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I’m sorry I white-washed your world: A letter to my Māori daughter

Nichole Brown writes to her precious tamāhine about their taonga tuku iho and the journey she has made back to her tūpuna.

To my sweet little girl,

I am so sorry for white-washing your world.

I am so sorry for not giving you a name that reflects who we are. I love your name – it fits your face perfectly, and when it falls from my lips I know that it is you, but I am sorry for not giving you another name, even somewhere in the middle, that gives your name more meaning and depth. A name that reflects your heritage, the language that our elders speak, and the mighty women who paved the way before you.

Nichole’s daughter at their marae

I am so sorry that it took me until we decided to leave this beautiful country to realise just how important our culture is to our future. I never considered that the Māori legends explaining how Māui fished up Te Ika A Māui for us, and how he caught the sun, would be anything more than stories in a tattered old book – until I realised that these would no longer be the stories you were taught.

I am so sorry that it has taken me four and a half years to take you to stand under the mahau on the front steps of your own marae, to walk through the old carved waharoa made from hand cut timber, and to gaze upon the wall of our tūpuna.

I am so sorry for calling them koomrah and paawiz, when they are kūmara and pāua. I should have taken you to the secret little spring below Grandma’s whare to pick watercress for our kai, instead of buying it in little zip-locked plastic bags each time.

I am so sorry for saying I took you to Towel-Poe and Towel-Wrong-Uh and Row-Tah-Roo-Uh, when we had been to Taupō and Tauranga and Rotorua. I thought they sounded better when I said them so savagely and bitterly incorrect, butchering such beautiful names with my ignorance.

I am so sorry that you had to learn the colour and numbers in Te Reo from your kindy teachers instead of from me. I was proud of you, tears in my eyes proud, when you started at tahi and ended seamlessly at tekau, but I still wasn’t ready to be proud of myself for all of the repressed words that came flooding back to my voice.

I am so sorry for never taking the time to learn my pepeha, and for not being able to tell you yours. I didn’t think it meant anything to me – it just felt like a cluster of words and phrases that talked about insignificant streams, mountains, and areas. I didn’t feel its power until I saw you dip your little hand into our awa –and then I knew.

I am so sorry that the stick game played with newspapers bound by coloured tape is lost on you, and that you don’t know the sound of the rhythm. Yet. I feel stripped bare by the knowledge that we have never sung E Rere Taku Poi together, swinging poi stuffed with old pillows, and with four-plaited tails.

I am so sorry that I couldn’t see the beauty of our lands until your innocent eyes gazed in utter amazement at the treasures our whānau holds. You look at our little marae nestled safely under the watchful shadow of the rocky cliffs so steeped in history, in the exact same way I look at you.

Thank you, my little wise one, for showing me life through your new eyes.

Nichole’s daughter and her temporary moko kauae

Thank you for encouraging me to kōrero Māori with you. Hearing the words flowing flawlessly from your lips, makes me catch my own blunt words every time. I’m tempted to fall back into poor pronunciation and half strung sentences. If you can pronounce Tāwhirimātea after hearing his name once, I know I can say Kaikohe instead of Ky-Kowie. When you yawn, “mōrena, Māmā ” through heavy lidded eyes and a lingering stretch each morning, I know I can reply, “Mōrena, pēpi, kei te pēhia koe?” without feeling ashamed of my own mother’s preferred tongue.

Thank you for diving into the folds of whānau life – the respect you instinctively give all the tamariki on the marae by calling them “cousin”, the respect you give any of the slightly greying by calling them “papa” or “nanny”, and the respect you give anyone in between by calling them “auntie” and “uncle” without being taught, tells me that your heart knows that while family is you and I, whānau extends to everyone who comes through the doors of our wharekai.

Thank you for showing your appreciation of the humble ways our people have lived and thrived – for getting out and picking pūhā, for making games out of collecting fallen fruit and scooping them into a net you made with the bottom of your jumper, and for being brave enough to try smoked tuna. Even bedtime on a mattress in a wharenui filled with snores is met with your smile and innocent excitement. You make me remember that we are blessed to have a wharenui all of our very own, that bears the name of my own Māmā.

This is all renewed memories and traditions for me, and even though every bit of this is new for you, you belong right here in this beautiful bilingual and heavily historical world.

Our roots are something to be proud of. Our stories are begging to be told. Our lands, our marae, and our taonga are to be treasured. Our language is precious. Our traditions are beautiful.

Our history belongs in our future.

Our roots run deep.

We are connected to these lands, to Papatūānuku, to Ranginui by both sun and by moonlight, to the bounty of Tangaroa, and to the wind song of Tāwhirimātea, bound together by the embrace of Tāne Māhuta.

Te Reo is more than just a language – it is an art, a piece of our history, and one of the few living connections we have to generations past. A pepeha is more than just words – it is a summation of how we are connected to every living and non-living part of the earth, and the feeling of this connection is indescribable.

I lost my way. In a world I painted white, I lost my way.

But we’re here now, and you have shown me the beauty in the world I so desperately tried to forget. And now I will do anything to shine a light on your love for our culture, and to feed your thirst for our language, and to uphold tikanga Māori as best we can together.

Nichole and Emmy. Photo: Haley Rogers Photography

He ātaahua te reo Māori.

He whakamīharo mō tātou tikanga

Ko Aotearoa taku manawa.

Nichole Brown writes for The Spinoff Parents. Between columns you can find her at her blog, Happiest When Wandering, and on FacebookInstagram and on Snapchat: emmyandme13.

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