Summer reissue: Learning our history, I often feel like I’m trying to run before I can walk.
First published on August 13, 2023.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Illustrations by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.
My sister and I visit the cemetery. This place, Pūrākaunui, was home to our tīpuna and some of them are buried here. Motoitoi (Kāti Mamoe, Kāi Tahu) was our great, great grandmother. She had three daughters, Maria, Mary and Emma.
We thought our tipuna wahine Maria Mouat was buried in an urupā across the water, but recently found out she shares a headstone here with her husband. My sister and I talk about the whaler who married our tipuna Motoitoi when she was just 20, and how he was probably a misogynist. We note that he has a front row headstone with an ornate surround and a little gate. The headstones behind his are plain, like blank slates. The afternoon sunlight hits the old macrocarpa trees that border the cemetery, which is on a slope.
“Not a bad place to be buried,” I call out to my sister, who is sitting on a bench.
“We’ll have to bring Dad tomorrow,” she says, and I nod. Dad is back at the crib, uncertain if he’d make the walk. He’s had a double hip replacement and seems older here than he does at home.
We stay at the cemetery for a long time. It’s peaceful and I feel close to something in a way I can’t describe. I’ve forgotten to bring a bottle of water to wash our hands before we leave. My sister points to a big drum at the top of the slope. I saw it on the way in, noticing the slimy green water. I make a face. “Better than nothing,” she says. We walk over to the drum, and both lay our hands on the green surface for a moment.
We’ve always known we were Māori, because my Dad is a carver, and whenever Keri Hulme’s name was mentioned, Dad said, “she’s your relation, you know.” Motoitoi was her tipuna too.
I was moving to Christchurch in 1996 when the floods happened. I was 22 and they closed the road at Franz Josef. My boyfriend and I camped out in the old school at Okarito, along with a German cyclist. I called my parents from the phone box and, on hearing where I was, Dad said, “You should go and see Keri. She’s your relation, you know.”
I have a photo taken that day. The sky is clearing. My head is shaved to about a number four and I look pensive. I remember I had a very heavy period, but this is only part of the reason for my consternation. Somewhere out of shot is my boyfriend’s car, a beautiful cream and mint Vauxhall Victor. Although we were moving to Christchurch together, it would be brief: Scott already had his tickets booked for his stint teaching English in Japan later that year. I wasn’t part of this plan.
Decades on, I find myself thinking about the way things are framed, the knowledge you don’t possess, how what you don’t know can be both a freedom and a sadness. I recently read it takes three generations to reclaim a colonised language.
The 22-year-old me didn’t know which place was Keri’s, and what would I say? Everything I’d read about her in the media suggested she was a private person. Something in me felt Keri would hate a distant relative turning up for a cup of tea. That’s how I thought back then. Those two words, “distant” and “relative,” don’t even go together. More so when you’re Māori. If Keri was anything like my Dad, she loved stories, especially family stories.
The next morning, the rain had stopped and I walked along the beach. The tide was high and the sea was brown. I knew big whitebait runs often followed a flood, because Mum’s sister, Aunty Jan, was a keen whitebaiter. So was Keri. She built her own house and she smoked a pipe. Funny the things we know about people we’ve never met. The water won’t be clear for a few days. I’d read Mum and Dad’s copy of The Bone People as a teenager and it had stayed with me; Kerewin, Joe, Simon. I’d read all of Keri’s books from their bookshelf after that and never returned them.
It’s 2022. I am in Ōtepoti for writing research and have invited my Dad and sister to come with me. I wasn’t sure either of them would, as my sister is recovering from cancer and my Dad’s aged dog has extreme separation anxiety. I’m surprised and happy when they both agree to come. Our marae Puketeraki stands thirty minutes outside Dunedin, at Karitane. Dad has visited once or twice before, years ago, and I visited for the first time in 2020. It would be my sister’s first time. It’s October, but it’s snowing and the hire car slides all over the road.
In the morning I send a photo of the snow to our whanauka, Lily. She marvels, “In all the years of coming to Pūrākaunui I’ve never seen that.”
It’s Lily’s family crib we are staying in, and it’s perfect, perched on a hill overlooking the inlet. Dad tends to speak anecdotally a lot of the time, and it’s usually difficult to know when he’s going to feel like talking. There’s no wifi or television so he opens up about many things, including our whakapapa; how our grandfather came here, to Pūrākaunui, every summer from Wellington as a child. How did we not know these things? Although he’s prone to silence, we know he has vast knowledge about Māori history and family stories.
I was reminded of looking at a photograph recently of my Dad, at primary school in Alton in south Taranaki, and asking my Pākehā mum, “I wonder how it was for Dad being the only brown kid there.” Mum squinted at the photo before saying, “What? No, I’ve never thought of your Dad as Māori.”
That night, Dad tells us some of our family wanted great Aunt Helen to be buried here, but her mother got her cremated before that could happen. Why are we just hearing this now? When I ask Dad, he just shakes his head, saying, “You never asked.”
I was too little to remember my first time on a marae. I look about two years old in the photo, in denim overalls, walking across the atea in front of a wharenui.
When I ask Dad he says, “that’s Taiporohēnui Marae, outside Hāwera. There was a weekend event at the marae run by Johnny Ford to paint up maihi for the wharenui. So we all ended up going.”
After this, we moved to a small community called Totara North on the Whangaroa harbour, where the kids walked home from school down a dirt road and we fished off the wharf and had no fear of the dark. Dad ran the sole charge school with mum’s help, and tried his best to instil te ao Māori into the curriculum, along with my friend Debbie-Ann’s mum who was also Māori. Most of the community were from Dalmatian and other European whakapapa. We sang waiata and practised tītī torea and Dad sometimes put down a hāngī if there was an event. A wahakura was given to us when my sister Ana was born. When I ask Dad who gave it to us, he can’t remember.
Then we moved to Pukenui in the Far North. Pukenui is an hour south of Te Rerenga Wairua, where Te Rarawa/Ngati Kurī say the spirits go after we die. You can drive from the west coast to the east coast in under 30 minutes, with black sand on the west and white on the east. The big kids used to come past the school house after school and yell out to mum, “What fish would you like for dinner tonight Mrs. Hislop?” and she would name it, and they’d bring it back; trevally or snapper mostly. Dad taught the big kids and I was in his class.
It will be years before I visit a marae again. I’m 16 and we’re on a school trip to Parihaka. By this time, I have a close group of friends, bonded in the sixth form over a love of The Pixies, cask red and Doc Martens.
Despite taking history as a subject at school, and living on Te Atiawa mana whenua, learning the history of Parihaka is new to us. We have been taught about the world wars, but this marae stands less than 30 minutes from our homes. The strangeness isn’t lost on us. Someone remarks that this seems back to front. We go wading up the awa at midnight, for eels. There is skill required to hook the slippery fish, spin them, and throw them into buckets.
We hold a concert where me and my mates sing a Michelle Shocked song. The next morning, when I get up, the others are being shown how to skin the eels in preparation for lunch. After thirty years, these are the details I remember.
I’ve since been fortunate to visit Parihaka numerous times since we returned to Taranaki five years ago, usually with Dad, for Riri Me Te Raukura, and various hui, to celebrate Puanga rising in the sky at Matariki. We were sick this year with a tummy bug and couldn’t go. I message a friend who posted a photo from Te Purepo. The sky is clear and Puanga bright. “Noho haumaru ana. Whānau come first. We’ll all be there next year waiting for you.”
I’m 19. It’s 1993 and I’m studying in Palmerston North. Papaioea was the original name given to Palmerston North by Māori, meaning “how beautiful it is.” This was in reference to the location of the settlement next to the Manawatū river, a name that means “heart standing still.” My art class travels to Kaikoura for a noho at Takahanga marae. Gary Whiting is my tutor and he’s very encouraging. The primary hapū here is Ngāti Kuri of Ngāi Tahu. Takahanga marae connects ancestrally to the waka Araiteuru and Takitimu. I’m aware that I whakapapa to Kāi Tahu and Takitimu is one of my waka, but this is only my third time on a marae and I feel extremely shy.
The wharenui is beautiful, and very colourful. I can’t stop looking at it. We sleep beneath the many depictions of whales. Traditional forms and symbols overlay the paintings to express their relationship to the whenua. I feel happy for the first time in a while. The previous year, I’d experienced what I think of now as major mental distress.
It’s sunny and we work outside on the grass in front of the wharenui, which sits above the sea. This whare stands on the exact site of the original house, which stood here almost 200 years ago. The original marae was built approximately 450 years ago by Kāti Mamoe and has been occupied ever since. At lunchtime, Gary makes me go and talk to Bill Solomon about my art project and that afternoon, he and a few of the other kaumātua drive me south of Kaikōura for about 10 minutes.
Bill parks and we get out, and they lead me along a track; the main road on one side, the sea on the other. We walk in single file and it is slow going. Eventually we get to a locked gate. They’ll wait for me here, as I go on. I climb over and walk a bit further, looking at the black stone beach and crashing surf. The memory and presence of it culminates into homesickness, and for a moment I consider going in. It’s not safe to swim. And suddenly there it is, a massive rusted old train, which has fallen, or been pushed to form part of a seawall. I take a lot of photographs.
In Pūrākaunui, my sister is in the next room, using up all her data searching online and sending me details about the cave where our tipuna Motoitoi lived. I have the phone number from whanauka, for the Pākehā landowner.
The next morning, we drive in search of the cave. The snow, from a few days ago, is still banked on the sides of the road, and Dad stops so we can take a photo. Dunedin city on one side, then Whareakeake, or Murderers’ Beach, as Dad knows it. It’s a well known surf spot and Dad surfed it during our van trip when I was a baby.
“That’s where we were yesterday,” Dad says, pointing.
It’s known as Long Beach for obvious reasons, but its real name is Wharauwerawera. The day before, my sister and I walked right to the end of the beach. We’d heard that before colonial times, our Kāi Tahu people lived along this stretch of coast and had a kāika mahika kai. Recently, I’d read about a fenced fort and waka anchorage. The cave at the end was massive, with what looked like a firepit in the centre with empty bottles and broken glass. Ana, typically braver than me, disappeared right into the back of the cave. The roof was high and there were little alcoves off the main space. What must it have been like, for Motoitoi, living in that cave with an older Pākehā man? She was only 24 when she died.
“It smells of piss,” my sister said, coming back into view. “Apparently the uni kids come out here to party.”
I guiltily thought I’d have enjoyed partying here in my university days. We ran back through the marram grass to the beach. Dad was a speck at the opposite end of the beach, talking to a group of people. There were kids and dogs, maybe a school group. Dad talked to everyone these days. He’d even had a long conversation with the rental car woman in Dunedin. Walking back, Ana and I jokingly fight over whether this was Motoitoi’s cave. It turned out it wasn’t. Even though part of me had hoped it was, I’m secretly glad because of the rubbish and creepy vibes.
Learning our history, I often feel like I’m trying to run before I can walk. It’s like I’m trying to occupy a position, but what do we do when the system we live in is one Māori largely don’t occupy? To try and explain what it’s like requires energy, already in short supply.
“What’s the reo name, though?” my sister asks. It’s her turn in the front seat. She’s already googling it.
“I don’t know,” Dad says. “The beach got the name from a fight between Māori and the British in 1817. Pre-musket.”
I’m starting to think we should come on family holidays more often. We drive down a gravel road, and I wish I’d hired a better car. This car is low to the ground and the road suited to a four wheel drive. We hit a steep downwards hill, and Dad pulls the car to a stop.
“What do you reckon?” he says.
“Not a chance,” my sister replies. “We’d never get back up on that surface.” I’m struck by the way she takes the lead on decisions and navigating, and how my mind is often blank. “Damn,” I say, for something to say. “We could walk.”
“You can walk. I’d never do it, with my hip,” Dad says. “We’ll come back, with the kids,” my sister adds.
I stay silent. We both know Dad probably won’t come back here again. The odds are slim, anyway. He’s always worried about money, plus health. I don’t say to my sister that I’m not sure when I’ll make it down next.
“I’ll sit, you walk to the gate and have a look.”
We obey him, getting out of the car. A group of cows in the paddock startle, then look curious. Dad reverses the car, and pulls off to the side, skidding a bit in the gravel.
Ana and I walk down the track beside the road, drinking in the view. It’s panoramic, across farmland to the long white beach and sea. The track down to the gate is slightly higher than the road and lined with macrocarpa trees. The fenceline opposite is still lined with snow, and the fields are bright green and saturated. Further down the hill, lambs gather in groups around the ewes. They are enjoying the warmth of the sunshine after days of snow.
At the gate, we stop to take in the view. While a line of surf picks out the length of Wharauwerawera, to the right, the farmland looks as though it drops off, steep and unforgiving. It looks as though it loops around the scalloped cliffs, back towards Õtepoti. That must be where our tīpuna stayed, I think, noticing the advantage of those who held the cliff in historic times. Whakapapa literally means layers. It’s cold in the shade, and I regret leaving my puffer behind. Dad is watching us from the car.
“Nothing on the gate,” I say. “Maybe this isn’t the place.”