Identity & Whenua

Image of Haylee Isaacs

Image of Haylee Isaacs

I grew up in Southland as one of the few Māori girls in my school. I had the curly hair, the big butt, and the nose. I couldn’t hide the physical features. I remember being physically dragged to kapahaka in intermediate by my Māori teacher; too embarrassed to be part of it and deal with the bullies afterwards. I knew I was Māori on the outside, but I didn’t feel it on the inside.

My birth father was Māori, he left before I was born. I was always content, but the cracks started to show as i entered my late teens. I’m not mad at him, I just think I missed out. I always felt unsure of who I was. I got help where I could and had an incredible support system. Mum did her best. But I still felt incomplete and couldn’t understand why.

In primary school, we were encouraged to learn our mihi. My father helped me where he could and told me of my whakapapa. He spoke of my waka, my iwi and my hapu. It seemed interesting to me that i could choose what maunga to use. I was raised in the shadows of The Hokonui, I didn’t connect with them, but I had never heard of Taranaki either.

I first met my oldest sister when I was 25. She is older than me and has 4 kids. She still lives in Patea, she tells me of my koro and how he spoke of me and his eagerness to meet me. She says i look like my Nan - he tells me that too. They’ve passed on; I will never meet them. I visited her in Patea; the feeling I got when I saw the maunga was indescribable. Aside from being incredibly beautiful, I felt connected. I took my shoes off and ran in the water. I felt at home.

He spoke of my iwi, Pakakohi. It didn’t mean much to me then, but Google has proved a helpful tool, along with some important people around me with the knowledge. My ancestors were imprisoned, raped and murdered in Parihaka; the survivors sentenced to hard labour in Dunedin away from their land. I’ve read that some were a significant part of the prison population whose forced labour built Andersons Bay and Portobello Roads; roads that I drove over regularly in Uni. I read of great Taranaki wāhine - Te Paea Hinerangi is one of my favourites. Tītokowaru and Te Whiti’s non-violent protest are thought to have influenced Gandhi. Māori culture. Our history is so incredible.

Awanui Te Huia wrote an incredible piece on Maori identity where she explains that Māori have, over time, transitioned through different stages of identity - from their lifestyle to their ancestry to self-identification. Whakapapa, mātauranga, connection to our whenua, our tūpuna, these are all things that help us to identify as Māori. If we don’t have access to these things, how do we know who we are? I have found peace with connecting to my whakapapa, but it has been really difficult. It has taken a lot of reflection, self-motivation and a tonne of tears. I hope that one day this will be easier for others.

I struggled as a kid with these things. I didn’t want to be Māori - I didn’t know the beauty that came with it. I didn’t see that it was already within me. Kaitiakitanga, a drive to protect and conserve my environment, is something so strong within me. I love planting. I love gathering kai naturally. And I will dominate a creamed paua, no one can stand in my way. I still struggle with what I want to know, learn and be involved with. It all makes me a bit anxious. But I believe that future generations need the opportunity.

I believe there is room for Māori - youth in particular - to be supported in finding their place. The power in whakapapa especially is immeasurable in indigenous identity. Marae leaders could take control of this; government-supported workshops or community lead hui that gives anyone a chance to learn. Something is missing within us, and only we can help ourselves. We are unique, and we need a unique approach. I hope future generations have access to more than I did.