Ko Whanganui-ā-Tara te maunga,
Ko Waingongoro te awa,
Ko Takitimu te waka
Ko Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga te iwi,
Ko Ngāti Whakaiti te hapū,
Ko Waimarama te marae,
Ko Taupunga te whare,
Ko wai tēnei? Ko George Mohi ahau.
I feel like you could pick up any Māori kid off the street and they would tell you similar things to what I'm about to tell you but at the same time, I know that if I had read something like this in high school, it would have been priceless — to know that I'm not the only one out there feeling or seeing the world in this way.
My parents worked for DOC, and that kind of set the tone for my story; I love nature. I was born in Arthur's Pass and there's only about 100 people or so out there, it's way out in the middle of nowhere. Pretty much all of my childhood at Arthur's Pass, was spent running around the range or hanging out with backpackers passing through. Then we moved to Westport and I had a really stable childhood there too. I grew up predominantly Pākehā and the only thing that marked me as any different was my last name.
Like many others, I grew up away from my rohe and by extension the people of that rohe too. Both Mum and Dad's family are in Hawkes Bay but we lived in the South Island for a long time and so seeing family was few and far between growing up. It was a really good childhood though.
Living in the West Coast of the South Island, I went to a Christian primary school and learnt about Christianity before I knew what iwi I was. For me that wasn't the right order; it was like an extra puzzle piece trying to be fitted into my world before I'd had time to suss out where I was.
My lack of understanding about Te Ao Māori — even though I knew I was Ngāti Kahungunu — was only ever really obvious when I talked to another Māori, which wasn't often. Most of the time my Māoritanga had no place and so while these thoughts of what being Māori meant for me were going around in my head, over time I made my peace with the fact that I might not know the answers for a while.
It was about late primary, early intermediate after we moved from Westport to Taranaki that I first started becoming self aware and questioning what being Māori meant; I'd get ripped out for it and not understand why. Looking for answers to give meaning to this term 'Māori', all I was finding and seeing was negative — lots of problems, Māori not doing well, angry all the time and I remember thinking, "Well this isn't good." I didn't have a reference point to model my perspective off of either; although dad could tell me my iwi and pēpeha, I needed more to form a view on it as either a good or a bad part of me. In the end, other people's opinions did that.
My parents worked so hard to get my sister and I through school. While I never felt pressured to do well, I wanted to for myself and to make them proud; every success we always celebrated together. When I first got on stage for an award, it felt like the success wasn't the work I'd done, it was that I'd gotten on stage at all. I enjoyed doing well and putting in the hard yards in at high school, but the frustrating thing was that whenever I did well, I was considered a "special Māori" but then to my Māori mates, I wasn't Māori at all. It was hard to see that they'd accepted — whether they realised it or not — that doing well and being Māori couldn't be the same thing.
It's something we definitely need to talk more about in high schools. So many people don't see the effects of this situation where, if you're Māori and do well, you're considered "special", but then that's saying the norm for Māori is to not do well compared to non-Māori. And if all of these rangatahi are accepting that assessment of their abilities and then don't do well, their failures further the lifespan of a prejudice that other people aren't subject to and at some point benefit from, when it shouldn't even exist in the first place. We gotta get moving and dismantling this cycle.
No matter what anyone else says, you are intelligent, you are smart and you are wise beyond our years. If no one in your school tells you that, I'm telling you that.
I did Māori at high school in year 11 and 13 and while it was a good environment, it didn't have a lot of substance to it; there wasn't a lot about the course that actually felt Māori. We'd get taught sentence structures, grammar and the Māori translations of things we say in English, but most of us in that class were focused on trying to understand what being Māori actually meant for us, yet we'd sit in a room four or so times a week being asked about what tense to translate a sentence into or doing vocabulary tests.
One thing that always puzzled me, was when my Māori mate from high school took on that casual racism for himself about being Māori. I was still on the fence at that point, still figuring it all out but he'd already gone with that perspective of, it's a bad thing. He'd joke and make fun of it, saying the same racist things non-Māori did and I remember feeling conflicted, it was as if he thought joining in with their laughter could somehow make them forget he was Māori too.
In my last year at New Plymouth Boys, I was the first deputy head boy at my high school and that was a mean experience, it was cool to be representing Māori in that leadership space. Doing that kaupapa alongside leading my year's Māori form class, I learnt that we as Māori bring something so unique to leadership — our natural ability to connect and build meaningful relationships. Over that year we all became closer, relying on each other because we all got it, and we all felt it.
When I went to university to do law and Māori studies, I had the chance to learn more about Te Ao Māori. Being taught Māori at university was amazing in terms of the history; it really broadened my understanding of te reo and tikanga and those courses were able to touch on the deeper wairua questions I had. It was still different — as opposed to learning Māori to have a better understanding of what being Māori means, I was learning it to gain credits, pass papers and achieve set outcomes that regaining my culture had become attached to; it was still transactional, but it was better.
In high school I was pretty passive, whenever I got slurs I'd never give them back because it usually just made things worse. Now if someone does that or asks the classic, "how much Māori are you?" question, I take full advantage of that question to challenge their thinking — "do you ask a French person how French they are?" Never to be mean about it cause people just shut off if you do, but if you're straight up about it, most times that question gets people thinking and it creates space for real constructive yarns about culture to happen.
There's also the questions around those who are whāngai within Māori whānau but don't have the whakapapa, but have all of the tikanga and have te reo — what about them? That happened with one of my mates and it was so hard to see the divide it caused between Māori. It made me think a lot about the bigger questions.
The things we use to gauge Māoritanga have changed so much since 5 or 10 years ago; is it skin tone, accent, knowing te reo and being 'fluent', knowing tikanga, knowing waiata, stories whakapapa and histories, living on the marae or growing up on the pae, doing kapa haka, having rhythm, being able to sing or harmonise, having a spiritual gifting or being spiritual, is it where's the point where you're enough to be considered 'Māori'? Who gets to decide that and who doesn't? So many questions.
Ultimately I think there is that relationship between what being Māori means for you as an individual, and what being Māori is for us as a people.
Being a Māori man as well is another journey, for me Mana Tāne is something you have inherently but it's also something that's invested to. I think I'm still on such a big journey with this one, but I know it'll lead me to a place of peace where I can pass on what I learn to other young Māori mean who are asking those same questions of, what does it mean to be Māori? What does it mean to be a man? Who can I look to that can show me?
Where all these thoughts and reflections leave me now is looking forward and deciding where I need to go next. I've only recently seen and been around Māori who are unapologetically Māori, who are passionate about Māori kaupapa and driven by a desire to create change. That's something I want to be around more.
Right now I'm a uni student, working as a DOC ranger in the summer, I love music and I've got that same desire to create positive change among rangatahi Māori around Aotearoa that a lot of Māori do, it's just a matter of finding out how I can best do that. Which is exciting, it's not a 'can I do this?' question, it's a 'how?' question and I'm really looking forward to finding out the answer.
If you're on this same journey and trying to figure out what being Māori means to you, feel free to give me a message on instagram or fb. Even though I'm still learning, I'm happy to share what I know with you.
Ngā mihi e hoa,
Follow George on Insta: @original_mohi