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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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We Are Voyagers

My dad’s lineage is Māori. The tangata whenua of this land. This whenua is our birthplace, but our roots are elsewhere. My mum’s ancestors are Pākehā who arrived in New Zealand a few generations ago to farm the land. If you follow those lines further, there is a wide migration through Europe, through Scottish backlands and Viking waters. A best friend of mine moved to New Zealand from South Africa nine years ago. She has almost entirely lost her accent, and will take any opportunity given to recite the karakia “He Honore” in front of us. My mum’s partner is a Punjabi man from India. He has, for a few years now, been working through the piles of paperwork required to even consider settling in New Zealand.

As a biological “half-caste” I have been meditating on issues of movement and place my whole life. The movements that made me, the immigrants of various pieces of land that settled new cultures and identities. Last year I encountered an idea from academic Epeli Hau’ofa. He introduced to me the revolutionary difference between “islands in a far sea” and “a sea of islands.” This is the difference between the “Pacific Islands” (sounds small, cute, and quaint in the same way that Bulls or Masterton is) and “Oceania” (sounds very cool, definitely could be in a sci-fi movie).

“It should be clear now that the world of Oceania is neither tiny nor deficient in resources. It was so only as a condition of colonial confinement that lasted less than a hundred of a history of thousands of years. Human nature demands space for free movement, and the larger the space the better it is for people. Islanders have broken out of their confinement, are moving around and away from their homelands, not so much because their countries are poor, but because they had been unnaturally confined and severed from much of their traditional sources of wealth, and because it is in their blood to be mobile. They are once again enlarging their world, establishing new resource bases and expanded networks for circulation”

(Epeli Hau’ofa, A New Oceania: Rediscovering our Sea of Islands).

This concept is so revolutionary because it imagines migration in a radically different way to what we are taught in school. No longer do the oceans separate us; they connect us. Not a barrier, but a mechanism to reach other corners of land, resource, and life. Hau’ofa’s re-imagining of the Pacific re-distributes power away from the continental land mass, and towards the cultural exchange between island nations. But how do foreigners fit in?

As a person of this whenua, I have the assumption that I will inevitably be buried by my marae, on my soil, with all my family around me. It is an assumption I take for granted every day. My dad told me that the value of burial is that your bones have a final resting place, and if that is by your whenua, then your grandchildren always have a reason to return home. This is very different to the sacrifice immigrants make, whether you move here voluntarily or by forced migration. Unavoidably you are entertaining the possibility that your bones will never return to the same soil of your ancestors. For indigenous peoples whose islands are already sinking below the sea, this is not if but when.

Tama-nui-te-rā. July 3, 2017. Trinity Thompson-Browne.

Tama-nui-te-rā. July 3, 2017. Trinity Thompson-Browne.


As someone whose life revolves so closely around the idea of homeland, I know I would find it difficult to make that same sacrifice. So often we say that immigrants to western countries are “lucky” to be hosted by the western world. But who is really lucky when you have to take on a new language, new practices, and put your own culture to the side? Assimilation is valued as the priority for arrivals to new shores. But assimilation dampens individuality and hinders cultural exchange, some of the most beautiful things that can arise out of global migration.

In our cities where accommodation is cramped and rental prices are too high, it can be easy to become caught in the xenophobic fear that foreigners will take over our land. But Māori already know what that feels like. Our land has already been taken over by foreigners. Foreigners who have been here for centuries now, made their own roots, intermingled with the tangata whenua. People want refugees to come to New Zealand and speak English, but those people have forgotten that the English language smothered the primary language of New Zealand, which was Te Reo Māori.

Being Māori fuels my personal desire to welcome other people to our land, to show manaakitanga. It does not hinder it. In the spaces where I have been privileged to share and exchange culture with other indigenous people, there has also been growth, and new learning. As we share ideas, we not only confirm ourselves but strengthen bonds of community.

I understand the practical necessity to speak English here, but xenophobia is a hypocrite if it says we should all speak English. As a country we do not understand the value that other cultures offer us as a nation, because we do not understand the cultural value of our own tangata whenua in the first place. I think the revitalisation of Te Ao Māori and the welcoming of foreign people to our shores are interdependent movements. This is a migration not to be measured along national borders, but along the lines created by indigenous peoples long ago that do not separate, but rather connect us and tell the shared relationship and whakapapa of all things. Like Moana said, we were voyagers.

It is inevitable that our lives will be influenced by global movements both ancient and contemporary. The human race is naturally migratory. We migrate out of our small towns that we thought we couldn’t bear, but turns out we actually really miss. We migrate from halls, to flats, to the first house that really feels like a home. We migrate from maraes to cities, and then to other countries to entertain new ideas. We migrate to merge with new families, to escape wars and rising sea levels. Optional or not, Hau’ofa is right when he says it is in our blood to be mobile.

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