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Navigating Identity: Being Pākehā in Aotearoa

The older I get, the more I realise that identity is extraordinary complex. In my own context, I have a lot of questions of myself, my friends, my whānau, and the communities I am involved in. Shock horror – Abby has more questions? Such is the life of a philosophy major, a poet, a writer, a self-confessed weirdo…

I have come to conclude that the answer to a lot of these questions is, whatever I take it to mean. But that is kind of a cop out, and not the whole truth. It runs so much deeper than that.

Being Pākehā

Take the first identity: being Pākehā. I grew up in New Zealand, but ancestrally, I am not native to this place. New Zealand is my home, and given that here is where I was born and raised for the first eighteen years of my life, New Zealand is what I know, and is part of who I am. Being a New Zealander impacts my worldview, my thoughts, my politics, and in general, it informs the lens in which I view the world.

However, I am not descended from the whenua, and I do not whakapapa to Te Rauparaha or any other tīpuna Māori (ancestors). I am Pākehā/non-Māori. All I really know of my own ancestors is that the first three or four generations were born and raised here in New Zealand, and if you go back far enough, I’m a little bit Welsh? I do not feel connected to these ancestors, and I would love to learn more about where I come from and who my people are.

Learning te reo Māori

So far, learning te reo Māori has helped me to frame my world better, to navigate the lens with which I view the world, to identify the bias within the system I inhabit, and the ways in which we can move forward from here. I am learning my place, I am learning when to follow, and when to take the lead. I am learning when to stand up, and when to sit down and shut up. I am learning that for many Māori, there is so much pain that lies beneath the surface. But there is also so much joy, and there is so much potential.

The more I learn, both of te ao Māori (the Māori worldview) and te reo, the more I uncover about myself, the more I am able to address and move past my own white guilt, and the more I try to encourage others to kōrero Māori.

I am an aspiring high school teacher, and I want to teach te reo Māori: I acknowledge that this will put me in a unique situation. Some of the rangatahi I teach will be far more fluent than me, hailing from kura kaupapa (Māori immersion schools) and/or being native speakers of te reo Māori. Others will be less proficient. Many may be ashamed of their reo on some conscious or unconscious level, and ashamed of being Māori: because of intergenerational trauma, because of negative stereotypes of Māori in the media, and the ongoing impacts that living in post-colonial Aotearoa has. Others still will be Pākehā/Tauiwi (Non-Māori), with varying degrees of understanding of te reo Māori. Most will probably be flummoxed by the idea of a Pākehā te reo Māori teacher (or possibly even offended?). I intend to navigate my future classroom with sensitivity, a willingness to learn from my students, and a desire to support the kaupapa of language revitalisation. He waka eke noa.

Te Ao Māori

Language is absolutely a window into the culture and worldview of a people. I am not Māori and I do not pretend to be, yet through learning te reo Māori, I am gaining a deeper understanding of tikanga (customs/protocol), kawa, wairua, whakaaro and other aspects of te ao Māori. When I talk about my own whakapapa, I am somewhat embarrassed of the lack of knowledge I have of those who came before me. The natural world, respecting and being kaitiaki of environment is of huge significance in te ao Māori, as is ancestral and spiritual ties to land, mountains, rivers, oceans, and people.

Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko ahau.
I am the river and the river is me.

I can’t help but see a link between language revitalisation and environmental change. I think a lot of others do too, both Māori and non-Māori alike. Sometimes I feel so desperate and depressed about the ways in which we as humans have abused and misused the planet. When I feel this way, I have to reframe and focus on what I can do, and how I can make even a little bit of good. This helps to ground me, and keeps me from sinking back into a depression. I won’t go into too much detail, but I think that there is an interconnectedness between environmentalism and being kaitiaki of the land, revitalising te reo Māori, and projecting positive media representations of Māori to counter some of the false narratives which perpetuate myths about Māori. From my perspective, all of these actions have a part in the ongoing work that we can do to move towards decolonisation. Shout out to Actionstation and their project Tauiwi Tautoko, for helping me to get started on this journey last year.

I could probably go on, but for the sake of both accessibility and time, I will leave it there. I would love to hear your thoughts, e te whānau!


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