Raised by two Pākehā mums, Aroha Gilling has come to understand her identity as Māori through a series of contrasts and comparisons. She’s pictured here in front of the Ake Ake Ake Kākahu streetwear label mural in Rotorua. (Photo: supplied)

The national primary schools kapa haka competition is a fiercely contested event held every two years. Aroha Gilling watched the five-day festival in Nelson last month — and found that it released a flood of childhood memories.


I’ve just returned from watching Te Mana Kuratahi. He huihuinga nui, he kaupapa whakaohooho. I cheered and clapped as loudly as I could for those brave, beautiful tamariki. They were incredible.

My six-year-old self was watching too, and wishing she could have been part of a team just like them. But that is not my story. My story is one of absence, loss, and sometimes sadness. Still, I refuse to let it be a story of despair.

I was born in the late 1960s to a 20-year-old unmarried wahine Māori from an isolated community on the East Coast of the North Island. She gave birth to me in Wellington and, at three weeks old, I was placed into the arms of my adoptive mother at Dunedin airport.

My adoptive mum was technically a sole parent, but in reality I had two parents from the beginning. At that time, Mum lived with her younger sister, both of them caring for their mother, my grandma, after she had a stroke. I called both sisters “Mum”.

My first few years were spent on the edge of Central Otago in Lawrence. The mayor of the town was inspired to write a song to celebrate my adoption. I can still make out some of the words in lovely cursive script on a faded card.

Years later, as an adult, I returned to work on a project at Gabriel’s Gully, a historic mine site near Lawrence — and the local pharmacist still recalled my mums and my funny wee family of three generations of diverse women.

My mums identified as Pākehā and encouraged me to do so too, as a survival mechanism. But you can’t hide big and brown. By seven, I was towering over all the other girls in my class. I was strong and fast — and, back in those days, you could still play bullrush in the playground. I was a superstar, barrelling down the field, mowing spindly schoolboys down or flinging them aside like a Marvel superhero.

I came to understand my identity as Māori by a series of contrasts and comparisons.

One of the earliest of those took place at church. Both my parents were keen members of a local non-denominational church, mostly to allow for one being Methodist and the other Presbyterian. My youngest mum was a Sunday School teacher but, to be frank, my participation at Sunday school probably didn’t enhance our family reputation, as I preferred to roughhouse with the boys rather than pay attention to Bible stories.

One thing I did look forward to every year was the Nativity play. As a young child, you had to do your time in the stables as a donkey or a sheep. Then, if you were very lucky, you might get a headdress and be one of the wise men. I was a keen singer with a good, strong voice and I aspired to play Mary who had a lovely solo.

When I reached the right age, I tried out for the role only to be heartbroken when my best friend, who was not a great singer, scored the part. There I was, back in a brown rug as donkey number two. My face must have given me away because the other Sunday school teacher said: “I’m sorry, dear, but you didn’t think you’d be Mary, did you? She was a white lady.”

It was only then, when I saw my brown skin contrasted with white skin, that I realised not only that I was different from my white friends, but also that I was perhaps somehow seen as less than them.

That was also one of my earliest experiences of unearned privilege, although I didn’t understand it in those terms. To me, it just seemed so deeply unfair that my friend who wasn’t a good singer was rewarded because of the way she looked.

Call me petty but, oddly enough, that year when Mary went to pick up the baby Jesus from his cradle and hold him as she sang, she couldn’t find him. Mostly because I’d chucked him under the stage in a fit of childish pique!

Throughout school, I persevered with school plays and musicals because I loved singing and acting. I soon became an old hand at not setting my sights too high, only ever auditioning for the chorus or the best-friend role, never the lead. My youthful brain had taken in all those horrid messages about what was desirable and attractive, and I allowed that rubbish to limit my opportunities.

I also recall a friend’s baby brother crying every time he saw me. His mother explained that he wasn’t used to seeing skin as dark as mine. Another girl had a little nondescript dog who snarled at me because he didn’t like brown people.

Auē! My skin has great power if it can make babies cry and dogs growl! As an adult, I understand there were probably toxic and racist attitudes in play in both whare, but, as a child, I took on the deeply hurtful idea that my brown skin was to be feared.

Getting a haircut was another battle. No one understood thick, wavy hair like mine. For most of my childhood, I looked like a middle-aged woman. My family nicknamed me the Gilling Gorse Bush because of my wayward curls. Whenever anyone touched my hair, I’d flinch, because I had internalised the message that my hair was unattractive compared to the little straight-haired blondes and brunettes that I was friends with at school.

Looking at the girls on stage at Mana Kuratahi, I saw hair just like mine, thick and wavy. How beautiful it looked to me, accentuating their movements.

Competitors on day one of Te Mana Kuratahi, held this year in Nelson. (Photo: RNZ supplied Te Mana Kuratahi)

My introverted, shy mothers did make attempts to introduce me to my Māori culture. They reached out to a local whānau Māori who lived next door to the church, which is how my fractious and painful relationship with poi began. The whānau gave me a pair and showed me some basic movements. I was overjoyed. But, as with most skills, unless you do it regularly, you never improve. With such limited support, my initial joy faded to frustration and confusion. I put my poi away.

Many years later, as an adult, the same frustration and confusion surfaced at a wānanga where basic poi was expected. It wasn’t that I couldn’t manage the simple movements. It was more that I suddenly felt the absence of those early opportunities to learn and develop my skill, especially as I looked at the faces of my Pākehā peers who expected me to be competent and help them out. That feeling of loss bought me to tears, and I struggled to articulate why.

Then, recently, I was supporting a noho marae and helping to lead a group through the actions for “Ka Pioioi”. I had a quiet giggle to myself when one of the participants wished she could be as graceful as my colleague and me. Everything is relative, I guess. In my head, I’ll always be the awkward misfit on the margins with her poi all over the place.

I think I was eight when I attended my first school dance. I love music and movement — it brings me great pleasure. A song came on that I knew, and I got up with my friends to dance. My awkward little friends jiggled on the spot looking shyly around, but I flung myself enthusiastically into a boogie until a nearby group began to laugh and point. I realised I’d accidentally made myself stand out again.

The whole interaction must’ve been observed by a nearby teacher who whispered to me: “You dance like a grownup. Maybe a little less hip and wiggle!”

I stopped dancing that night and never went to a school dance again. It wasn’t until I discovered the joy of the mosh pit at university that I threw myself back into music and movement without the gross adult judgments. I can’t help but think how my sense of movement would’ve found a place in a kapa haka team, but that opportunity didn’t exist in Ōtepoti in the ‘70s. It saddens me that I’ll never know what I could have achieved as a kapa haka performer.

When I was at high school, along came Ngā Manu Kōrero. I’d never had the chance to learn te reo Māori and it wasn’t used around me except on rare occasions. Nevertheless, a teacher entered me into the competition and expected me to deliver a speech in a language that I didn’t know. I struggled through a dreadful kōrero. It was devastating and humiliating in front of my Māori peers.

Once again, the contrast embedded a warped sense of self in me. At every te reo Māori class I’ve been to since, and every time I open my mouth to kōrero as an adult, there is an internal micro-pause where my puku jumps, and I have to push down the panic of my 14-year-old self alone on that stage, floundering and fearful.

So to listen to the beautiful and evocative reo Māori of our tamariki at Te Mana Kuratahi was a real treat.

Another experience that determined how I perceived my body as a teen took place in a Dunedin shoe shop. I wanted a pair of winter boots and saved my money carefully until I had enough to go shopping. I tried on multiple pairs, but none fitted my calves. Eventually the shop assistant said: “I don’t think we have any boots for people like you.” I left that shop embarrassed and disappointed about how I looked.

It wasn’t until decades later, as my two Māori cousins and I were wandering back from the beach in our shorts and jandals, and we stopped at the tap to rinse off our feet and legs, that I looked along the row of solid, brown calves lined up together and smiled at their strength and curves. Who needs boots? Stick some socks on with your jandals and you’re good to go! I thought of that again as I watched those strong little tamariki moving skilfully and precisely, irrespective of the size of their waewae.

Aroha Gilling and friends celebrating the strong calves of their waewae Māori. (Photo supplied)

Belonging is important as Māori. Something inside me cries out to be part of the collective, but that has never been my story. My life’s journey means I’m often alone, at odds with the predominantly Pākehā workplaces that I exist in.

My whāngai parents, my two mums, are gone now, and I am distanced from my birth whānau in kilometres and years together that can never be reclaimed. I’ve grown up in a small, nuclear Pākehā family, and I live mostly alone now, among iwi that are not my own. So I treasure these rare moments of belonging, when I see myself, past and present, in the faces of these tamariki.

My wish is that every one of those bright, young tamariki on the stage always feels like they belong, and that they stay as brave and strong as they were at the competition, standing for their kura. I hope they never question their place in te ao Māori.

Let that uncertainty and cultural self-doubt end with my generation. And from everything I saw at Te Mana Kuratahi 2023, that’s exactly what’s happening.


Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago, and a background in adult education and social work. She lives in Nelson.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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