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The Sunday EssayJuly 30, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Two waka, three iwi, three hapū


Belonging is the absence of self-interest. I only really felt that at Pāraeroa.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.

I was born in the old forestry village of Wai-o-tapu 67 years ago. My parents, as with many Māori from across the motu, found work there creating the expansive Kaingaroa Forest. I had always thought that when I was born I fell in a shoe-box. I’ve recently found out it’s not true. That was my sister. 

The whenua belongs to Ngāti Tahu-Whaoa.

I was a whāngai, as my biological father’s sister and her husband couldn’t have children of their own. Whakapapa adoptions were much more common back then. My whāngai father’s father used to drive the stage-coach over the Kaimai Ranges. 

My surname belongs to Ngāti Raukawa.

My schooling and young adult life was spent in Rotorua. My first job was at the Department of Māori Affairs. I remember being amazed by the community work of the Māori Welfare Officers. Fifteen years later, at another workplace, the boss told a racist joke. I laughed. A Pākehā colleague asked why I was laughing. I couldn’t answer. 

My memories belong to Te Arawa.

My biological father and whāngai mother grew up in Whakatane. I spent many holidays there as a young child, playing with my cousins. I was about ten when I found out some of them weren’t my cousins, they were my brothers and sisters. But it was OK. I had my own sisters. 

My paternal side belongs to Ngāti Awa. 

My biological mother was raised in Te Urewera and Rūātoki. She and her sisters would ride horses out of the bush on Sundays, and stay at the Rūātoki Mission House for school during the week. They would then ride back up the river on Fridays. Her brothers had to work on the farm. As a young teenager I spent holidays at Rūātoki and up the river. 

My maternal side belongs to Ngāi Tūhoe.

I am loved by two fathers, two mothers, eight grandparents, eleven brothers and sisters, and many cousins, nephews, and nieces.

 I belong to two waka, three iwi, three hapū, two tīpuna awa, six tīpuna maunga, and three marae.  

Pāraeroa is our whānau papakainga in Te Urewera, the spiritual homeland of Ngāi Tūhoe. 

Tīpuna have occupied this land since time immemorial. 

According to Ngā Pōtiki, the first ancestor was born at a place named Ōnini, not far from Ruatāhuna. This ancestor was the result of the union between Te Maunga (The Mountain) and Hinepūkohurangi (The Mist). It is from this union that the term “children of the mist” comes. Toi and Pōtiki were the tīpuna. With the arrival of Tūhoe, the great-grandson of Toroa, who captained the Mataatua waka, the two peoples the ancient and the new intermarried. 

The aphorism, ‘Nā Toi rāua ko Pōtiki te whenua, nā Tūhoe te mana me te rangatiratanga (the land is from Toi and Pōtiki, the authority is from Tūhoe)’, reflects the merging of two people to become one:

 Ngāi Tūhoe. 

I would spend many school holidays going up the river to Pāraeroa. The whānau would travel on horse-back – no roads, no power, no radios, no shops, no running water. The one exception was our Nan, who only stopped riding in her 70s. She would ride on the trailer towed by the tractor.  


That’s what I remember most. There seemed to be no barrier between adults and children, horses and dogs, whānau and whenua. Everyone and everything came together as one world. Our world. 

In this world, the connections to the land did all the speaking.  

Waikekereao, the stream at Waitapu, was where our nannies would go to give birth. It’s a sacred place up there, but down here by the house, we can look for cockabullies under the rocks. Up there is where the old tohunga lived. That back ridge gets you to Te Rāroa. The government wanted to put a dam here

Thankfully the rock was too soft. 

Near Pāraeroa is a stream called Tunanui. Further down is another stream called Hukikāpaea, and across the other side from there is a place called Mātihetihe. As the story goes, there was this giant eel (Tunanui) that swam out of the creek and into the river. The whānau chased it downstream, trying to get it out of the river (Hukikāpaea), but it wasn’t until that place over there, that they finally succeeded and the giant eel took its final breath (Mātihetihe). They then cut the giant eel up and divided it amongst all the whānau of 

Te Tewhatewha 

Above Pāraeroa is a ridge called Te Reiroa. The rangatira from there shares his name with an uncle and a nephew.  Across there on that back ridge is where the kererū traps were set. The nannies were always the first to eat the kererū. They also used the digested miro berries from the kererū to make lipstick. Up there is the stronghold of a powerful rangatira. Right at the back on the skyline is a place called Te Whare O Te Kahikatoa. It’s famous. 

Everywhere the land spoke.    

Riding up to Ruatāhuna to visit our relations. The horses were fat. Getting ready to leave, they swapped our horses for skinny ones. The grass is better down our way this year. A cousin liked my backpack. It seemed completely appropriate that the backpack stayed there with the fat horses. Ruatāhuna paku kore (Ruatāhuna of little). 

Capitalism and the notion of private property had not arrived there yet. 

The land, the mist, the mountains, the birds, the animals, the people, all fold into one. No boundaries, no divisions, no separations. 

 I tried to explain this phenomena to a colleague from the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation by way of a poem I gifted for an article he wrote: 

Birds inviting you in

Rivers whispering connections

Mountains outsmarting you

Bushes talking to each other

The land speaking in colours

Your body remembering how

To hear with your eyes

To see with your ears

Your flesh merging with the tree

Greeting older and younger relations

Bowing to life renewing itself

Your stomach acknowledging

The wholeness of family

The only true universal

Resisting separability

I had a midlife identity crisis when I was 31 years old. I had it all – loving family, secure well-paid job, mortgage, golf membership, two cars and one cat – but more questions than answers. Why couldn’t I be happy and content? Why did I laugh at the racist joke? Why couldn’t I speak te reo (at Pāraeroa my cousins would laugh at my Māori; I would laugh at their English). Why can my colleagues talk endlessly about overseas holidays and upgrading the house or cars, while life was so hard for my inspirational sister, bringing up five kids alone, on a benefit? I wanted to go and live up the river at Pāraeroa, but the questions needed answers. I decided to go to university first and then go back up the river. 

Before beginning this new learning journey, Pāraeroa left me with a parting gift. I overheard a Tūhoe kaumatua say ‘He whakaaro Pākehā tēnā’! I don’t know the context of the conversation, but what struck me was this idea that there was more than one way to think. If Pākehā had a way of thinking, then Māori must have a way of thinking too.

Thirty-six years later, ka hiki te kohu (the mist is beginning to rise). 

I belong to many places. But “belong” is not the same as “belonging”. I can belong to any number of things, and benefit culturally, spiritually, emotionally from them. However, the thing I belong to may or may not benefit from the relationship. This is, I believe, what the kaumatua described as “whakaaro Pākehā”. 

To belong to something is driven by a narrow, individual, self-interest. This, according to Pākehā philosophers, is how humans are wired. Our economic system operates on this basis. That is why nothing is free. We work all day to make money, that we then spend to buy stuff, or to pay off debt. The relationship is purely material. 

I belong to many people, hapū and marae, but the reality is, I only go there when it serves my own self-interest: to farewell a dearly departed, or to attend a wānanga, or to rejuvenate a wounded soul. Otherwise, I’m too busy working. 

As a whāngai child, for the most part I felt like this as well. To me, my self-interest was best served if I did not recognise my immediate biological relationships – my biological father and mother, brothers and sisters. I had my whangai whānau to which I belong, and that was that. Everyone else was either uncle, aunty or cousins. I tried very hard to please my whāngai parents, and in return, they worked very hard so that I could be spoilt rotten. As the only boy, even my sisters saw how unfair it was. There was always love there, but deep in my heart, it seemed to be conditional on my own self-interests being served. Shamefully it wasn’t until very late in their lives that I began to say to them “I love you.” 

 Belonging, on the other hand, is to experience the absence of self-interest. I only really felt that at Pāraeroa. Everyone was a father, mother, sister or brother. Even the landscape was a relation. There were no false separations or barriers. The relationships were purely spiritual. 

Belonging is an experience of the soul, when all things fold together and become one. Belonging removes the false barriers I experienced as a whāngai child. 

As a whāngai child, I separated my relationships based on self-interest. I split my whakapapa in two: the more important small nuclear family, and a less important extended family. It doesn’t get more European than this. 

How was it possible then, for me to experience what I felt at Pāraeroa?

In Aotearoa, the grounded indigenous philosophy is Papatūānuku and Ranginui – an ethic of care for people and the environment. Everything on the earth (Papatūānuku, Te Maunga), and above earth (Ranginui, Hinepūkohurangi) is interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent. 

In 2016 at a Ngā Pae O Te Māramatanga conference, Justice Sir Joe Williams shared a conversation between Sir George Grey and Te Rangikāheke. Sir George asks Te Rangikāheke “How many Māori gods are there?” Te Rangikāheke replies, “One: Ranginui and Papatūānuku.” Sir George is perplexed. “But that’s two!” he replies, to which Te Rangikāheke responds, “No. There can never be a Ranginui without a Papatūānuku, and vice versa. One cannot exist without the other. There is only one.”   

In Māori philosophy, self-interest does not take precedence over collective wellbeing. 

European philosophy is the opposite: it privileges the individual over the community. The community is reduced to individual human beings pursuing their own self-interests. 

As a whāngai child, I lived under the philosophy of Europeans. When I was at Pāraeroa, I experienced the philosophy of our tīpuna, through our Nan.  

With a Ranginui and Papatūānuku philosophy, everything becomes one. People exist because of other people. Land exists because of people. People exist because of land. We all exist because each of us is the sum total of our existence: we give life, we care for life, we are life. Perhaps this is what Tūhoe call matemate-ā-one. This is what I experienced at Pāraeroa. This is belonging. It brings together the mind and soul.

European philosophy separates the mind and soul. For most of us, we go to school and learn how to close our hearts. We learn how to intellectualise things, how to separate things. We learn how to become self-interested individuals, and we learn how the world belongs to us… materially. 

We are taught how to separate land from people, male from female, white from black, rich from poor, old from young, life from death. This was not what I experienced at Pāraeroa. There were no separations, not even in death. Our wairua never dies, we come back through following generations, in our ancestral names.  

Pāraeroa taught me about mana: mana whenua, mana tangata. It taught me how community adhesiveness was a product of caring leadership. Our Nan was our leader. It taught me that mana can never be bestowed by universities and wānanga, bastions of individual self-interest. Mana belongs with the whenua, and those who never leave it. 

The spiritual centre of te ao Māori remains on our marae and with our hau kainga. It is the marae people who live a Māori philosophy, unselfishly maintaining the spiritual rituals, ceremonies and practises every time our marae are used. And they do it without any consideration for self-interest. It remains always about the collective wellbeing of the whānau and hapū; it is always about relationships. This is spirituality-in-practice.

But this tenuous foothold on our spirituality-in-practice is under threat. University and wānanga-educated Māori along with new, post-Treaty settlement, professional-managerial and bourgeoisie classes are assuming positions of Māori leadership primarily driven by profit before people, process before relationships.

Professional Māori experts, academics, celebrities, advisors, educators, and consultants are undermining the spiritual aspect of te ao Māori through abstract theorisation, through a spirituality-in-theory. Professional Māori are ignoring the fact that mana comes from the whenua, through whānau and hapū, not from the government and its institutions.

Our marae and the people who keep them running continue to care for all of us. They are the true leaders and representatives of te ao Māori. Mana from the whenua bestows rangatiratanga. Rangatiratanga is practised in community, bonded by the spirituality of whakapapa to specific land and people. 

State-sponsored mana and rangatiratanga, in the form of tertiary qualifications, corporate professions, and a “Māori economy,” finds expression through individuals and a spirituality-in-theory.

At stake is the distinction between “belong” and “belonging.” I belong to a corporate entity. A modern Sir George Grey might say, “The corporation and I are one.” This time, I believe Te Rangikāheke would be perplexed. “No,” he would say, “that’s two: te mana Pākehā and te mana Māori.” My belonging is experienced through spirituality-in-practice.

When Tūhoe kaumatua publicly protested outside their corporate entity, this, I believe, was one of their concerns. Te mana Pākehā lies in an authority with a spirituality-in-theory. Authority denies people active participation in decision-making processes. This denial is based on a lack of trust and faith in the people, borne of doubt. Doubt is the bedrock of scientific rationality – that is, whakaaro Pākehā.

Te mana Māori lies with the people who are spiritually connected to the land in practice. If we look after the land and its people, the land and its people will look after us. This concept of reciprocity requires inclusive community participation in decision-making. Reciprocity is the bedrock of whakaaro Māori.

If we believe poverty, racism, patriarchy, and environmental crises are someone else’s problems, then a modern Sir George Grey will be proven right: te mana Pākehā and Māori people will have become one. As with Ngā Pōtiki and Tūhoe, the modern aphorism will read, ‘Nā Ngāi Māori te whenua, nā Ngāi Pākehā te mana me te rangatiratanga’, only this time, our Polynesian heritage, the thing that makes us different from other peoples, will be lost.

Defending our sacred lands, rituals, ceremonies, and practices reminds us that all people are sacred too.

Keep going!