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Identity


I was watching an academic presentation recently where a Maori academic introduced herself, complete with several Iwi affiliations, then introduced her colleague sitting next to her by name, then simply, “pakeha”.


What a wonderful and rich irony. Us colonists were nuanced, we were from Ireland, or Scotland, or the Midlands, or the North. And the people of this new land (well, it was new to us) were just all the same. Maori.


I am grateful to be given the smallest glimpse of the whakapapa of the various waka that came to these shores, and I am learning to sit more comfortably with my ignorance, knowing that the fact I was born here, and my ancestors for five generations before me, makes not a whit of difference to the fact that Maori culture is rich, complex, and requires time and effort to learn.


I am buoyed, as an outsider, to see Maori reconnect with a culture denied to their parents and grandparents. I can’t imagine. I try. But it’s too overwhelming.


I think about people like me. Pakeha. I think of our nuances. I think about the conscious choices I’ve made to be empathetic, because I want to be a loving person. I think also about the things I have witnessed in the communities I have been welcomed into: Samoan, Chinese, Indonesian. I have witnessed othering. And I relate to it perhaps too deeply. But it gives me compassion.


I’m also an incurably curious fellow. I want to know where the strands come from who made up me, and, thankfully, I have abundant resources to find out.


My God, who I try to follow, doesn’t permit worshipping of anything else. But I toy with reverence for my ancestors.


I’m not totally sure of the difference between reverence and worship, but for me it’s this: worship is a complete leaning of self upon the one being worshipped. To me, God is the only one who can handle, or deserves that kind of pressure.


But my ancestors… I remember walking into the meeting house in Auckland museum, looking at the Pou, and realising, these are ancestors being represented. Around, above, their embrace protecting and uniting all who come from them.

As a pakeha, I have only the meeting-house of my mind. But as I take the time to visit, to notice the work done by my relatives who wrote books, visited museums, passed on photos… it is a beautiful Whare.


As I farewelled my mother this year, those last few days of her life for me were filled with thoughts of everything good, beautiful and great about her. There is something about death, the great unpassable barrier, that frees us to think only of the good. Or to soft-focus the bad through a veil of sympathy.


It’s like that with all of them. Some I would have enjoyed the company of, others not so much. It doesn’t matter. As the living visitor to this Whare of the mind, I have the unspeakable luxury of picking and choosing.


And digging. Some of these taonga are not in plain sight. Stories are buried in dry dispatches from diaries or letters. Buried under forgotten context, or in unfamiliar geographies.


I’ve learnt the patient art of the archaeologist, blowing dust off treasures by looking in the background of photos, checking facts, learning about places I’ve never been, and letting myself imagine.


I’m nearly 50, I’ve done enough in life that I have enough imagination-fuel.


And it’s magic.


I’m there, on the muddy tracts of bush that needed clearing to become a farm.


I’m there, in the borrowed model T, on honeymoon.


I’m there, too, in the Royal palaces of Prussia and Scotland, and I know enough to know that people in palaces and people in fields are still the same as the soil beneath it all.


I’m there in the hospital. Drifting in and out of consciousness. Wondering, am I loved. And I do my best to say, you have always been loved. And thank you for being you, Dad.


This Whare of the mind, it takes me all kinds of places.


It takes me high above, where I not only see where land and sea meet, and which mountains are high, but I see how short the span of a man’s life is (and the slightly longer span of a woman’s, of course).


And finally, I am thankful to be me.


Yes, I came from you all. I honour you all. I learn from you all.


And I promise to be me. The most me-est me I can be.

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