"You don't look Maori"

Last week we welcomed the new kaupapa (topic) of detachment and started the building phase by stripping everything down. Peeling away the roles we play and our perceived identity in our careers, being a mother or son, a Kapa Haka aficionado or an athlete etc. The whakaaro (idea) to detach from everything external, all the stuff that we rely on to claim as our identity because it's tangible, it comes and goes. Without a doubt the roles have their place and their purpose, but to place our worth and build who we are from external variables makes for an unstable foundation. We don't want that.

Blonde hair means to some, I no longer fit the mould of what being Māori 'looks' like.

Say for example, you're a mother and you place your identity in this role. You tend to and nurture your beautiful kids and they grow into hell raising yet competent young adults and leave home. They don't need their mother in the ways they used to, so where does that leave you? Are you still you if you're not performing the tasks that define your role of being a māmā? If you're an athlete, are you still you if you stop playing your code? Look beyond the fact that it sucks to lose something you've grown so attached to and answer truthfully; are you still you if you no longer play those roles? Yes or yes..

Detachment from roles or from identifying with external variables means we must exercise our rangatiratanga, we must become self-determining. You may have heard of “Tino Rangatiratanga” or seen the flag, which represents the movement and stand by Māori to advocate for autonomy under the Treaty with the British Empire. In the same way but on a different scale, we must advocate and exercise our own rangatiratanga (self-determination) in our everyday life by detaching from habits, stereotypes, attitudes etc.

I've been living in Australia for almost a year now and this phase of my life so far has been a loooooot of uncertainty and being lost; building and peeling back layers; detaching from ideas, habits and behaviours - new and old - over and over again. Something about being in a foreign place where I don't know anyone or any of the places and nobody knows me, I've been more conscious and intent about figuring out who I am. I like Perth, but I also miss my kainga, home. I miss the maunga (mountains), ngahere (forests) and moana (oceans) and some of the people too. I remember not so long ago I believed I'd never live in Australia. I'm not from there, I don't whakapapa (trace my origins) back to those lands or waters, why would I invest so much of myself in a foreign place? You could say that I couldn't imagine how to 'be Māori' while living in a foreign land. Fast forward to today and the reality of living in Aus has posed some challenges that I didn't anticipate. eg. I have blonde hair now, so the "You don't look Māori" comments have become more prevalent. I don't have any tāmoko (Māori tattoo), I don't wear tāonga (pounamu/greenstone, stone, bone, wood necklace/pendant) so you can't (with a colonised mind) see any Māori symbolism on me and I no longer fit the mould of the Māori aesthetic; so

how can I ‘be’ Māori without looking the part?

Over the last three years I've had the privilege to be exposed to and learn a wealth of my Te Arawa (an awesome tribe based between Maketu and Tongariro) teachings and knowledge. I learned of the Te Arawa kawa (protocols) that have governed the worldview of my people for thousands of years, differing from traditions or customs which evolve and change over time.

Whakairo, traditional carving of one of the planks on wharenui (traditional meeting house). Iritekura, Waipiro Bay, Tairāwhiti, Aotearoa.

In Te Arawa there are 24 kawa; they rank from the most important and by their place in the process of creation.  We start off with kawa dedicated to Io; the creator, the beginning and end of all things and working our way down the list, we come to Ranginui and Papaahurewa; the metaphysical representations of Sky Father and Earth Mother. Further down the list we find; Tangata, Man and; Te Whenua, our physical environment. Oh boy, ladies and gentlemen, the lotto of wisdom has just been served! Take the world as we know it and how it came to be; the progression from Te Kore (potential, formless, energy) to Te Pō (form), to Te Ao Marama (world of light, physical world). All things have a cycle; and understanding this cycle emphasises how important it is to know ourselves at our core; where we come from and who we are beneath all the layers.

If we apply this whakaaro to my current living situation, it's clear to see how the external, physical and stereotypical representations of my culture cannot be the foundation to build my understanding of who I am and connection I have to being Māori. The examples I used of tāmoko and tāonga are hugely important, beautiful and deep-rooted parts of our culture, but we are still Māori without them - yeah? Like our whanaunga (cousin) from Cool Runnings said,

“If you're not enough without it (medal), you'll never be enough with it”

We've been colonised to believe that our aesthetic holds all the value, whereas our creation story and Māori worldview imply otherwise; that the physical comes after everything else in the rank of importance and should be considered supplementary rather than the foundation upon which we build our identity. Rather than getting so caught up with what Māori ‘looks’ like, because it's subjective and can mean something different depending on who you talk to... what if instead the dialogue was about being Māori. 

For instance, by travelling overseas to explore new lands and opportunities, I embody the legacy of my tupuna (ancestors) because they too were travellers, voyagers and navigators. They discovered new lands and brokered new connections all around the world, to people and to place. I don't have to try to be Māori because it's who I am; the culmination and manifestation of the thoughts and actions of my tupuna, all who have come before me. I am Māori; not because of the ink, the pounamu, the visits to the marae, having brown hair or not, or according to where I live.. My tupuna set the structure (kawa) for excellence and it is up to me to define how to exercise it within my own parameters, to practise rangatiratanga and to determine for myself what it means to be Māori.

Ngā mihi,



Mihi ki a Stevie, Mr. Thomas koutou ko taku ipo mo ō koutou whakaaro.

*Some of the Māori > English translations used in this post can be translated to mean something else in a different context. Read more about how words have multiple meanings in this post.