Living testaments, Susan Fowke

Skin to Skin: Intimate, True Stories of Maori-Pakeha Relationships 
Carol Archie
Penguin, $35.00,
ISBN 0143019627

If you feel like reading something positive about race relations in New Zealand, this is the book for you. And if, like me, you are incurably nosy about other people’s lives, you will find satisfaction in these often surprising, refreshingly frank and informative stories about the lives of a real mix of New Zealanders.

Skin to Skin is written by Carol Archie, a broadcasting journalist whose work, particularly on Radio New Zealand, has often focused on Maori-Pakeha issues. This is her second book – the first was Maori Sovereignty – The Pakeha Perspective, published in 1995. Archie tells us that recent research by Dr Paul Calister of Victoria University shows half of all Maori living as a couple have a non-Maori partner. And that nearly 70,000 New Zealand couples are in Maori/non-Maori relationships. For Skin to Skin Carol Archie talked to 10 such couples, as well as members of their whanau – children and in-laws.

The first story is told by Deirdre and Professor Ranginui Walker and their family. Deirdre Walker is Pakeha, born in New Zealand to English-born parents. Now, one of Deirdre’s and Ranginui’s sons has a Chinese/Thai wife, and they have two children. This family, like many others in the book, shows that the first mixed-marriage can be just the start – the children and grandchildren too will often have a mixed-marriage, sometimes adding other ethnicities to the mix. In no time at all this exponential family growth and inclusion of other races has produced not only a bicultural but a multicultural whanau, and, if this book is anything to go by, a living testament to good race relations – different colours, different values and different cultures living together in equality.

The Walkers’ story is not the only one in Skin to Skin of well-known New Zealanders – others are Sir Tipene O’Regan, Carol Hirschfeld and Moana Maniapoto. But most come from people not in the public eye, from the North and South Island, city and country, some with te reo and some without. And, almost without exception, they have strong extended-family and tribal connections, and a marae and its activities central to their lives – Pakeha partners included.

In one way or another they have each had similar experiences, including similar problems. Every Maori tells of racism – at school, in shops, flat hunting or at work – some only recognising the experience as racist after finding their Pakeha partner had no such difficulty. Until he and Gwenda married, Maanu Paul thought everyone who wanted to draw money from their bank account was restricted to $200, and that every customer at the furniture store was kept waiting.

It might appear that it is mainly the Pakeha wife or husband who makes the adjustments, adopting or accommodating to different values and ways of doing things. But it must be remembered that the Maori partner has always been, and still is, leading life largely in the Pakeha way. Several Maori comment on the Pakeha habit of washing tea-towels along with personal clothing – an absolute “no-no” in Maori culture, as is sitting on a table or bench used for food preparation. (I feel compelled to add here that I – a Pakeha – always wash my tea-towels separately because that’s what my – English – mother has always done!)

It is fascinating to read the story of Betsan Martin, Pakeha, previously married to a Pakeha, now in a relationship with Rakato Te Rangiita who had a “tohunga” upbringing and is a kaitiaki of Ngati Tuwharetoa. They met at a seminar he held on personal leadership. During her first marriage Betsan had become interested in social justice and theology, later becoming an Anglican priest, involved in the Anglican Church’s endeavour to reach bicultural partnership in church structures. She says, “I was captivated by the Treaty of Waitangi and the history of our country. I thought, I’ve lived here all my life and haven’t known about this!” After her marriage broke up, and after a lot of thought, she arranged for her son David to go to the kohanga reo at Kokiri Marae in the Hutt Valley, and then to a kura kaupapa Maori; her daughter, currently living in Paris and a fluent French speaker, followed the same path. And now another daughter has a Maori partner, and Betsan has Maori grandchildren.

David, though he sees advantages in his Maori education, says “I’ve got two perspectives on the world. I feel sometimes it sort of isolates me … I find it hard to relate to either Maori or Pakeha.” And he feels that the Maori culture is exploited – “Like the haka and the koru. I feel I’m part of a society that’s treading on what I value.”

Of course intermarriage is nothing new; since the 1840s families such as these have been part of the fabric of New Zealand life. But for some reason it seems we don’t recognise it as being a crucial to the reality of our bicultural nation. The personal life stories told in Skin to Skin are just a tiny fraction of many more. These partnerships should be recognised as being of great value, and integral to New Zealand race relations – something we can hold up, look at and talk about, and experience in a positive light. Yes, in this we have succeeded!


Susan Fowke is an oral historian living in Wellington.


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Posted in Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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