Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha Kāti Māmoe) finds her wall, and her foundations, at her marae in Waihao, Te Wai Pounamu.
This essay appears in the first edition of the semi-annual printed magazine Awa Wahine, edited by Ataria Sharman, springing from the blog awawahine.com. The magazine is an opportunity for other women to learn from and immerse themselves in the stories of wāhine Māori; most contributions are from wāhine Māori writers on kaupapa that are important to them.
E hoki koe ki ō maunga kia purea ai koe e ngā hau a Tāwhirimātea…
Nō hea koe? As Māori, we can hear this more than our own name. For some, it’s an invitation to share, a way to weave together your world with the world of the person who asked you. But for others, it can open wounds, the wound of knowing they’re Māori, that they have a gap in their whakapapa. A gap that extends from Hineahuone to themselves. For others, it’s the sadness of knowing there are homes they can never go back to, whether this is their own fault, or mamae they’ve inherited. Mamae so far back it may never be traced or understood.
As a child, Te Wai Pounamu felt like Disneyland to me. A beautiful, unattainable goal. My parents always joked that if I was really good, we’d go during the school holidays. I guess I was never good enough. I didn’t go back until I was 20. I grew up in Taupō and Rotorua under the korowai aroha of Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa. I was always proud to be Māori, and within that, Kāi Tahu. I was raised Māori; we worked the land, had a big family homestead where we’d all meet and have parties, I took te reo Māori at school, swam in the river. All the stereotypical parts were there. But underneath were deep roots, that I couldn’t see for the trees above them.
In some ways, I blamed my parents for never taking me back to Te Wai Pounamu. I always assumed our reasons for staying North were financial, but as I grew up and tried to find my way back into the iwi, to figure out where our home was, I realised that it was bigger than that. Taking your children across the country to a place that you don’t know exists, to a hidden door that might be gone, is difficult not just for you, but for all the generations either side and held within you. My parents kept themselves, and more importantly, me, safe.
When I went to Te Wai Pounamu at 20 years old, it was for a rakatahi kaupapa. I saw some people I knew and started to connect the dots on a few things. But finding out who you are, it takes time. In the Pākehā world we’re used to asking the right person the right question and getting the right answer. But in te ao Māori we often need to look at the past from all angles before we get what we need. I asked so many people about where I was from that I lost count. Every time, the answer was different. Every time, it hurt. I started drafting a whakapapa chart that made accounts for all the different versions. I spent long nights reading manuscripts and talking with Kāi Tahu whānau. But I also spent time playing puoro, writing into myself, and taking notes from dreams.
To be Māori is to embrace all of your whakapapa and ways of knowing. This journey required all of what I had, even when I didn’t know what that was. This journey was like a koru for me. I circled around and around myself, moving closer and closer to the centre, but only able to see that I was spiralling. Eventually, I figured out some close connections and met a first cousin of my grandmother, whose daughter I’d known for years as a friend. They were proud uri of Waihao. When we sat and went through all our whakapapa, I was proud to know that I was Waihao too. I registered with our marae, and soon enough was invited to a whānaukataka weekend. I said yes; I was going home.
On the plane I was apprehensive, going by myself into the unknown. I’d done this before, trying to work out where I was from, and every time I’d come home broken. After each experience, I’d work hard on the parts of te ao Māori that I knew well, that I was good at. I’d play taonga puoro, I’d work on some toi kupu, I’d read some more texts about Kāi Tahu whakapapa and try to fill in gaps. To me, this was like the Japanese practice of kintsugi, a process of mending broken pottery with lacquer mixed with precious metals. All the cracks in me were repaired with gold, but they were still cracks. After a few years of this, parts of me were becoming more gold than self.
It took me even longer to realise that the same could be said for several generations of my whānau. Intergenerational trauma is a strange thing with a million strands. For some, it’s a denial of whakapapa, for others, it’s working so hard that you work yourself into the ground. For me, I’d been in a burrow of my own making for a long time. I struggled to see the light, let alone how it touched the maunga of home in a way that painted them to gold.
I landed at the airport, and a few of us were picked up in the marae van. Everyone seemed to already know each other. Our surroundings got more and more remote until we arrived at the gate. “Well, Ruby, welcome home!” a newfound uncle said to me. Inside I met the marae cat (“Every marae has one, you know!”) and an uncle made me a cream cheese and crystallised ginger sandwich (“it’s my specialty!”). There isn’t any gatekeeping. In fact, the gate was open already when we arrived. I sit in the kitchen (“kettle’s always on”), and then someone offers to show me the wharenui; the Waihao Centennial Memorial Hall.
It’s a bare room made of wood, covered in photos and there’s a strange kind of repetition to all of this. This is the third marae I’ve been to, trying to figure out where I’m from. At each one, I scanned the walls meticulously for a familiar face, a familiar name; anything that could be a line to hold onto. But every time, I’ve just drifted out to sea. I repeat this same process at Waihao, ready to feel myself being pulled underwater.
“Aren’t you a Loper? Yeah, this is your wall.” I feel something different than I’ve felt before, it feels like my wairua is sailing above the waves that have often crushed me. I see my whānau wall, there are echoes of the main wall in my Nana’s house. A few similar pictures. I see my great-great grandparents, some great uncles and aunts. All of these families with strong women with long dark hair tamed into top knots and braids. Women with stern mouths and an eerie amount of focus in the eyes. I see my reflection in the glass matching theirs. “You’re right,” I say. “This is mine.”
Soon more people arrive. I’m shy, so I go sit with the kids drawing. After a few minutes they make requests, “can you draw me a horse?” and of course, I do. I’m good at doing what I’m told, and as a result, I hear all about this place from the kids who were lucky enough to grow up here. They have no memory of meeting this place because it’s where they’ve always been.
“Did you know when I was born, I came here straight after the hospital? That’s what tūrangawaewae means,” a wise 10 year-old tells me.
I smile at her and feel a strange mix of abundance and loss. When everyone arrives, we sit in the marae for whakawhanaukataka. The Upoko tells us that we need no karakia to be welcomed here; “Because this is your home. Where’ve you been? You should have called. But we’re glad to have you back, and you know, the door is always open.” It takes time to heal wounds. The longer they’ve endured, the longer the time to heal. But making a start can happen in an instant. At this moment, I feel it, the beginning; generations of hands planting seeds in this land.
The rest of the weekend, of course, has its ups and downs. But I didn’t feel my whole self go with them. This is a level of control I didn’t have before I came here, an anchor that keeps me from spiralling too far out to sea. E tau ana tōku wairua i te whenua ki konei. My soul is settled from this place. In hard moments, I take out my case and play taonga puoro. I sit out the front by a carving of our tīpuna, Rākaihautū, who carved the rivers and valleys of our land with his kō. Rākaihautū is a point in our history where gods begin to move to tipua, then down into us as humans. I sit there and play kōauau with my eyes closed. When I open them, I’m surrounded by kids.
“What’s this one called?”; “How do I play this one?”; “What’s this one used for?” We sit around playing the instruments of our ancestors on their whenua. Just like that I’ve been brought back to the world again.
My whole life, it’s felt like I’ve been building on sandbanks. Constructing temporary homes in places that weren’t mine, only to have waves come and wash them out. But still, I’d keep building. I’d build bigger and better structures, thinking that surely this time they’d be protected. Surely this time, they’d stay. But again, and again, the fragile foundations would ebb away. But now it feels like everything I build is on slabs of pounamu. And of course, occasionally things fall. But now the ground is still there beneath me. I’m not always waiting for the waves to come; and when they do, the pounamu beneath me is ready.
Ruby Solly has just been longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, the most prestigious poetry prize in Aotearoa, for her book Tōku Pāpā.
Awa Wahine, edited by Ataria Sharman ($24.99) is available in paperback from awawahine.com.