Kirk as a baby with his mother Sita Pepe Mariner in the early 1970s. (Photo supplied)

Kirkpatrick (Kirk) Mariner is a proud Sāmoan New Zealander. Born in Masterton and raised in New Plymouth, he has since lived in Auckland, Wellington and now Whakatāne. So he’s seen a fair bit of the country and people over his 52 years.

The good things, Kirk says, are easy to pick out. For him, it’s the All Blacks and delicious hazy pale beer, Whittaker’s chocolate, and lots of good food. And, of course, all the different people and cultures who make up New Zealand.

When it comes to the bad, Kirk is pretty clear. It’s the racism that’s a part of everyday life for many in New Zealand. Kirk’s experienced it all his life. Now, he and his wife Rawinia (of Ngāi Tai and Ngāti Koata whakapapa) are seeing their children go through similar experiences.

Not one to let haters get him down, Kirk is spinning all this life experience into a collection of memoir stories for his family, in particular his mokopuna.

Kirk’s been gracious enough to share some of these with us at E-Tangata. Here’s the first.

 

My mother came from a staunch church upbringing. She, like many Sāmoans, were saved from their sins by white saviours from an unrelenting Christian movement.

When she was offered a scholarship to New Zealand in 1970, she brought her steadfast belief and traditional teachings in God to keep her safe from the heathens and thieves of the developed world.

When she arrived here, she knew nothing about the oppression Māori were facing under Pākehā. Really, she knew nothing at all about the struggles of Indigenous people.

Mum didn’t know Te Tiriti existed as a founding document of this nation. She knew that Māori had longstanding grievances with the Crown, but she didn’t know what that really meant. All she saw when she arrived, thanks to the negative mainstream picture of Māori that dominated New Zealand media and society at the time, were Māori being disruptive to so-called progress.

Mum absorbed the portrayal of Māori as non-compliant, and as the heathens and thieves of New Zealand. Lazy, uneducated and ungrateful, according to the Pākehā view.

With that lens on New Zealand, Mum surmised that Māori were always in trouble and Pākehā had the power. Therefore, she concluded, we must act like Pākehā.

She wanted us kids to assimilate, believing wholeheartedly that this would protect us from white judgment. Being good, compliant coconuts would mean we wouldn’t be exposed to negativity as Sāmoans. We were the minority in our community, and we needed to be careful about being further marginalised.

Her view of New Zealand as a young migrant had a profound impact on our upbringing and on our identity as New Zealand-born Sāmoans. We’re proud to be Sāmoans, but Mum and Dad limited our exposure to our own culture because the risks of racism and stereotyping were real for them.

We didn’t take part in many Sāmoan cultural rituals, and Mum and Dad rarely spoke Sāmoan in public. Although there was this one time when they had an argument in a public car park, and you could hear all the Sāmoan profanities coming out.

And so, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Mum sent us to a Pākehā-dominated school, a Pākehā-dominated church, and Pākehā-dominated sports clubs. We were the brown outliers for most of our childhood.

She also tried to discourage us from having Māori friends and doing kapa haka, although this was difficult because our brown complexions were magnets to those who looked like us, and vice-versa. Most of the Māori kids would try and figure out my iwi. Some of them thought Sāmoa was a tribe in Te Waipounamu.

One day, I came home singing Oma Rāpeti and doing the actions. Mum was beside herself. She told me I needed to have a bath and dunked my head in the water to make sure any Māori influence was washed off me. And then she prayed for me. Afterwards, she told Dad. And Dad, being Dad, laughed.

“It’s okay,” Dad said. “He’s playing ‘fia Māuli’. Nothing wrong with that.” Fia Māuli means wanting to be Māori.

Mum wasn’t impressed.

At the time, Dad’s drinking mates were mostly Māori, but we don’t think he told Mum because of her views. Dad would say his mates were Kukis, or Cook Islanders.

Baby Kirk with his father Leuo Patrick Mariner and mother Sita Pepe Mariner in the early 1970s. (Photo supplied)

Another time, we were taught to do a pūkana at school. After school, Mum asked me what I’d learned that day, and I showed her my fierce-looking pūkana with my tongue poking out. Suddenly, a shoe was flying at me, and next minute, I’m in lockdown in the bedroom.

Mum thought I was making fun of her. She didn’t talk to me for a couple of days.

The funny thing is that Mum’s work colleagues at the time were Māori. She was actually embarrassed about working with them because of her negative preconceptions.

Despite that, she started to introduce Māori cuisine into our diet, only she white-washed it by giving the dishes Pākehā names. Boil-up was called bacon bones stew or soup, rēwana was potato bread, kānga pirau was known as rotten corn, and kahawai became salmon.

Dad would laugh and call it for what it was, especially because Māori food became a staple for our ‘āiga.

When I look back now, that was also the turning point for Mum. She was curious about Māori kai and that opened the door, ever so slightly, to Māori culture. It was a start of sorts, though not enough to leave the unhealthy conditioning at the door.

In 1986, when I was in the third form at New Plymouth Boys’ High School, te reo Māori was offered as an elective. I asked Mum if I could do it.

Mum: “You are Sāmoan, not a fia Māuli. Don’t ask again.”

In the fifth form, we moved to Auckland and I went to James Cook High School, which had a bilingual and full-immersion Māori unit. I wanted to join because they had this aura about them. They were unapologetic about who they were, they were always happy, and they were awesome performers. Plus, the guys were ripped and the girls prettier than the mainstream talent.

But Mum was worried that I’d be attacked by the Māulis. “Those Māuli girls will eat you, and I’m not ready to be a grandmother yet.”

Despite not joining the unit, I gravitated towards the Māori students anyway, as well as the Tongans and Sāmoans.

In the 1990s, after my failed attempt at university, I worked for a Māori NGO as a youth educator. It was the first time I’d been part of an Indigenous organisation. It was also the first time I was exposed to the Treaty of Waitangi, and the start of my journey in understanding Te Tiriti. I told Mum about me working for a Māori trust. She wasn’t too impressed, but appreciated the weekly koha my employment delivered to her.

Over those years, Mum’s harsh view on Māori softened as her constructs became less rigid and she explored what else was through the door that she’d first opened with kai on our family dining table, years earlier. She made Māori friends at work and church. She became a fan of Dalvanius Prime and Billy T James. More and more, she started to see what Māori, and New Zealand, were really like.

When I was in my 20s, I suffered a major loss in my life. An amazing woman gone to a debilitating illness. I was in shock at her sudden passing. I shut down, overwhelmed by negative emotions.

I was trying to make sense of it all. I was angry at God, and the last thing I needed was someone providing me with Christian advice, scriptures and prayers to console me. So I stopped attending church and threw in my church leadership positions. My faith was tested and my relationship with God became distant.

For those first few months, the only person I could really talk to was my father. Other times, I just needed my brothers, cousins and friends around me, sitting with a drink to keep me honest with banter and their listening ears. I worked ridiculous hours, hoping to bury my grief in work. I was working towards burnout, and I went on like that for a long time. Long enough that Mum started to seriously worry.

Kirkpatrick Mariner. (Photo supplied)

Then, one day, Mum noticed that I seemed more like myself than I’d been in ages. I was talking, and even smiling.

Mum: “Are you okay, son?”

Me: “Yep, are you?”

Mum was amused, and because she couldn’t get any info out of me, she asked Dad.

Dad: “He’s met a Wah–hine.”

Mum: “What’s a Wah–hine?”

Dad: “He’s got . . . a Māori girlfriend.”

Dad laughed.

Mum: “Oh.”

Deep inside, Mum was happy because she’d seen me wallowing in grief for too long. She hated seeing me like that. It made her feel so helpless.

From that point on, Mum started watching Hōmai Te Pakipaki. It became her favourite programme. She also watched Te Karere and Matatini. She struggled to understand any of it, but it helped her familiarise herself with Māori culture and language. Ultimately, it helped her reconstruct a positive view of Māori.

Young, in love, and high on life, I was curious about Mum’s newfound interest in Māori programmes. I suspected Dad may have told her about Rawinia, but I wanted to know for myself.

I bailed her up about her newfound love for Māulis.

Me: “Are you okay, Mum? I thought you didn’t like all that Māori stuff.”

Mum: “I never said I didn’t like it. I’m just doing my research into Māori culture.”

Me: “For what?”

Mum: “Never mind.”

One day, I caught Mum listening and humming along to Prince Tui Teka’s songs “E Ipo” and “Mum”.

I cracked up. All I could think was: “Who’s the fia Māuli now, Mum?”

 

Ti’a Kirkpatrick Mariner is the son of migrant parents from Sāmoa. He was born in Masterton, and grew up in New Plymouth and Auckland. He currently lives in Whakātane with his wife Rawinia near her hapū and their mokopuna.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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