First person – As a fair-skinned wahine dancing between a Māori and Pākehā world, Ella Stewart (Ngāpuhi), has been told she’s lying about her ethnicity and constantly asked what ‘percentage’ Māori she is.
We find a sepia-toned photograph of my ancestors in a dusty box, sitting dormant at the top of the wardrobe. A photograph of the people I came from, standing in a line, smiling and waiting for the picture to be taken.
“Look how Māori they all look,” my mum exclaims.
But what does that mean? What does being Māori look like? Maybe a Pākehā, stereotyping, would think it’s tanned, brown skin and long, dark hair. Or specifically shaped lips or a round nose. But for me, a fair-skinned wahine, the way I look is nowhere near as important as my whakapapa and the people I came from.
Growing up, I always knew I was Māori. When I was younger my cultural identity felt inherently natural to me. My big sister and I were born to a strong, fierce, outspoken Ngāpuhi mother and a kind, protective and generous English father from Liverpool. But I’m white. Pale, porcelain skin with freckles, bright orange hair and blue eyes. And although my skin colour wasn’t something I used to think about, as I got older, I began to feel that my whakapapa was a secret I had to hide.
My māoritanga showed itself in different ways. Our family whare is in Tāmaki Makaurau, on the North Shore. Built by my mothers’ great-grandfather over 100 years ago, it was always full of extended family coming and going. My aunties and uncles, that aren’t even blood related, would walk down our cracked concrete driveway to the back door and come in without knocking.
Everywhere you looked in our big old house, manaakitanga was visible. Our family unit was constantly in the kitchen cooking up a huge feast that could feed the whole street. If we weren’t there, you could find us squeezed around the dinner table eating, singing, and laughing until everyone ended up lying on the floor crying from giggling too much.
When I went to primary school, I was taught about the British settlers that arrived on magnificent ships to “save the natives”. I was taught that they came to help teach the ‘maowree’ manners. I was taught that colonisation was a good part of New Zealand history. What I wasn’t taught is that it robbed my people of their language, culture and land. As a curious young girl, I couldn’t understand why my tūpuna needed saving.
I was around seven years old when our class at school learned our pepeha.
A pepeha is a way of introducing yourself in Te ao Māori. It illustrates your connections with the people, places and world around you through your whakapapa (ancestry).
Every student was given an A4 sized worksheet and a brightly coloured crayon to fill it in. It read:
Ko ______ tōku maunga
Ko ______ tōku awa
Ko ______ tōku waka
Ko ______ tōku marae
Ko ______ tōku hapū
Ko ______ tōku iwi
As the other children scribbled on their worksheet, I left mine mostly blank. I couldn’t remember the answers. All I knew was that Ngāpuhi was my iwi. The teacher walked around the class checking everyone had completed the task. When she got to me, she was mad and acted like I’d done something wrong, as if I’d misbehaved. She told me to write down Rangitoto as my maunga, Waitematā as my moana, and the school’s name as my iwi. But I knew that wasn’t right, I told her proudly that I was Māori, from a Ngāpuhi hapū in Northland and that Rangitoto was not my maunga. She laughed and told me I wasn’t Māori, that I must be lying and asked for proof. But what proof could I provide her with? It’s not like I carry around an ethnicity verification ID card.
After that I was less proud, and more whakamā. It felt easier to just keep my Māori whakapapa secret. That way nobody could laugh at me, tell me I was lying or ask questions that I didn’t know the answers to.
Of course, there is privilege that comes with passing as white (known as white-passing). Our society favours and values light skin, and I have benefitted immensely from this. Recently, when I applied for rental properties, with my pale skin and European name, I wasn’t concerned I’d be turned down by landlords. I’ve never been subject to racial slurs.
As I got older, Māori culture would come up in conversation with my friends. If they didn’t realise I was Māori, people would spout racist stereotypes, I’m sure their parents had passed onto them. “Māoris are dumb and lazy that’s why they are all on the dole.” “What is the point of learning Māori language? No one even speaks it, it’s not useful.” I internalised what they said and started to believe it was all true.
When people would find out that I was Māori, it would turn into a joke. Some would laugh and say they were a “little bit Māori too”. They’d say I was the whitest girl they knew. “There is no way you’re Māori.” People instantly attributed my achievements to my Pākehā ancestry, my failures or mistakes to my ‘Māori blood’.
I can’t count the number of times people have asked me what ‘percent’ Māori I am. As if my body could be divided in parts, my right arm and leg are Māori, but my head, ears and other arm are all European.
The idea of blood quantum is a very westernised and colonial way of thinking. The ideology was first created by the American government to track Native Americans’ racial status and ancestry and define their legal rights. Blood quantum laws were implemented in the Virginia colony in 1705. Anyone who possessed half or greater Native American blood had limited civil rights. In 1934, the federal government introduced the Indian Reorganisation Act which saw Native American tribes begin to formally use blood quantum law requirements for indigenous peoples to gain tribal citizenship, financial benefits, and the use of collective resources.
Blood quantum ideology has also previously been used in Aotearoa. Until 1974, when the New Zealand government passed the Māori Affairs Amendment Act, to be Māori was defined as having “half or more blood”. However, this was loosely applied and there was no requirement of ancestral proof. Blood quantum was used by the government to determine which electoral roll you were eligible to vote on. After 1974, anyone with Māori heritage was entitled to identify as Māori.
My mother, who was born in the 1960s, has told me how she remembers frequently being asked her blood quantum or ‘percentage’ by both Māori and Pākehā so they could determine if she was Māori enough to claim her own culture. It left her feeling ashamed and low.
At times, being Māori and Pākehā has felt like dancing delicately between two worlds. In predominantly Pākehā spaces, I’ve never felt quite right. It’s lonely and isolating when people don’t understand or share the same Māori worldview. Amongst Māori, although I’ve been lovingly embraced by most, sometimes I haven’t felt Māori enough to take up space. There have been times when I’ve wanted to call my mum and ask her if she’s sure we are Māori. If she is sure we haven’t got it mixed up somewhere down the line.
I came to think that whakapapa was not enough to be Māori, instead I thought there was an invisible checklist.
But let’s be clear, there is no checklist. If you whakapapa Māori, then you’re Māori.
After leaving a religious and conservative all-girls high school, where I spent most of that seven years pretending to be completely Pākehā, I felt a karanga to learn more about myself. During my years at university and through the āwhina of my sister, mother and grandmother, we began to piece together our family tree and where our whānau came from.
Up the escalators on level three of the Auckland Central Library, sitting on a bookshelf, is an important taonga. Printed in black ink, it is a book about my history. Slightly yellowed pages with a musty smell show old photographs, letters and drawings of my tūpuna. The book is written by a relative who spent four years piecing together our whakapapa. It’s something we will treasure forever and is the reassurance I needed.
On this journey of reconnection, there are so many different feelings. Sadness, anger, excitement and hope, sometimes all at once.
It’s been a tricky journey too, particularly when it’s come to reclaiming my language. Every time I speak te reo, I undoubtedly feel whakamā, like I’m trying too hard. Going to night classes after a long day of work, I feel a sense of grieving and loss. The classroom is usually filled with Pākehā who can’t understand why anyone would feel ashamed to kōrero loudly and proudly. Why is it that they are always so confused when they find out I am Māori and can’t speak fluently? It leaves me feeling shaken in my identity, as if I’m a ‘bad Māori’ for not knowing all of the correct answers.
My story is not a success story, nor is it complete. I re-live these experiences everyday and will continue to as I embrace my Māoritanga. I will be forever grateful to the strong wāhine in my family who are always free for a last-minute hui to tell me family stories, feed me good kai and answer my endless patai.
E kore au e ngaro, he kākano ahau I ruia mai I Rangiātea.
I can never be lost, I am a seed sown from Rangiātea.
As I practice my reo, learn the names of the people and places I’m from and proudly rep my iwi and hapū, I picture my tūpuna with me whispering in my ear, telling me I’m enough and telling me they are proud of the Māori and Pākehā wahine I’ve become.