Dear Tangata Whenua

Image: Trinity Thompson-Browne

Image: Trinity Thompson-Browne


Dear Tangata Whenua,

Ten years ago, I left my old home, my community, my people and came to a tiny island on the other side of the world, Aotearoa. Since I arrived, I have been told that I would never be a person of the land here, despite leaving my old home to make this my new one. That I would never have as much claim to the ground I stand on, the sea I love to swim in or the sky I adore. This left me confused, isolated, unsure about who I was and where it was I belonged.

Like many Pākehā here, I have been raised in a system of western values, and I struggled to understand how the impacts of people centuries ago - who I bore no relation to - should affect my relationship with Māori and the land of Aotearoa today. Then though studying criminal law, I was educated about utu, the value of relationships in the Māori economy and how noa would have to be restored before ‘deeds were settled.’ I learnt how the Maori economy is based on continued relationships rather than quick transactions. Realising that as a consequence of colonisation, land confiscation and urban migration Māori today experience poverty, a lack of resources, loss of identity and cultural values. Some are disconnected from their own hapu and iwi as well as their language and identity. When I was educated on this, I realised that these are not issues of the past, but for today.

While I now understand the motivation for this relationship and distinction, I was still left with a cultural and identity disconnection of my own. I am no longer a person of my Motherland, but will I ever be a person of this land? Where do I belong and what set of national characteristics can I use as a foundation for my identity? These questions caused a lot of discomfort for me. However, this discomfort paled in comparison to that which I felt reading a transcript of Ani Mikaere's "Are we all New Zealanders now? A Māori response to the Pākehā quest for indigeneity" speech. In this speech, Mikaere presents a confronting montage of racial and bigoted slurs from all ends of the political and social spectrum of New Zealand leaders. Then she begins to break down what it actually means to be ‘Tangata Whenua’.

Tangata whenua is a term that while many begrudge they do not possess, they also do not understand. When a Māori child is born, the whenua is returned to Papatūānuku by literally being planted back into the ground.  This is what makes someone tangata whenua, a literal person of the land. This connection is strengthened through occupation and is a relationship that is formed over time. Landmarks are associated with elements of identity that are reinforced by the stories.

When manuhiri goes into the area of another people, it is understood that the tīkanga of the tangata whenua apply. This is consistent whether the manuhiri is from another hapū/iwi, Pākehā or even another country. In none of the aforementioned cases would the manuhiri ever assume tangata whenua status in another hapū/iwi's rohe. Over the years, this term has evolved from tangata whenua and manuhiri to Māori and Pākehā, Iwi and kiwi, us and them. If someone were to marry a Māori or bear Māori children, they would never become tangata whenua in the original sense of the word.  

I believe this does not mean that manuhiri cannot fulfil an important and valued role as a member of that community: it merely says that they could not assume for themselves the status of tangata whenua. They would remain, a stranger in one sense, but also someone who has forged a powerful connection with the people and the natural features of that place. It merely recognises that I can be a part of a whānau, a community, I can hold a position of power I can live a full and healthy life, but unless my tūpuna whakapapa back to that place then I cannot be tangata whenua.

Understanding now, that I can be a part of this country, that I can even be the leader of this country if I want to but just as someone from Ngati Toa would be a manuhiri in Ngāpuhi I will always be a manuhiri here in Aotearoa. Understanding that tangata whenua, manuhiri and Pākehā does not need to bear the separatist, oppressed and oppressor, privileged and disadvantaged meanings that it has been given over the years. To me it means that I am not of this land, I was not born here, my whenua has not been returned to the land here, but I still have a connection to this land and its people.

For me, coming to Aotearoa and wanting to belong here means firstly going back in time and learning the history of this country. What shaped society, what events led people to be the way they are. Learning, understanding and accepting the actions of both parties, feeling the sorrow of Māori, understanding the New Zealand Land Wars and recognising the implications of this is all part of the foundation for my identity. Realising that I am privileged to be here. Understanding that the culture and physical landscape of our nation today is built upon injustice is a crucial part of anyone claiming New Zealand as a cornerstone of their identity.

As someone who believes strongly in social justice and spends much of their time advocating to fix social issues, I have always thought that any person or child who gets left behind - regardless of whether it was our generation or those who went before us - is our responsibility now. Anyone who is left impoverished because they or their whānau don't fit into our broken societal machine. Those who are excluded from education because their skills can’t be measured by national standards. All of these injustices are our responsibility now. Today.  We make up society, and when our society perpetuates injustice, we perpetuate injustice, when we are a part of a system that excludes certain people, we exclude them. This applies to ALL injustices.

Whether it was the actions of your ancestors, the actions of people who you never knew or bore no relation to, there are people in our country who face social, system and historical injustices every day and that is everyone's problem. That is not the land that created my physical form, but this is the land where I learnt how to be who I am. The land that taught me about social justice, the land that taught me how to advocate, the land that taught me how to break down social biases and inaccuracies that may be forced down our throat and the land which led me to write these words. It may not be where I am “from,” but it is where I choose to be right now.  

While I may not have a term to explain my relationship with New Zealand or my identity, I also don’t have to fight to have my voice heard in a system that isn't designed to exclude me. I don’t still suffer the burden of systemic poverty and injustice inflicted on my ancestors only a few generations ago, I did not have to fight to speak my own language or have to fight for the acknowledgement of injustice caused to me.

I may not have a "term" to explain my relationship to New Zealand or my identity. However, I understand what forms that identity, and I continue to learn the shared history of Maori, Pākehā and every other immigrant who has made New Zealand their home. I have an understanding of the impact past actions have had today and a clearer understanding of the choices I want to make. This has filled a gap of belonging, a gap of ignorance, a gap of separatism, a gap of social injustice.

From a Manuhiri


This article was written by Maisy Bentley. Maisy is a LLB/BA student who is actively involved in social change work in the mental health, youth development and women's empowerment areas, especially in the not-for-profit sector.