The never-ending journey, Charles Royal

Growing Up Maori 
ed Witi Ihimaera
Tandem Press,  $29.95,
ISBN 1 877178 16 0

Growing Up Maori contains the reminiscences, memories, passions and pains of some 36 Maori people as they passed through their youthful years. The group includes academics, poets, kaumatua, church leaders, politicians and more, and Witi Ihimaera is to be congratulated for bringing together such a diverse array of Maori personalities. From Donna Awatere-Huata to Phil Kawana, from Mihipeka Edwards to Joanna Paul, from Sir Paul Reeves to Mika, the collection is wide-ranging in view and diverse in nature.

Witi introduces the compendium by making various emphatic statements on the nature of being Maori – for example:

What is more to the point is that all the contributors are here because they identify themselves as being Maori. All have made a sovereignty choice, based on genealogy, belonging, upbringing, pride, politics or downright stubbornness that links them with the mana of our Maori forbears.

He tells us that “the notion of Maori identity is … problematic. There is no racial or full blood definition.” He warns us not to seek too narrow a definition, or to employ a shallow view on what is to be defined as Maori. Despite the caution, “most Maori offer subjective experience and they write as they talk. White hot. Straight for the jugular . . . ” Maoritanga, it would seem, lurks seductively between the words, in the stories recounted. Witi concludes his introduction by drawing an analogy between the Maori experience of the world and a cat’s cradle:

The original template came from Rangiatea … The primary pattern of culture was created when Maori began to live with each other in Aotearoa … Then the Pakeha came and … the tensions of maintaining the original pattern meant our ancestors had to weave more complicated designs over more empty spaces to ensure that the landscapes of the heart, if not the land, could be maintained.

Witi’s introduction starts with a stereotype (“Nobody can be busier than a Maori” – as if there are no lazy Maori), but it ends on a more sophisticated note by drawing the cat’s cradle analogy. I must say that I was a little apprehensive when receiving the book, asking whether this was an attempt to define us, to box us into a series of tired archetypes on “being Maori”. I am of the view that cultural identity must flow and grow. It is not to be found somewhere, but rather, it is to be revealed in the heart of the participants. So my heart sank a little when I read Witi’s opening remarks. But it was restored somewhat by the conclusion, which looks to a more diverse and open experience of Maoritanga.

A question I like to put to fellow Maori is whether Maori, as a cultural identity, is here to imprison us or to liberate us. If we choose to create stereotypes, to define dogmatically the notion of being Maori, it will imprison us. However, if we understand that Maoritanga should be about the journey toward the depths of one’s humanity, a journey that has no end and is ever-evolving, ever-changing, then it is more likely to liberate us. Jacq Carter takes up this point in her contribution.

The collection opens with excerpts from two “traditional” or older sources. The first was written by Makereti of Te Arawa and the second was written by an unnamed person at the dictation of Te Horeta Te Taniwha of Ngati Whanaunga. The latter recounts the arrival of Cook to Whitianga and is widely quoted because it represents one of the very few original Maori accounts of Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa. The passages by Makereti come from her “ethnography” of Maori life written while a student at Oxford University in the 1920s. These two contributions are used in the book as a description of the “traditional” way of  “growing up Maori” and they are subtitled “The Way it Used to Be”.

I did not like the Makereti passage so much as, again, it contains stereotypes: “The Maori were anxious to have children, as many as they could have” and “a Maori mother never had the difficulty of the women who have come in contact with civilisation.” Clearly, her audience is her Oxford examiners, however; and these sentences contain sweeping generalisations. The tone is one of justification, presenting a picture to the Pakeha world of traditional tranquillity and civility. It is this need to appear worthy in the eyes of others that is a barrier to the maturation of our culture. Maori have lazy people just like any other race or culture. Was there never a Maori mother who did have difficulties in childbirth?

The book then begins proper and is divided into two parts: “Maori Born, Pakeha World” and “Post-Modern Maori”. The first part contains contributions from such well-known people as Iranui Haig, Patricia Grace, Sir Howard Morrison, Sir Paul Reeves and Ripeka Evans. There are some lovely moments. Iranui Haig tells us, “These boys used to come back to Waima and bring me chocolates. That was good! One time they came over and they brought me a doll. I couldn’t make head or tail of it, because when I was young I was a tomboy.” Tom Smiler Junior explains, “I was born in the Waituhi Valley in 1915. My original name is Te Ha o Ruhia, The Czar of All the Russias and my brothers always called me Czar.” And Hone Kaa adds:

Many of the locals would ride by on horseback and make rude comments about those loony Kaas, but it didn’t deter us in the slightest. It probably explains why we are such an extroverted bunch of people – it’s all that haka in the kumara patch of the cow dung.

Kaa’s testimony states that he did not grow up “Maori” but rather “Ngati Porou”.

In the second part of the collection, we find Phil Kawana’s recollection of his boyhood explanation as to why the colour of his blood appeared to be different in different parts of his body:

so my reasoning went, if you had mixed blood, then some parts of you had Maori blood in it and other parts had European blood in it. My bum had to be Pakeha, ‘cos it always stayed white, and my ure had to be Maori because it was always the brownest part of me.

And Mika makes a statement that should have been made a long time ago: “My birth parents only had sex and made a baby. God, even I can do that! So if you ask me what it was like for this Maori baby to be raised White, I can only reply ‘Damm fine.’” This is the reality for many Maori: whilst some may have had negative experiences being raised in Pakeha families, those who didn’t must also be allowed to say so.

Reina Whaitiri provides a moving description of the tangi for her father, and Alan Duff contributes a glimpse into his past, which has motivated and catalysed much of his later thinking and writing. Clive Aspin, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the writers, talks of the journey toward the reconciliation of the various features of his identity: gay, male, Maori. There is much, much more in this volume.

Maori, as a cultural construct, faces the dilemma of being “Maori” by biology or “Maori” by culture. This debate rages throughout the world in the minds of the social historian, the cultural analysts and the like. Makere Harawira approaches the question in this way: “Can I, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed person, whose Maori genealogy is uncertain, claim myself to be Maori, have the right to speak as a Maori?”

Jacq Carter, in perhaps the most substantial contribution on the social and political dynamics of defining cultural identity, takes the reader through a well-thought-out account of the identity debate. She tells us of some of the ridiculous accounting that takes place (Maori, Maori-Pakeha, Pakeha-Maori, Pakeha) and her writing is garnished with personal experiences. These personal experiences include moments of Maori insensitivity towards Maori identity. These remarks remind me of the cultural oppression that we Maori place upon ourselves. Carter quotes Friere whose ideas on colonisation and liberation are well-known, and who blew the whistle on internal oppression – the colonised colonising themselves – “Liberation is a task for the oppressed.” Carter takes up the earlier point that “to assert one’s inherent potential is the ability to become more fully human”, thereby bringing home the thesis that the journey into one’s identity is the journey into one’s humanity. It is this point that sits best with me (although Carter makes many more points of note).

Growing Up Maori is an important volume in that it contains a wide range of views on what it is to be Maori. I like the fact that Maoritanga is diverse. As Sir Paul Reeves says, “There are as many ways of growing up Maori as there are Maori themselves.”

Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal is Director of Graduate Studies and Research at Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, Otaki.

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Posted in Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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