Look at Her Whakapapa In All Its Glory

By Briar Pomana (she/her)


AUT graduate and Debate’s new Culture and Lifestyle Writer Briar Pomana shares the intricacies of whakapapa and what it means to be urbanised tauira Māori at university.


I grew up in a reasonably small, rural town. Saturday mornings watching rugby down at the clubrooms and Sunday roast dinners at the local pub were never my cup of tea. Like many, university in a big city like Auckland was my one way ticket out. It was my Broadway play, my storyline, my narrative, that I would leave the countryside, make something better for myself, and never return.


And although this is the dream sold to many of us, through the lens of whānau Māori, this shift in environment can be extremely isolating and damaging further down the road. It is an unfortunate reality that to be Māori and be brought up on your ancestral lands, within a reo Māori community, is a privilege that many are not afforded.


One of my best friends, who is a staunch descendant of the north eastern iwi Ngāi Tūhoe was nurtured in our language. We went to boarding school together and she would spend hours spinning yarns about these great historical tales of brave women and beautiful men, tall maunga (mountains) and dense ngāhere (bush). Her belief in our people was beyond mine. Sure, I always knew I was Māori, and was raised by a fiercely independent and proud Māori woman, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I spent some nights wishing I was something else.


I think this is the case for many of us. I truthfully can’t remember a time I didn’t know I was Māori and I can’t help but wonder if this is the same for Pākehā children. To preface this, I should acknowledge that on my father’s side I also have Pākehā whakapapa and my relationship with this facet of my being is extremely complex. Nothing we haven’t all read about before, you know, the ‘girl caught between two worlds’ is rather played out and tired. But for the context of this piece, I will use the examples of my grandparents to set the scene.


My father’s father is Pākehā. He was born into generational wealth. Thanks to his father’s contribution in World War II, he was given land to settle and build upon. He would later sell this land and establish a butchery that many of our family’s business ventures would grow from. My grandfather is a wealthy man who lives on a flash hill, in a flash house, and drives a flash car (there’s only three models in the entire world to be precise). He lives a life of well-crafted wines, Italian leather shoes, and spontaneous holidays. He is comfortable in who he is and keeps to himself as much as he can.


My mother’s father, on the other hand, was a much older Māori man. He worked our ancestral lands on the East Coast as a gifted shepherd. From dusk to dawn, he was riding horses, building fences, and ordering dogs around. He was the type of man who when he spoke, we all listened. His knack for storytelling was next to none. My Papa was born in 1929 and passed in 2017 so you can imagine the things he’d seen throughout the years he spent earthside. My Papa died a poor man, with no education and a multitude of health conditions that saw him decline year after year with little to no assistance from our healthcare system. His passing affected me in numerous ways, and I have written a short story and an entire short film in my grief. I understand that through whakapapa he can never be completely gone as I myself am his reincarnation, as are my hordes of aunties, uncles and cousins.


The word 'whakapapa' is a vast void that, in my view, is the crux of how Māori see and experience the world around us. Often defined as ‘genealogy’, whakapapa encompasses many ideas and theories beyond the binary. Hana Burgess, a PhD candidate whose work focuses on the interconnections of whakapapa and genomics, expressed it this way.


“We can understand time through onamata and anamata. So mata meaning eyes, onamata the eyes of those who have come before us, and anamata, the eyes of those that come after us. So essentially as Māori we can see distant time through our mokopuna, the eyes that will come after us and through our tīpuna the eyes that came before us.”


I find this deeply insightful as to how Māori and other indigenous communities carry each other wherever we go. Hana emphasises that we exist simultaneously in a state of both who we are as ancestors, and descendants. With these connotations of what whakapapa means in mind, it’s hard not to feel like THAT girl. What a confidence booster to know I am everything both my ancestors and descendants have and will ever dream of.

I know that sometimes when you haven’t been introduced to the parts of you that may appear in your whakapapa it can be painful as young adults to decide for ourselves that these intricacies hold significance. It is a burden laden with history, tragedy, and pain passed down generationally, so it’s important to understand that none of this was of our own doing.


Throughout my degree at AUT it was not uncommon for tauira Māori (Māori students) to shy away from participating in seemingly Māori events and spaces like those hosted by Tītahi ki Tua (TKT – AUT’s Māori association) and Te Tari Takawaenga Māori (Māori liaison services). I can easily recall phrases such as “I’m not Māori enough”, “I can’t speak Te Reo Māori”, or “I’m only one quarter Māori”. These were regular topics in the conversations we’d have. And to that I say, being Māori cannot be rounded to the nearest fraction. Blood quantum is a colonial measurement not used by our people and your whakapapa could never be diluted or eliminated.


The communities that I found myself in throughout university shaped me immensely, and it’s not lost upon me how important it is to find these collectives at AUT. TKT and the conversations around our marae dining tables opened my eyes to how many of us struggle with who we are and where we come from. Everything was taken from us and yet here we continue to be. It is through our whakapapa that we exist and are able to enter these spaces freely and if we so choose. These institutions were not built for those of us outside of whiteness and yet here we are, sitting, learning, and contributing together towards a future that was once a radical far away thought of those who came before us. We are their manifestations of past and present, so let us remember these glories.


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