When I started work at the New Zealand Herald in 1986, one of the subeditors asked me what my name was before Ma¯ ori became “fashionable”.
That was when the Ma¯ ori renaissance was gathering momentum, when we were standing up for ourselves, not picking a Pakeha name because it was easier for the majority of New Zealanders to pronounce, using our tupuna names or ones like mine which had special significance. Children were often given names depicting a significant event in wha¯nau or hapu¯ life.
But pa¯ Maori have never been fashionable; tolerated because we had our uses, especially us from Whaka. My mother came from a long line of singers and haka exponents; they were clever, articulate and learned to speak English so they could guide tourists around the Pink and White Terraces at Tarawera in the 19th century. After Tarawera erupted in 1886, our family moved to Whakarewarewa where the tradition of guiding continued.
They used their talents to benefit their community, too.
Since the early 20th century, our family — from my great-grandfather Waretini Te Mutukuri, our mother and her brother Uncle Sonny, myself and now my sister Watu — have held office on tribal committees at Whakarewarewa.
My parents met at Whakarewarewa, where my father, better known as Ted or Tete, joined two of his seven sisters who were living there with their children. Their parents had also moved there to comfort their daughters after the men of Tuhourangi they had married were killed in the war. Our mother lived just down the hill.
My dad didn’t go to the war, as his sight wasn’t too flash, but he was sent to work in the Pacific Islands, helping to build infrastructure.
Post-war, there was a frenzy of house building by the Government, that provided work for returning servicemen and served as a training ground for apprentices. Our koro and kuia got a house in Froude St, our parents moved there when I was little, and my sisters live there today.
When our parents started their family they were older than was the norm in the 1950s; Dad in his mid-40s and Mum 13 years younger. Dad had already raised his first wife’s children in Tokaanu before he met Mum. Complex and non-traditional family ties are not unusual to us pa¯ kids. Indeed, we lived whanaungatanga (kinship) and our home in Froude St was like Grand Central Station, housing numerous family (I have more than 70 first cousins on my Dad’s side although just four on Mum’s), friends and kids who needed a safe place. Wha¯ nau and whanaungatanga have been key during my life.
My mother and father never finished primary school, but both were determined their children would have every opportunity at education.
Mum worked four or five jobs to provide that. She also did much community work. Known as “Bubbles” most of her life, in 1985 she was made an MBE and in 2002 a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Ma¯ ori. The honour was conferred at our marae, Te Pakira, by the Governor-General at the time, Dame Silvia Cartwright. Mum once dined with the Queen on the Royal Yacht Britannia.
I was related in some way to just about every kid at Whaka School and it was a huge shock when I went to Rotorua Intermediate. I had never seen so many white people before.
We were streamed and those of us from the pa¯ who were in the A stream were treated by Education Department psychologists as alien beings. Years later, an ex-teacher let slip they were surprised we were so clever, because we came from a pa¯ and had no history of academic achievement in our families.
I then attended Rotorua Girls’ High School, where most students were the daughters of professionals. I was in the A stream again, and had passed the entrance exam in the top five. But I didn’t want to be different. My subjects included Latin, French and English and, in the 6th form German, as well. Ma¯ ori was not an option at a school where more than half the roll was Ma¯ ori. We had to study by correspondence.
When I was accredited University Entrance, the big question was: Where to now?
Apart from knowing I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, which was where “clever” Ma¯ ori girls were directed, I had no idea.