Opinion: Explore Tikanga Māori but remember, it’s our backbones you walk across

  • 06/07/2020
Challenging the face of race relations in Aotearoa.
Challenging the face of race relations in Aotearoa. Photo credit: Getty

By Precious Clark

OPINION: In the 1800s, my seven-times great grandfather Apihai Te Kawau was a bridge between our people and the newly arrived Pākehā. He was one of the forefathers of Auckland City, yet you've probably never heard of him. I invite you to ask yourself, why that is so?

He cultivated a relationship with William Hobson, making large areas of Tāmaki Makaurau available for settlement on the understanding that the Government would be established in Auckland, thereby assuring the survival and prosperity of our people, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.

Things didn't quite work out that way. A few years after the agreements were made, Parliament was moved to Wellington, and my tupuna spent the rest of his life securing title over the remaining 700 acres of our ancestral land. By 1952, our people were landless after our remaining homes in our village at Ōrākei were torched to the ground by the Auckland City Council. My mum, then a child, can still recall the wailing of her nannies on that fateful day.

In the name of partnership, Apihai Te Kawau gifted our inheritance. Although his manaakitanga may be interpreted in a western context as an error in judgement, his intentions in being a bridge were welcoming, inclusive and peaceful. Notwithstanding the disastrous results for our people, I grew up understanding that Apihai Te Kawau was an important, strategic, and generous man whose mana is respected to this day. As an Iwi, we have since risen from the ashes.

Upon my return from living overseas in 2011, my intention was to offer my skills to serve my people, but soon that goal broadened to include not just my people, but anyone willing to engage in te ao Māori. Challenging the face of race relations in Aotearoa has become a part of my focus. I decided to build a bridge – between Māori and Pākehā, people and culture, the spiritual and the everyday. It was only a small leap to realise that, like my tupuna, I could be a bridge. With my English name, fair skin, green eyes and university degrees coupled with my whakapapa, being raised in te ao Māori, my ability to karanga and speak te reo, I already was a bridge. Without conscious intent or any particular training, it was in my blood. Facilitating people to traverse cultures is my 'superpower'.

It became my mission to help 10,000 people positively identify with Māori culture, and the first thing we do with the groups we work with is teach them how to pronounce Māori words correctly. Language is at the heart of any culture; and for some, learning te reo Māori is the gateway to a deep understanding of who we are as Māori. 

Our 2020 New Zealander of the Year, Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira is a testament to that. However, many people don't have the time or the ability to make the seven-year commitment that Jennifer did.  For whatever reason, many struggle to learn more than a few phrases. So while learning how to say 'tēnā koe' correctly is a great start, I implore people to expand their knowledge of Māori culture, so that the Māori words and phrases they use can be understood within a cultural context.

The next thing we do with participants on my programme is to explore their identity through pepeha. Pepeha is a statement of ancestry that celebrates a connection to things more majestic than ourselves, like mountains and waterways. In reciting pepeha, it acts as a GPS system that allows the listener to find a point of connection with you. 

Many people can struggle with this exercise: Pākehā because they haven't grown up with the concept of connection to landscape; Māori because those connections may have been interrupted through the impacts of colonisation and intergenerational trauma. And Māori who are strong in their connection are raising questions about non-Māori using pepeha, which can be perceived as laying claim to something that belongs to Māori.

While only Māori have the ability to connect to Aotearoa through whakapapa, I've seen how pepeha can be used to help New Zealanders explore who they are and their place here in Aotearoa. It connects them to their own ancestry and acknowledges their lived experience within our environment which is so much more meaningful than buzzy bees, number 8 wire, rugby and jandals. And there is no way you can go through that process without it affecting the way you think and behave. My hope is that the more people are engaged in that process, the more people will care – not just for our natural environment, but for the wellbeing of Māori people and our ways of being.

This is my dream. But, seven generations later, I'm still a little cautious after the experience of my tupuna, Apihai Te Kawau. He was betrayed in his generosity when he agreed to share the taonga of his people, his land. I provide access to Māori culture now knowing that we are in a different time, a time when we can make better decisions based on the lessons of our collective past. 

Nō reira, e koutou mā, step onto the bridge, but remember, it's our backbones you are walking across. Be guided by Māori in the use of our models such as pepeha to explore your identity and develop a deep connection of respect with this land and tangata whenua. Learn te reo Māori – after all, it's beautiful! Move into te ao marama, and once you have learnt our culture, be an ally, a champion, an ambassador of Māori – being sure to avoid 'weaponising' your knowledge of Māori culture against Māori. 

There is a difference between exploring Māori culture and claiming it, so cross the bridge, treading with care and humility. You're likely to be transformed for the better.

Precious Clark is of Ngāti Whātua, Te Uri o Hau, Waikato, Ngāti He and Pākehā descent. Living amongst her Iwi on their ancestral land at Ōrākei, she is a mother, a consultant, a professional director, a skilled facilitator and a kaikaranga at her marae. Through her programme Te Kaa – Igniting your Māori Cultural Competency, she has helped thousands of people positively identify with Māori culture since 2016.

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