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Being Māori and growing up in a te ao Pākehā environment

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

This is a piece for anyone who is on their journey (no matter what ‘point’) of reclaiming their Māoritanga. This is a piece for anyone who wants to tautoko/support anyone who is on this complex and beautiful journey of reclaiming their Māoritanga. This is a piece for us all.

Hoi anō, if you are Māori and feel whakamā and you have that nagging feeling that you don’t know your full self yet – I hear you. If you are Māori and feel a relaxed and warm embrace when you hear waiata and karakia but you can’t make your mouth move to join because you don’t know the kupu/word – I hear you. If you are Māori and you don’t know where to start to reclaim this ātaahua/beautiful Māori identity of yours but you feel yourself yearning for it – I hear you, I am you.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this kaupapa, let us all get a few things sorted.

  1. It does not matter what ‘fraction’ or ‘percentage’ Māori you are; you are Māori when you whakapapa Māori. You are Māori. None of this “enough” business. End of story.

  2. It does not matter where you grew up or how your upbringing was, whether it was not in Aotearoa, not near/knowing your marae, not hearing the stories from your nanny of your whānau – if you have Māori whakapapa, you are Māori.

  3. If you don’t know te reo Māori or te ao Māori then that is kei te pai, you are Māori.

  4. It doesn’t matter your skin type, you have Māori whakapapa you are Māori.

I hope you can see, but most importantly believe, that there is no such thing as being Māori “enough”. If you whakapapa Māori then you are Māori. End of story. Well not quite end of story, but you’ll see what I mean.

Through this piece, I can only draw from my own experiences.

And my own experience is growing up in a small rural mid-Canterbury town. I whakapapa Māori through Mum. Her dad (Grandad) grew up in Tauranga Moana rohe with his blended whānau, immersed in te ao Māori and speaking Māori but at the same time beaten at school for speaking it. Grandad, his brother and sister came down south as young teenagers and Grandad eventually met Nana (a beautiful Pākehā wahine). They then had Mum and my Uncles. Grandad’s experiences as a kid meant that his knowledge of te ao Māori and te reo Māori was not passed down to his children. This position of the break in the link meant that his knowledge stopped with him, and therefore my brother and I grew up without it too. My first experience of understanding what it meant to be Māori was at Grandad’s tangi. I was embraced by te ao Māori in a way I haven’t been able to fully describe since. It was the ‘fire lit in my belly’ type of moment that there is more of me to discover and honour.

Grandad and I, way back in the day!

I am white skinned. It was not until I truly believed that being Māori is your whakapapa, that the questions and surprise from others around me being Māori became less offensive.

In reality, being white skinned does entail its own privilege. Āe, you are Māori no matter your skin colour. However, a lot of inequality still happens when you are a brown facing Māori. As a white presenting Māori, I believe it is vital to recognise your privilege and use it to lift those who face barriers and overt racism due to having browner skin. This cannot be forgotten as we venture forward.

But what does ‘reclaiming your Māoritanga’ actually mean?!

Reclaiming your Māoritanga means so many different things to different people. Though a friend, Shyan Boyd, answered a question box on my Instagram and put it in the simplest and most beautiful way that was too good not to share. To Shyan, reclaiming Māoritanga is the ‘recognition of your connection to your ancestors. It sounds so literal but that connection is the founding principle to a lot of concepts in te ao Māori.’ And, like I mean, that resonates greatly with my way on this haerenga. So, whatever reclaiming your Māoritanga means for you, you can be assured that your tupuna are with you and cheering you on.

Being Māori and growing up in a te ao Pākehā landscape is a pretty complex thing. I had a beautiful upbringing that was surrounded with love and a whānau that was doing their best with what was in front of them. As I have understood more about myself, I feel a discomfort that a piece of me was missing because I grew up in the te ao Pākehā setting that I did. There is also a discomfort in feeling discomfort about that. because I know my whānau were doing the best with what they had. If you feel this way, it is okay. Don’t let that discomfort stagnate you in your decisions now.

We now have different tools and pathways in front of us than those before us did. We all (tauiwi and Māori) have better access to better understand this beautiful part of ourselves

We have:

  • social media to intentionally use (i.e., Instagram and facebook pages).

Some people who are awesome to follow on Insta are:

@findingwhakapapa - if you’re Māori and want to understand how to start to reconnect to your own whakapapa, credit goes to my mate Shyan Boyd for showing me this account; @maori_mermaid; @nukuwomen - showcases kick ass indigenous wāhine; @manawamaori - for explanation and inspo to use different kupu Māori , @the_freckled_maori - raw and real account of learning Māori.

Using facebook pages intentionally

  • If you’re Māori and know your iwi name, search them up on facebook. There’s often intentional pages for each rūnanga to share updates. There also may be a page that your whanaunga have started to share kōrero.

  • If you’re non-Māori, facebook can still be used intentionally to immerse yourself in te ao Māori and te reo Māori. Some pages to follow are: ‘Te Ao Māori News’ - hopefully self explanatory; ‘Everyday Māori’ - somewhat self explanatory, Hemi Kelly shares kupu Māori everyday; ‘Living By The Stars with Professor Rangi Matamua’ - an accesible way to learn about Matariki and further te Ao.

  • resources (Scotty Morrision’s Māori Made Easy – a pukapuka I used to see everywhere and recently actually started utilising them. To say they are invaluable is an understatement, genuinely like cheap homeschooling for te reo Māori),

  • waiata Māori (side note: I have been thrashing ‘Waiata Reo Māori’ playlist while writing this and it is beaut),

  • Māori TV (on demand and live),

  • podcasts (ranging in so many different aspects of te ao Māori),

  • app based te reo Māori (ie kōreroro is like duolingo for Māori),

  • kura pō (if you’re fortunate enough to have a spare 3 hours on a weeknight and noho marae weekend capacity),

  • rumaki reo/full immersion kura (if you’re fortunate to take more time to intentionally learn te reo Māori),

  • and so much more.

Similarly, some more ‘concrete’ ways to immerse yourself culturally are (note. these following points were kindly gifted from my mate Shyan Boyd):

Finding local:

  • Weaving/carving workshops

  • Kapa haka classes

  • Te reo Māori coffee catchups - some universities do this for sure (UC does it for sure) and community-based ones are advertised through Facebook pages/groups.

  • Look into your own individual hobbies and see if theres any connection between them and Māori culture. For example, if your hobby is writing then a Māori writers group could be something for you.

Marae, Māori, reclaiming, te reo
Rangiwaea Marae, Rangiwaea island, picture taken 2021

Before I started to write this, I took to Instagram and asked nga pātai to my friends about what they faced being Māori and growing up te ao Pākehā. I received responses from an awesome range of people that are all on their respective haerenga/journey. Here is what they responded:

Advice to someone who is Māori and reclaiming their Māoritanga

  • Look for people you relate to from a personality stand point who are also Māori.

  • Go at your own pace. You’re going to meet many other Māori who are at different points of this haerenga and you may feel pressured to step further into the pool but if you go too deep and too fast you could scare yourself out of the process altogether.

  • It’s important to embrace this part of your identity so move at a pace you are comfortable with.

Things that help to reclaim your Māoritanga

  • Support from other on this haerenga – through ngā piki me ngā heke.

  • Surround yourself with others on the same journey.

  • Immerse yourself in whānau who are Māori.

  • Physically stepping into spaces that may feel uncomfortable but also spaces that you yearn for. Even if you feel whakamā about calling up an aunty you hardly know, it is in swallowing that pride that the act of ‘stepping’ in to Māoritanga happens.

Reasons that people made the choice to reclaim their Māoritanga

  • Realising it was a superpower

  • It’s an active choice and a challenging path. Understanding that it is okay if they did not start right away if they did not feel ready.

  • For their future kids

  • They felt lost without it. Feeling like they were standing in the middle of a seesaw, constantly teetering between the two worlds (te ao Pākehā and te ao Māori). Feeling like this when they were young but knowing they didn’t want to feel like that forever. They were always thinking back to little them and what they were feeling and everyday chose to make sure they never feel like that again.

  • Recognising the privilege to be Māori and to be able to be connected to te ao Māori.

How they described being Māori

  • Being Māori is a very unique and special experience that one should ever take for granted. Very few beings get to experience the spiritual connections we do with our ancestors and the land. As Māori, we recognise that we are the land and the land is us. The land is our tupuna too and we hold respect as deep as other beings hold respect for mankind. Being Māori means to be connected to everything around you and preserving that connection with the most integrity.

In summary, a distinct theme that came through is that you are not alone. Your Māoritanga is a beautiful gift and at the end of the day it is up to you what you do with it. If you do choose to reclaim your Māoritanga despite your upbringing then there will be support around you.

An ending note.

Your journey to date is not wasted. It is up to you what you do with what is in front of you. Your tupuna will always be with you. Ka whakatōmuri, te haere whakamua.


Contributors to the instagram answers were: Emily Afoa, Teresa Poli, Tori McNoe and Shyan Boyd.

The rest of the whakaaro is mine and happy to answer any ngā pātai (questions) you may have, feel free to message me on instagram on @alycelysaght.

Some of the articles I read that are beautiful and further this kōrero are:

E mihi ana ki a koutou. Ko tēnei te mihi aroha ki a koutou katoa x

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