Debra Hunt and her sister Rachel at Orewa Beach.

Childhood memories . . . Debra (left) and her sister Rachel at Orewa Beach.

Like many New Zealanders, I find it hard to put into words just how much I love my country. Aotearoa, and Orewa in particular, is so thoroughly my home.

I was born and raised in Orewa – and, 34 years later, I’m still here. My fifth birthday was spent in Eaves Bush among the towering kauri. The long sandy beach has been an almost daily feature of my life. I’ve seen orca there right in close to the shore. I’ve wandered it at night, alone with my thoughts and the raging wind and waves. 

My childhood memories are filled with sand, pōhutukawa, noisy tūī during the day and haunting morepork calls at night. To this day, my soul feels most alive when I’m in the trees in Eaves Bush. It’s a special place to me.

I am Pākehā, and my family are New Zealanders. They come from Wellington and the Wairarapa region. I’m a fourth-generation New Zealander, and proud of it. 

My love for New Zealand includes a love for Māori language and culture, so I started studying te reo at our local marae, Te Herenga Waka o Orewa. When we came to do our pepeha — a traditional introduction which explains where you come from — I wanted to include some special parts of Aotearoa in my introduction. I wanted to say I was from Eketāhuna or Orewa, because that’s where I feel spiritually connected to the land.

My teacher encouraged us all to go further back in our ancestry, so we could discover how our ancestors got here. I took up the challenge and found that my ancestors who first came here — people I hadn’t really heard much about — were from England, from places I had never been. Technically, these were the places I needed to talk about in my pepeha, but I felt no connection to them. They didn’t hold that precious place in my heart that Aotearoa does. 

So I pushed back against my teachers, arguing that I felt connected here, so surely I should talk about my Aotearoa connections in my pepeha. My teacher listened patiently and said I could do that if I wanted, but again she encouraged me to look far back, way back, to before my ancestors came here. So I asked the other teacher and he also encouraged me to go way back. 

I felt a bit annoyed, like they hadn’t really understood where I was coming from. 

But, as I researched, I found that my ancestors all arrived here on boats in the mid to late 1800s. They came here, settlers from England and Scotland, while land was being forcibly confiscated from Māori to make room for settlers.

I don’t know how directly involved my ancestors were, or whether they knew the extent of the injustice that was being done to Māori so that the country could continue to be colonised. But even if I assume the best about their motives, even if they were just good people who came here and worked hard to build a better life for their families, they are still implicated in the suffering and injustice Māori people were (and still are) subjected to.

Their ability to come here, work the land, and raise their families, was only possible because of the colonisation of Aotearoa. Every generation of my family since then has benefited from this. 

My family weren’t rich — they were hardworking average people — but they benefited from colonisation. And all of us, their descendants, have reaped the benefits ever since. We’ve had a place to live, we’ve had land to work, trees to cut down and build with, gold to find, all in a country that wasn’t ours to begin with. Our access to these things helped us to form our identity.

But what about the people from whom the land was stolen, confiscated, or bought at a pittance and/or under duress?

I can only begin to imagine the psychological and financial implications of having your property taken, of having your source of pride, wellbeing and sustenance taken from you. Land confiscation is not just a financial blow that people can leave in the past. It’s an act of cultural violence and dishonour. It’s a blow to the psyche and to the spirit. The pain of this continues to pass down through generations.

In researching my ancestry, I had discovered my massive blindspot. I was not as New Zealander as you could get. I come from a line of people who have reaped the benefits of violence and injustice against Māori. 

This will be painfully obvious to many readers, but, to me, just a couple of months ago, it wasn’t obvious at all. I always assumed it was “other” white people doing those terrible things in our nation’s history. Nothing to do with me. 

I don’t think my ancestors directly stole land or were hostile to Māori, but the fact remains that they could enjoy settling here because of the losses sustained by Māori. So I’ve been forced to acknowledge how much of my psyche, my identity, my upbringing, my sense of entitlement to New Zealand, are wound up in the colonialist narrative. I had been blind to my own white privilege.

Looking back, I’m in awe of the patience and grace with which my teachers handled my questions — my insistence that I come from Aotearoa. I’m sure there are many Māori who would have been infuriated at my ignorance, which could easily have been mistaken for arrogance. But not my teachers, no. Somehow they had the wisdom to direct me to further learning.

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”

— Alexandra K. Trenfor

When we ignore our heritage, we show disrespect to others. I was wilfully blind about my ancestry, maybe because I was afraid of what I would discover if I did my research. 

I used my love for New Zealand to justify claiming all the beautiful offerings of Māori culture and language as my own, as part of my “New Zealand heritage”. But Māori taonga are not my birthright. I’m so grateful that the marae is generously sharing the treasure of the Māori language with me and many others, but it is not my birthright. 

I guess, for me, it’s been a big shift in my attitude — of becoming more humble, and honouring even more the place and value of Māori culture, language, and worldviews.

You may have heard of the term “cultural appropriation” — it’s where members of a dominant culture use aspects of another culture, particularly in a way which cheapens that cultural practice, or disrespects its value, origin, or meaning. We Pākehā are guilty of doing this whenever we use Māori culture to further our own aims. Whenever we use Māori traditions, art or language to help us, without taking the time to understand and engage with the people who are the source of these resources. 

I’ve definitely been guilty of this in the past, and it’s only through my engagement with the generous people at our local marae that I can see now where I went wrong. They haven’t told me off — far from it. They’re encouraging and positive people, but as I grow in understanding, certain things make themselves clear. And I’m only at the very beginning of that journey of understanding and respect. (I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a few months and be shaking my head at myself! But I will keep going, one step at a time.)

In the news last week, my fellow white girl and Māori-culture-lover Erin Simpson has been in trouble because of cultural appropriation. She created an artwork of a monkey with a traditional Māori tā moko on its face, and the artwork is entitled “Koro”, the Māori word for grandad or an elderly man. She claims she did this out of love for Māori culture, which she says she had spent her “whole life immersed” in.

Erin has been subjected to some pretty harsh feedback from Māori. I even saw her described as a “tumour”. Her artwork clearly lacked judgment, and she definitely needed to be held accountable. But I guess I’m just really glad I didn’t have to go through my “blindspot reveal” in the public eye as Erin did. It looks like it sucks!

What has happened with Erin Simpson is a wake-up call to the rest of us. We need to reflect on those times where we have ignorantly or arrogantly claimed Māori culture as our own — as if it can be taken and used without permission, just as Māori land was. We need to open our eyes to where we have benefited from colonisation but never truly acknowledged it. We need to become increasingly aware of our white privilege.

We Pākehā must do a better job of recognising the grief and trauma that have been passed down to today’s Māori. We must do a better job of listening to the wisdom and leadership of Māori at a community level and at a national level. 

All of these things are not going above and beyond the call of duty to the country that we love. These are the bare essentials that we, as Pākehā, need to work on if we ever hope to be able to properly honour the Treaty. If we want our nation to be just, fair, and unified, these are the first baby steps we need to take. 

This is our work to do.


This piece was originally published here and is republished with permission. 

Debra Hunt trained as a journalist and has spent the last 11 years raising her children and working part-time as a web copywriter and photographer. She’s based in Orewa, Auckland. This year she started a te reo Māori course through Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi at Te Herenga Waka o Orewa marae. Debra started blogging when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31. She blogs about faith, feminism, and mental health.

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