By Briar Pomana (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka) (she/her)
Illustrations by Emily Wharekura (Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Arawa) (she/her)
It all began in the little kōhanga down by the motorway on ramp in Manurewa. I met Mahara in the car park on pōhiri day. Our parents bonded over our matching pink gumboots and wild frizzy hair. Then we met Toni. Her whānau came in late and made a ruckus just as we were about to sit down for a cup of tea and kai. Toni was extremely quiet herself and we liked that juxtaposition.
Then we met Te Maire. They were Toni’s cousin, so the pair had been stuck like glue since birth, and it was natural that they’d sometimes tag along to our play dates. Te Maire didn’t come to kōhanga with us, they went to the mainstream pre-school up the road with a flash name and even flasher cars parked outside. I can remember their mum talking about how our kōhanga lacked organisation. Out of all of us, it was Te Maire who was probably the most interested in Te Ao Māori, and everything we took for granted at kōhanga. All the rest of us were interested in was wā kai.
As we got older, it was a major transition for us kura kids to attend mainstream high school. We were so accustomed to learning in an environment where everyone was Māori, it was definitely a culture shock. I can still remember my mother warning me, “Rongo, you will be going to that school, and you will be happy about it. This will be bloody good for you, give you a reality check!” The upside to leaving our kura was that we could finally hang out with Te Maire at school and not just around the library or at Toni’s house.
Our new school felt like it had a million students, a million things to study, and a club for everything. Mahara and I had to restrain ourselves from signing up to all sorts of nonsensical clubs and societies. My father couldn’t stop laughing when I told him we’d signed up for water polo – he damn near dropped dead when I told him how much it cost. During lunch one day, Te Maire suggested that we all join kapa haka. Mahara and I erupted in laughter. We were cackling so much that teachers were coming out of the staffroom to investigate the noise.
“Fuck off, I’m not performing for this Pākehā school,” Mahara managed to get out in between breaths.
“You guys are ratchet. The only reason our kapa is stink is cause you kura kids never join it.” Te Maire pleaded, “We’d be mean if you guys rocked up.”
The laughing died down as we collectively noticed how defensive Te Maire got.
“I’ll come, but I’ll just play the gat,” I said.
The girls looked at me in disbelief.
“Well, since none of our parents want to pay for any other club’s fees, at least with this we might be able to get off school and go on trips,” I reasoned.
Toni, who loves school and couldn’t imagine missing a day, scrunched her nose.
Mahara chirped in. “Fine, but only because I saw that another white school went to Hawaii last year for kapa haka.”
Te Maire was grinning ear to ear, staring at their cousin Toni, awaiting her confirmation.
“Well, I don’t want to be Nigel-no-mates, so I guess I’ll join too.”
Te Maire leapt into the air, ecstatic that they’d recruited three new members. They wrapped their arms around Toni warmly and kissed her on the cheek. “We need you cuz, you’re the only one of us that can actually sing.” The bell rang and we collected our things begrudgingly. We wandered back to class, anxious about what we’d just signed up to.
Every Wednesday lunchtime was kapa haka practice. The teacher leading us was Miss Pinkerton from South Africa. I guess because it was volunteer work, she was the teacher who had drawn the short straw. Like us, Miss Pinkerton did not want to be there. Te Maire mingled in between cliques and Miss Pinkerton set up an overhead projector with the lyrics to ‘Te Aroha’ barely legible under various fingerprint and grease smudges.
I slung the ombre blue school guitar over my shoulder and began tuning. Miss Pinkerton looked up from the projector and gushed.
“Well Rongo, if you can manage to learn this song, you might even be able to become our guitarist, although I am told by a friend of mine that Maowrees don’t usually allow girls to do such things. Mind you, I am a feminist, so power to you, girl!” I glanced over at Mahara and Toni who scoffed rather loudly.
For weeks, I watched as Mahara began to derail entire practices and take command of the group – teaching them songs and tikanga around kapa haka. Miss Pinkerton was resistant at first but then quite boldly said one practice, “I suppose the kura kids should lead. That’s all they’ve learnt for the past thirteen years anyway.” Toni led most of the songs and began teaching everyone how to recognise their singing range. We’d gone from sounding worse than babies, to nearly having a bracket pulled together. We were working towards a performance at next month’s school gala.
After school, our gang would mainly talk about kapa haka. Whether it was watching other groups for inspiration or making up actions for our items, kapa haka became our lives. We’d all hate to admit it, but it became the best part of our weeks. It was almost like we were back at our old kura and we all finally felt like we belonged at our new school.
Meanwhile, Te Maire had taken a backseat during practices. Before we had joined, they talked about how they would sometimes have to lead despite having little knowledge about kapa haka. Mahara, Toni and I had thought that Te Maire's quietness was animosity because they no longer needed to lead, but I wondered if something else was going on.
One day at practice, I noticed when we split the group off into boys and girls that Te Maire remained sitting on the school hall floor. The boys filed out into the back field and the girls remained in the hall, twirling poi and practising the formations we’d created last week. I put the already tuned guitar back into its case and sat next to Te Maire. Sensing that something wasn’t right, I sat and waited – not saying a word. A few minutes went by, before Te Maire exhaled deeply.
Mahara came back inside the hall looking for a water bottle, red in the face from teaching the boys the haka. “What’s going on?” she mouthed. I shrugged. As Mahara strolled closer to us, Te Maire began to stutter, “I think I’m going to quit kapa haka.”
Our eyes grew wide.
“What! Why?” asked an oblivious Mahara.
“I just don’t belong here,” Te Maire uttered.
Mahara interjected. “Well that’s bullshit. You’re Māori, of course you belong here.”
Te Maire shook their head. “Yous don't get it.”
Mahara rolled her eyes. “E tū, come help me outside. I don’t care if you don’t want to, I need your help.” Te Maire narrowed their eyes and glared up at Mahara. “Hurry up, bei!” Mahara scolded.
When the two of them got outside, Te Maire seemed to drop their shoulders and didn't seem as tense. In Mahara’s absence, the boys were fighting in the grass.
“Hoi hoi!” The leadership and confidence seemed to come effortlessly to Mahara. Te Maire stood off to the side awkwardly. “From the top, but this time fucking mean it, you assholes.” The boys respected Mahara and they did as they were told. To Te Maire’s surprise, it was Mahara leading the haka. Te Maire had never seen a woman holding that space, power and courage before. It almost moved them to tears.
As the group finished and held their squatted position, Mahara stood upright and ordered for the boys to do the same. She looked over at Te Maire. “Your turn mate,” she said encouragingly.
“What the fuck, hell no,” Te Maire cried. One of the boys, a half-caste from Kai Tahu interjected. “Um, girls can’t lead the haka.”
“And who said that? I’ve led you fullas everytime,” replied Mahara.
“That’s tikanga,” said the boy, rather confidently.
“Kao, that’s colonisation. Plus, Te Maire isn’t a girl you dickhead. Now shut up before I thump you one,” Mahara hissed.
Te Maire had never explicitly ‘come out’ to us as irarere or gender fluid, but it was something their whānau had acknowledged and affirmed a few years ago and we as their friends had followed suit. It was no biggie, but it required a lot of allyship on their behalf.
Te Maire looked back into the hall where the multiple poi sounded like a stampede of horses, nodding at Mahara and the boys. They took their place in between the lines of shirtless, red-chested kaihaka and looked fiercely ahead. Mahara nodded in their direction and took her stance behind the group. By then, the rest of us girls had come outside to watch them haka, and join in if we knew the words.
“Taringa whakarongo!” Te Maire thundered. I nudged Toni, who was smiling with tears welling in her eyes. Continuing on, their eyes bulged. “Kia rite!” Toni and I moved behind the group, our hands automatically shimmering with wiri. Mahara moved from one side of the group to the other, almost mimicking a warrior, or a pūkeko.
“Kia rite!” Te Maire grew louder with each instruction and as the group grew more electric. Before delivering their next line, Te Maire looked back at Toni, Mahara and me. Their energy was brewing and intoxicating everyone around them, even the boy who had challenged them earlier.
We all took our stance and the sky thundered as if it too were following Te Maire's command.
We rumbled lowly together. In that moment, the world held its breath, as it listened and waited for Te Maire to take their place.