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September 11, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

White Bread in the Hāngī

Nā Monika Maxwell, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Aerana


I am awful when it comes to starting a project, notoriously so. I’m the person you tag in memes about procrastinating, the person who smiles blankly when you ask how their essays going, and the person who eases your anxiety by ensuring you that you’re not the only who whose left that assignment for last minute. Generic procrastination aside, there is usually a reason I struggle to inspire myself to begin writing. Usually I’m unaware of this issue until I’m directly met with it, but for this particular essay the hesitation preventing me from writing is essential to the subject itself. I feel uncomfortable when accessing my Māori identity and, because of that, I feel uncomfortable writing as a contributor to Te Ao Mārama. I’ve had this word document open for three weeks, and here I am, a week after the deadline and attempting to fathom into 1200 words or less why I feel uncomfortable. So here I go.

My relationship with being Māori for much of my life was shallow and surface level, reduced only to my appearance. Brown skin? Check. Dark hair? Check. Brown eyes? Check. The list continues and it all whispers hints to my heritage. If I were asked what Iwi I was from, however, I probably would’ve just smiled blankly and blinked. My affiliation with my Māoritanga was limited to just that of biology and the value of my cultural identity held no significance in my understanding of who I was. I was dislocated from that facet of my identity and I never bothered to mind. I never perceived the disconnection of myself and my Māoritanga as a loss when I was younger, but the more I learn why this disconnect exists, the more I mourn this as a loss.


FEATURE - White Bread in the Hangi - Monika


Life has not been compassionate towards my cultural identity because it was not compassionate towards that of my mum. A series of unfavourable circumstances are responsible for my mum’s placement into the “care” of the state, offering her as a hostage to the New Zealand foster care system of the 1960s. “Abusive”, “traumatising”, and “deeply shocking” are the preferred buzzwords used by most media companies when covering the state of the foster care system during this time. Negligent, too, should be added because the system betrayed my mum’s cultural identity. Instead of facilitating this aspect of her identity by placing her in the care of people in her tribe, or even the same culture, my mum was raised by a white family living in the Bay of Plenty area. Placing her in a white family unable to nourish her identity starved her of her culture. The system betrayed my Mum’s identity by ignoring the importance of culture. The lack of support available to aid a connection between my mum and her Māoritanga was a failure to nurture her identity. It paved a trajectory for my siblings and myself that split us from our cultural roots.

I have been described by my friends as “the whitest Māori they know,” and often found myself contributing to this disassociation by asserting that “I’m Māori, but like, not really.” It’s not that I was ashamed of being Māori, or favoured my European ancestry more, it was just that I felt estranged from Māori culture and therefore felt unable to claim it as my own.

I’m fortunate enough to have a relationship with my biological Grandmother and spent a lot of time with her and my cousins over the summer holidays. In these interactions I was aware of the jarring dissimilarities between my cousins and I which further encouraged this idea that being Māori was something I did not have the right to access. The way I spoke and my interests all existed in a niche abstract to that of my cousins. Once they put down a hangi but I instead opted for Nutella sandwiches, white bread of course. I’m not reducing being Māori to whether you do or do not like hangi or boil up, but as a kid it just seemed like another example of my “whiteness”.

My understanding of what it is to be Māori excluded me and so I assimilated the idea that it would be inaccurate or even an insult to try assert my Māori-ness. As a teenager I dressed myself in gowns of angst, jewels of insecurity, and lined my lips with existentialism. I listened to songs entirely irrelevant to my own experiences and pretended to relate to them, nodding my head in cool acknowledgment. In year 13 for media studies I produced a short film with themes surrounding identity but still failed to acknowledge my lack of relationship with my culture as an issue. It just was. My mum wasn’t raised entrenched in Māori culture and nor was I. But as an adult my Mum took the time to nurse her wounds and take Te Reo courses as a way to rekindle her relationship with her Māoritanga. My lack of connection has wounded me, left me with an emptiness that I have only just identified.

Cultural identity is dynamic and unique, the way you relate to and express your culture is independent of yourself. My lack of familiarity and understanding of Māori culture fuelled me to estrange myself from the right to claim Māori as my own. I feel uncomfortable expressing my identity as a Māori because a system whitewashed my mum’s upbringing. I don’t know my language like my cousins do, I don’t know my traditions like my cousins do, and I don’t know my culture like my cousins do. But now I do know that this is an issue and it’s my responsibility to repave my trajectory to meet back up with that of my culture.


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