For about a week, my inbox was full of links to blog posts about Andrea Smith and whether she is or isn’t Cherokee. I’ve read all of those posts, and most of them make me really uncomfortable. I want to explore my discomfort in a series of short (for me) posts over the next few weeks. I don’t know where this will go. I don’t plan to critique anything that anyone is saying, and I won’t presume to give any solutions—I know it's not my place. But there are a number of reasons that my reaction is complicated, and I think it’s important to talk about those reasons.
First of all, I should re-introduce myself. I am from Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu on my birth father’s side, and European on my birth mother’s side. I was adopted at birth by a Pākehā family, back in the days of closed adoptions, and grew up in Whangārei. My parents were assured that I am completely white, and I am light-skinned enough that this is marginally believable. So I was raised in ignorance of tikanga, and without any knowledge of my Māori whakapapa. I didn’t find my father until I was in my 30s, and with that I found out my iwi. At the time, I hadn’t even visited the area that we’re from. Since then, my birth father’s family have been incredibly welcoming, and have taken the time to teach me a lot. It has taken me a long time to learn some of the things that I should already have known. There are many things I will never learn. I will always be in-between, both Pākehā and Māori, and not quite either (I will write more about this in another post).
I have been lucky. There are many parts of my story that could have been different, that could have resulted in my never discovering my whakapapa, or that could have resulted in my knowing the connections, but never able to prove them:
- I needed to find my mother
- She needed to remember my father’s name
- She needed to know that he was in another country
- I needed to find him
- He needed to acknowledge me.
It would have been easy to be caught in a situation of knowing who I belong to, but with no way of proving it. Whether I knew it or not, whether I could prove it or not, I have always been Ngāi Tahu. That is part of my whakapapa.
This sort of story, of complete disconnection, is colonisation. I was going to say it’s an important part of colonisation, but it’s more than that. Colonisation is breaking connections. Whakapapa is the ultimate threat to colonisation; it guarantees that colonisation will eventually fail. Whakapapa means we care for each other—we are responsible to each other and our ancestors. We are a force. This means that every link in whakapapa, every connection, is a threat to colonisation. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to place, by forcing tangata whenua from their place, that colonisers can take the land and try to keep it. It’s only by breaking indigenous connections to each other, imposing their culture and values in the gaps that are created, that colonisers can feel safe and superior. As individuals, we are much more likely to succumb, to assimilate, to disappear.
For many Māori, the knowledge of whakapapa died a generation or two ago, the connections are forgotten. When that knowledge is taken, what can we do? Should we admit defeat, and say the whakapapa is gone, we are no longer Māori? Should we shut people out if they can’t prove their relationships? Or are there better solutions? What are the risks in accepting people who, for whatever reason, seem to belong? What are the opportunities? Are we more likely to realise tino rangatiratanga through strict rules of exclusion, or through flexibility and inclusion?
Clearly, I am affected by these questions. My identity as Māori, tangata whenua, Ngāi Tahu feels vulnerable. It’s hard for me to remember that this is true for lots of us. Many of us feel vulnerable, not Māori enough. Which project does that insecurity serve—colonisation or tino rangatiratanga? What are our political goals, and what actions move us towards them, or away from them? These are questions I think it is important to continue talking about.
I’ll write more soon.