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March 18, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage Splash | [ssba]

Ka Tangi Te Tītī, Ka Tangi Te Kākā, Ka Tangi Hoki Ahau, Tīhei Maui Ora

One day, I asked my Te Reo tutor what the difference was between a mihimihi and a pepeha. Thus began the biggest existential crisis of my life.

A mihimihi is a short speech given to introduce yourself at a hui, a meeting. Basically what your name is, where you’re from, what you do, that sort of thing.

A pepeha can be incorporated into a mihimihi, and establishes your ties with your country and your genealogy. You recall your waka, your iwi, your maunga, your awa, your whakapapa—you stake your claim in Māoridom as tangata whenua and take your place among your peers.

This immediately raised more questions—is a pepeha specifically a tangata whenua thing? Because I didn’t feel qualified to recite a pepeha, as someone who is non-Māori. I can definitely tell you who I am and where I’ve ^lived. I could tell you what the closest mountain to my home growing up was, but that’s not quite right. I swam in a lot of rivers and beaches, but that’s not the same as ^belonging to them. Even my spiritual connection to Piha up in Auckland, where I used to throw myself into the waves to wash my mental health issues away, doesn’t quite cut it. The idea of belonging to the land and the idea of spiritual roots aren’t concepts that appear in any of the various ethnicities that make up my patchwork background. To put it simply: I don’t belong to the land the same way tangata whenua do. To say otherwise would be to ignore the deep spiritual and cultural ties our native culture has to the land.

My tutor stopped me after class.
“I understood exactly what you were getting at with that question,” she said, almost excitedly. I didn’t tell her that I’d actually not known the cultural context, and just wanted a translation of the two terms.

“I don’t think I can recite a pepeha,” I replied. “I don’t have a mountain, not in the same way. And for me to claim something that’s not mine…”

“Exactly. People might get upset. But I don’t want to tell you that you can’t—who says what people can and can’t do?”

Good question.

Vini Olsen-Reeder, a lecturer at Te Kawa a Māui, was kind enough to kōrero with me about the issue. Essentially, he explained, the terms mihimihi and pepeha have come to mean similar things, and many people won’t differentiate them.

“These days, they can often be treated as the same thing,” he assured me, “so in any situation you should feel comfortable saying whatever you’re comfortable owning as yours. That might mean that you don’t include a maunga or a waka, although you might often feel like you have to.”

This solved the issue of what I should do on a marae. But on a deeper level, I was worried about crossing cultural lines that would be better left preserved. Besides, there is a debate raging nationwide about whether there should be any lines at all.

“People asked me the same [question], like I can’t do a pepeha, I’m not Māori,” said a te reo-speaking student and tutor, “Well, did you have a mountain? ‘Yeah, there was a mountain by our home.’ And it’s like, well there you go. That’s our perspective of connecting us back to the land.”

“But [connection] is just inherently part of the culture,” I pushed back, “in a way that it’s just not for other cultures.”

“I think once you, like, really understand the connections that Māori have to our whenua, to our maunga, and our awa—I think that once you have that down, you start understanding pepeha more,” mused another student.

“To teach te reo Māori is a privilege and a positive thing,” my te reo tutor put it. “Obviously, you become a kaitiaki of the language, and making sure there’s understanding and authentic connection is so important.”

Which is why, when she began teaching us how to construct a mihimihi, she recited her own pepeha, and added a caution.
“My priority is to keep you safe,” she said, “and to guide you through understanding the importance and significance.”

There were nods of agreement from the class. It was something inherently understood, by this group of people who had volunteered to learn te reo, that culture and language are intrinsically tied, and to learn one meant to respect the other. If only the nation were as accepting as my te reo class.

I came to this conversation from an extremely personal place. My background is a patchwork mess of ‘otherness’, of colonial mishaps and deep ironies: Going way back, I am ethnically Indian, but my ancestors moved to Malaysia with the British (goddamned British) to work on the rubber plantations. My Dad’s family have Sri Lankan ancestry, which means they were a bit snobby about him marrying my non-Sri Lankan Mum (because that’s a whole thing). My parents then had me in England, making me British by birth (goddamned British), before moving to New Zealand. There are two different stories of colonisation in my history, and I consider myself as belonging to both the colonisers and the colonised.

I know my history because I’ve been asked “where I’m from” my whole life. As if I’m not from here. As if my ‘exotic’ features override the way I walk, talk, and dress; as if my past is an educational textbook for others to peruse, rather than just part of me. Forgive me if I sound bitter, but after being ‘othered’ for so long, being hesitant to answer well-meaning questions is part of my defence system. There’s only so much casual racism one person can take.

So when I started searching for answers, I wasn’t being honest about my questions. I did genuinely want to know what the difference was between a mihimihi and a pepeha, but I was also desperate to find a term that fit me, a person who is neither Pākehā nor tangata whenua; that I could point to and claim as my ticket to ‘belonging’. I wanted to find the term that incorporates me into the story of New Zealand, with all the privilege and problems that this entails.

I did find it in the end: tauiwi. It means foreigner, but more literally, it translates into “landing bones”. Tauiwi is a term used for people who are not indigenous, but have come to a country and made it their home. Any country, not just Aotearoa. While technically I could fall under the blanket term of ‘Pākehā’, which once referred to Europeans but now refers to anyone who is not tangata whenua, I don’t like the term because of its ties to colonists who are not my ancestors. There is too much colonial strife in my own background for that to ever feel right.

So tauiwi it is. And it feels like home.

As for my pepeha, well, I concluded at the end of the day that I can’t claim an affinity to anything much, no matter who says what. But I can tell you where I’ve been, what’s important to me, and who I am.

I do not whakapapa back to Aotearoa, but I have swum in the harbours of Tāmaki-Makaurau, and grown up under the watchfulness of Maungarei. Nō Īnia ōku tīpuna. Nō Ingarangi ahau. I tipu ake ahau ki Aotearoa. E ako ana ahau ki te whare wnanga o te Ūpoko o te Ika a Māui. Ko Preyanka ahau.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.



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