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(Image design: Archi Banal)
(Image design: Archi Banal)

ĀteaJune 8, 2023

Reclaiming Rutene: How a name helped a photographer find his home

(Image design: Archi Banal)
(Image design: Archi Banal)

After ditching his ingoa Māori at the beginning of his career, photographer Zico O’Neill-Rutene is now in a process of reclaiming that part of his whakapapa – the Rutene name, and all the mana that comes with it.

When Zico O’Neill-Rutene (Ngāti Ira, Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu) was finishing university, he was proud to invite his whānau to his end of year photography exhibition. 

Set up in the gallery were collections of work the students had produced, including his work – a prelude to the career he would end up building himself in the years to come. 

For this show, O’Neill-Rutene had decided to drop one half of his last name, introducing his photography under “Zico O’Neill” for the first time. 

“My granddad came to the show, my uncle brought him over from Masterton, and the look on his face when he saw the name, that kind of haunted me for a number of years.” 

Vodafone CEO Jason Paris accepts a taki laid by Malcolm Kerehoma (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

The Rutene name was passed through his paternal side, and O’Neill-Rutene says he was always close with his paternal grandfather. But at this stage of his life, he didn’t feel ready to explore the whakapapa and mana of this name. Coupled with the societal pressures of the time, growing up in a very Pākehā environment, O’Neill-Rutene turned away from his taha Māori.

“At the time, I thought I was just simplifying my double barrelled last name. I think this was the story I was telling myself as a way to suppress the feelings I had around been Māori.”

The photographer spent the good part of a decade going by that shortened version of his name, working overseas and setting up both his business and personal life without that half of his surname.

“It was almost like I wanted to create a different alias for myself because Rutene brought up too much emotion that I didn’t necessarily know how to deal with at the time,” he says. “In a way, I suppose I was trying to blend into the status quo.”

O’Neill-Rutene came back to Aotearoa in late 2017 after a stint overseas, bringing with him a successful portfolio of work from his time living in Sydney, London and Amsterdam.

But on returning to New Zealand, and after a few conversations with people going through their own journeys of reclaiming their reo and delving into their whakapapa, O’Neill-Rutene began to think deeply about his own connections with his Māori side.

“I was embarrassed to be Māori. It sounds so simple now, but it took me so long to acknowledge that was how I felt. And that’s why I took Rutene out of my name, because I wanted to disassociate myself with the culture and all the baggage that I perceived came with being Maori.”

‘Toru, rua, tahi: rawe!’ (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

Raised by his Pākehā mum in the 80s and 90s, O’Neill-Rutene was always encouraged to learn about and have pride in his taha Māori. But the pressures of his peers, and his own internalised ideas about what it was to be Māori, pushed him in the other direction. 

“Going through high school, I didn’t feel super comfortable being Māori. I had Māori friends but how we grew up, none of us really knew about our Māori side – we would try to remember our iwi but that knowledge didn’t stick.”

The decision then, to bring “Rutene” back into his name was a hard one, not because of the brand he’d built under his shortened pseudonym, but because of the mental toll it took to decide to reopen that part of his life – and because in the time since his university photography showcase, his grandfather had passed away. 

“In 2016 my granddad passed and that brought up a lot of stuff that I was pushing away, because he was not just my closest grandparent, but he was my connection to my Māori side.”

During this point of his life, O’Neill-Rutene began struggling with his mental health, and working with a therapist uncovered that the guilt he’d been harbouring from ignoring his taha Māori was impacting him more strongly than he realised.

“In therapy sessions I started talking about my granddad, and we delved into that relationship quite deeply and I think a lot of my mental health struggles stemmed from the fact that I was ashamed of who I was.”

And so returning to Aotearoa was just the start of a now lifelong journey, which has taken O’Neill-Rutene back to his roots – to kura te reo Māori classes, to his marae and even on kaupapa Māori projects for work, which he now conducts under his full name: Zico O’Neill-Rutene.

Precious Clark and Vodafone’s Tom Thursby share a hongi (Photo: Zico O’Neill-Rutene)

“As soon as I started the journey, I felt like I started knowing myself, I felt more content with who I was… Connecting with my whakapapa, embracing that I am Māori, learning the reo, learning about te ao Māori and tikanga and having the motivation to learn about it, that was so exciting and empowering. So much of what I was reading and learning about resonated so strongly with me – it has actually been really emotional.”

Now, armed with a base level of knowledge, and the dedication to continue on this journey of understanding, O’Neill-Rutene is excited for the doors te reo Māori has opened for him.

“You just have to keep doing these little things. Listening to waiata Māori, listening to a podcast, watching Māori TV. Those little things are so important to incorporate, and they are empowering.”

While kura pō is a commitment that the freelancer can’t make at this stage, with a relatively new pēpi in his life, O’Neill-Rutene says he’s still learning every day, through these little things, like children’s pukapuka and any kaupapa Māori mahi he is involved with.

And he recognises that the journey he is on – to reclaim not just the language of his tūpuna, but his taha Māori, is one that will take the rest of his life.

“I was too focused early on in my journey about being able to speak te reo in my everyday life, and to understand te ao Māori… but there’s still a lot of internal mental and emotional barriers to my learning that I have to work through, and that’s going to take time. We have to remember to be kind to ourselves.”

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