifting, even though they’re often employed to do another job entirely.
I’ve heard lots of stories of real pain and hurt from this approach.
Sometimes it’s because the person has to do everything “Māori”. Educate everyone on history, dispense mātauranga at the drop of a hat, be the kaikaranga or the kaikōrero.
But they might not have their reo, or they might still be on their journey. And if they’re surrounded by non-Māori who are a bit ignorant, or a bit racist — and they’ve got all that on top of their normal job — it can be stressful and unfair. Some organisations can be a toxic place for Māori.
So, before we go out and hire Māori, we need to go on our own journey, and that starts with understanding our history. The reason we don’t know our history is not only because it hasn’t been taught to us at school. It’s also pretty bloody uncomfortable to learn it. But there’s no shortage of resources available to just get on and do that now.
We also need to properly understand Te Tiriti and accept that the way we’ve gone about creating our power systems isn’t what was agreed. This means acknowledging that despite everything Māori have done in our shared history — signing Te Tiriti, fighting against the colonial invasion of land, establishing the Kīngitanga and the Māori parliament, sending the best of their young people to fight in the world wars — despite all of these things, Pākehā have still claimed and entrenched our own power structures and systems.
In addition, we also need to look hard at our own biases, at our own personal and organisational racism.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, I analysed the funding patterns of a respected funder. I found that kaupapa Māori organisations were not only less likely to apply for funding, but also they received grants which were, on average, less than half the funder’s average grant. I hope things have changed now, but I suspect this is not an isolated example.
So the first step is acknowledging some of these uncomfortable personal and organisational biases.
In doing this, I take heart from this observation from the American scholar Dr Ijeoma Oluo: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”
What I understand now is that engaging well with Māori is about addressing all of these things before we try to build the relationships. It’s about preparing the ground so our Pākehā organisations are a safe, welcoming, reciprocal place, where we can bring out the best in each other. It’s not “dialing up a Māori” as the first step.
Cultural competence and a bit of te reo is not really the answer
My second story about past mistakes is assuming that gaining some cultural competence and reo Māori is the way to demonstrate willingness to partner with Māori.
Many of us have been in that situation as a Pākehā where we go to a hui and everybody stands up and does their pepeha. You think: “Oh, I can’t do mine. I should have one too.” That was me. I thought I needed this thing called “cultural competency”, which everybody was talking about at the time.
It’s a funny term. I’m competent at Excel spreadsheets. But I don’t think I can or should be “competent” in somebody else’s culture.
But I went ahead anyway. And then that didn’t seem to me to be enough. So, I thought: “Okay. I’m serious about this journey to be a good Pākehā, so now I need to learn te reo Māori.” I thought I’d do that for a couple of years, and that should be enough to be moderately fluent. I hoped I’d be one of the good students in the class.
Those ways of thinking were unhelpful.
Six years on, I’m still learning, but I doubt that I’ll ever be fluent. And I don’t think it’s useful to go to a reo Māori class wanting to be a standout student. In fact, there’s something ugly, really, if Pākehā dominate in those classrooms — asking all the questions, offering all the answers, correcting others.
We can easily end up making Māori who are trying to reclaim their language feel embarrassed or outshone. We need to learn with deep humility and an understanding of the painful way the language was lost. And we shouldn’t be taking up spaces if the course is over-subscribed.
For sure, it would be great if our whole nation spoke both languages. Why should all of our transactions be carried out in the language of the coloniser? But for Pākehā, I don’t think that jumping straight into learning te reo is necessarily the key to unlocking a better relationship.
If I was doing things again, I’d just start with pronunciation.
Correct pronunciation of te reo Māori is quite a small thing and it’s not terribly hard. But it’s not very common. And it’s a good way of showing respect.
We should all be able to say people’s names correctly. We should all be able to say place names correctly. Even if we only do this, we’re effectively saying: “I see you, I value you, I’m listening to you, and I will follow your lead.”
So, if I was doing things again, I would be thinking about “cultural safety” rather than cultural competence. “Competency” is for spreadsheets. Safety means you’re thinking about the people whose culture you’re hoping to access and understand.
Don’t ask for a Māori name
I’ll call story number three: “Translate my name, please.”
A few years back, we decided that the little philanthropic trust my husband and I had set up would focus on supporting the central place of te ao Māori in Aotearoa. The first step was a co-governance structure for the trust. So we appointed two Māori trustees and two Pākehā trustees, and we held our first meeting.
In that meeting, I said something which many Pākehā organisations say. I said: “Oh, our name kind of sucks. It’d be great to have a Māori name.” At that time, the trust was called Think Tank Charitable Trust, for no good reason other than we happened to own the domain name when we started it.
And then I did something even more embarrassing, which I really don’t want to admit to, but here goes. I said: “Oh, I’ve been learning a bit of te reo. I think I could translate our name. Wouldn’t it be something like he ipu whakaaro?”
There was silence.
And then my fellow trustee put her hand on mine and said: “Kate, leave it with me.”
At our next board meeting, she came back with the name Te Muka Rau. It refers to the fibres of harakeke, which can be woven together to make something strong and beautiful. It’s a strength that requires many different strands. It’s a perfect and powerful name for what we’re trying to achieve.
But I don’t think we deserved that name, not with the way I acted. And, as we belatedly realised, it’s a big responsibility to live up to.
If I was doing things again, I wouldn’t make the request at all. I’d wait to see if it was something suggested or offered by our Māori board members. I most certainly wouldn’t attempt to use my puny reo ability to try to translate anything.
I now think that the only authentic way for a Pākehā organisation to acquire a Māori name is to be gifted one. And that requires us to deserve one. It doesn’t require us briefing an ad agency.
And then, if we’re gifted a name, it’s a huge honour and responsibility. So we have to take that seriously and live up to it through our actions. If it’s not being offered to us, we probably don’t deserve it. And a Māori name which is not deserved is window-dressing at best and appropriation at worst.
It’s great that so many Pākehā are genuinely wanting to go on this journey to be in relationship with Māori, to be more authentic, and to explore what it means to honour Te Tiriti. It’s natural for us to grab on to solutions. We think: “Okay, we need to include some more Māori people, learn a pepeha, get a te reo name, express our company values using Māori words — and we’re set.”
These are, of course, not necessarily bad things to do. They’re just not the whole answer.
Instead of setting out to acquire things from te ao Māori that make us look good, proper engagement requires us to do our own heavy lifting — to learn our history and confront our own racism.
I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m still figuring out this stuff myself. Especially when it comes to what decolonisation means in practice.
Ninety-five percent of Māori land was taken and the culture was forcibly suppressed. So when I think about what decolonisation means, there’s some really tough stuff in there. In some countries, what it means is that the coloniser has to leave.
We’re fortunate that this isn’t something being asked of us in Aotearoa, for which I am very grateful. But, certainly, we need to share power and to let go of power. And this requires a lot of thinking and change from Pākehā.
But if we’re afraid to admit that we don’t know how to go about these things, then we either do nothing at all, or we blunder along making the sorts of mistakes that I’ve made.
I’m not that comfortable sharing these thoughts. There’s about a million ways in which I can, and do, continue to get things wrong. But I’m hoping that talking in this way will help others feel okay about admitting that they don’t know all the answers either.
And maybe this “not knowing” is actually quite exciting. What is the future we might carve out together for Aotearoa? What might this country be like if te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā were working together in synergy so that the promises of Te Tiriti are fulfilled? What is the unique shape of the Aotearoa of tomorrow?
If we’re willing to be vulnerable, then we might find out.
Kate was born and raised in Hawke’s Bay and has South African, Swedish and British ancestry. She is an independent philanthropy and community consultant. She’s also a former ASB Business Woman of the Year, holds a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business and the community, and serves on several boards.
You can listen to Kate speak on this kaupapa here at the Seeds podcast.
As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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