He uri ahau nō Waikato-Tainui me Ngāti Awa,
ko Tamatha Paul tōku ingoa.
My mum's Scottish, English and Spanish and my biological dad is Waikato-Tainui and Ngāti Awa, and my dad is Waikato-Tainui too. The situation between my mum and biological dad escalated very quickly after mum found out she was pregnant with me. She got out of there as fast as she could — there was no time to pack or grab anything. That was the beginning of my life.
Driving to a women's refuge shelter, she stayed there for a while and I came out a couple of months later in South Auckland. I was literally born into nothing—we had a car to our name and each other; no extra clothes, no house, nothing.
For most of my first year of life, my mum and grandparents raised my brother and I in Paihia. While living there, this guy had a massive crush on my mum and would go into the shop she worked at to talk to her. She'd be like, 'no you don't want anything to do with me, I have two kids, I live with my parents, you don't want this' but he just kept trying. Eventually they went out, were together for ages and then got married. Coming into my life when I was about one, I never knew anything other than him being my dad.
During my early childhood we moved from Paihia down to Christchurch. Mum had been through so much by then—with my real dad and in her own life—that when we moved to Christchurch she'd become really sick. I began putting the pieces together that that was why she'd go away for ages. Dad mainly raised us in those years; mum did too but she was away a lot of the time. We never had a lot of money, but my parents always protected us from a cycle of violence that had made its home in both of their families.
When I was about 8, I found out my dad wasn’t my biological dad. When they told me, I was like, ‘That’s not my real dad? So where is my real dad? I wonder where he is…’ From then on, that was always on my mind. Thoughts like, ‘why am I not good enough? Where is he? I wonder why he doesn’t want to know me’, were a constant. It was the same for a lot of people I knew that didn’t have a dad too—I was lucky enough to still have a father figure—but those feelings of rejection didn't leave.
We moved to Tokoroa when I was 9. It was the first place I’d ever lived where I wasn’t the only Māori in the class and it wasn’t long till I fell in love with the vibrancy and culture of the town. A few years later we found out I had Lupus. It’s an autoimmune disease that inhibits your body and strips your immune system back to nothing. Hospitalised and sick all the time, the doctors told us that my health would begin declining when I reached my 30s. Being confronted with the very real possibility of dying young was terrifying, and still is.
Dad had always been really tough on us kids and when we moved to Tokoroa, my relationship with him became really bad. All of the confusion, resentment, and rejection began boiling over. I snapped. We clashed all the time. I was smashing holes in the walls, getting into fights, being a bully and having no respect for anyone. I was doing so badly at school and from about 12 to 15 that was me; always angry, always lashing out. Looking back, I realise now that I didn’t have anything anchoring me. Though I had my parents—who did do that to a degree—I didn’t have my Māoritanga to draw strength from when I needed it the most; life kept knocking me down and I kept getting angrier and angrier. Eventually it got so bad that my parents sent me away. It didn’t help. Clinically diagnosed with depression and trying to kill myself multiple times, nothing was working. I felt like such a burden to everyone and I hated it. Disappearing seemed like the best thing to do at the time.
Coming back home and realising that it’d only made things worse, my parents sent me to my grandparents. When I went up there, I didn’t think it would make a difference until my grandad and I had this really deep talk. He told me about when my grandmother was attacked and left to die. When grandad saw the boy in court, he saw the the same thing in the boy's eyes that he was seeing in mine at the time and if I didn’t get my act together straight away and start turning my life around, I’d end up just like him. Hearing that from my grandad hurt. Even though I could see how destructive I was being and the pain my actions were causing, it was like someone held a mirror up to me for the first time and I finally saw the kind of person I was becoming. After that, something just clicked.
When I came back to Tokoroa, I was starting year 11 and something had woken up within me—I began caring about my schoolwork, being more patient in the way I dealt with people, started taking pride in myself and got a job at KFC. Getting that job was a big confidence booster and my teachers started really backing me. They’d always said, ‘you’re a bright girl, I don’t know why you do this’ when I was off the rails but I’d always just been like, ‘F off you say that to everyone.’ After I started caring though, I began thinking maybe I was smart because I was figuring out things other people weren’t figuring out. Maybe I wasn’t a piece of crap after all — maybe I was a good person, maybe I could do something significant with my life. Things took a 180˚ turn and my grades and my life were actually going well for the first time. That year I turned 16, got my license, got my first car, held down my job, and I had money which I’d never had before. My parents and I were in such a good space since I’d gotten my job and there was a mutual respect we’d never shared before. Dad was still tough on me mind you, but I understood why now.
Looking back on that time, I used my dad as an emotional punching bag and that just made the situation a lot worse because I was depriving myself of a source of strength and trying to go it alone.
At the end of the year, it came to prize-giving and I got one award and it was, ‘best overall effort but did not get a first in class’ and I was kinda speechless. Having turned my life around and put so much effort into my schoolwork, I was like, ‘that’s it? Really?’ But it turned out better that way because when next year rolled around, I was all in.
I worked hard at school and my job and mended so many broken relationships— everything just changed and things were really looking up. That year at prize-giving, I won everything — best year 12 student, best Māori student overall, first in class for every subject. It was mind-blowing and I thought, ‘wow, this is what you’re capable of, you can do this, you’ve got this on lock, just one more year. Keep pushing.’ At this point I didn’t want to go to university, I thought I’d just keep working and making money because I didn’t want to go to uni and be poor again. I’d never had money growing up and I liked making it, having it there and saving it. When year 13 came around, I worked hard again throughout the year and got all these awards plus Dux and some scholarships at prize-giving. I was like, ‘whoa, look at all this free money… maybe I should just do it because I’m not going to be broke if I do.’ I applied for so many other scholarships that I ended up getting as well, and because my teachers had all seen the change in me, they really believed in me and helped me get there. That’s why I love my school, Tokoroa High School, so much because those were the first people who believed in me as more than just a student, but in who I am as someone capable of doing great things. I still talk to all of my teachers to this day and it’s cool to say that we’re all really close.
When I got all those prizes and looked back to see how far I’d come since being that angry girl, I couldn’t believe it; how much my life had changed and how much I’d changed. Ever since my grandad had sat me down and talked to me, from then right up until now, everything has been going my way. It’s really out of it.
During high school, I didn't really think too much about my Māoritanga and part of that was because I didn’t know much about it, but the other reason was because in Tok, it’s all brown people. Then when I moved down to Wellington to study at Victoria University, I was like, ‘whoa hey, what the heck? Where all the brown people at? Are they hiding somewhere?’ It took a couple of months for it to sink in that there just weren’t many brown people down here. Studying politics, you learn a lot about Māori issues and that was really cool for me; I came from those small towns that politicians were making decisions for. The maddening thing was that a lot of people assumed I was there to fill a quota, not because I actually deserved to be there. Every time that happened, I’d turn around and tell them, 'I got 100 excellence credits in year 13 alone — that’s double what you need for an overall endorsement and 20 credits over the passing threshold — don’t tell me I don’t deserve to be here.' I realised pretty quickly that if I didn’t back myself, they’d walk all over me with their ignorance. They all had in their minds what my culture and brown people were like, but I knew who I was and all I’d achieved and was working for was because of my culture and the people in it.
Getting involved in different kaupapa at uni, learning about my ancestors and whakapapa, learning about their stories, learning about what it is to be Māori, it was so empowering. It was everything I wished I’d known when I was lost, angry and hurting in high school. That’s why I love what you’re doing with this kaupapa, because it’s what I needed when I was that kid. So many rangatahi don’t know that they’re the descendants of chiefs and the fiercest of warriors, that our ancestors were so smart and so strong, that we’d mastered astrophysics, astrology, mathematics, geometry, architecture — all of those things that we may consider to be Pākehā — long before they were sciences. They need to know that as well as descending from chiefs and warriors, we are also a masterful people with skill unparalleled; we are not dumb, we are not incapable.
If there’s one thing I want to tell kids that come from a low socioeconomic town, that come from dirt poverty, that come from an abusive home and a family history of violence, that have tried to kill themselves or been depressed — there is so much more out there for you. You have so much going for you, you have the blood of chiefs and mighty warriors coursing through your veins, and hundreds of tīpuna standing behind you. Just keep breathing girl, just keep going bro. Don’t give up.
Before I began learning the knowledge of our people, my perception was, ‘I’m Māori, look at what the media are saying about my culture, oh. Wow.’ If this is the media’s representation of my culture, if violence, substance abuse, poverty, and statistics are all we’re known for and associated with, maybe we are inherently violent, maybe we are inherently savages, maybe we are an unfeeling, barbaric people and they’re right. Then when I began learning our peoples’ knowledge and saw more than just what the media said, I realised they are so wrong about us. It was like finding out we’re made of gold, realising that we have inherent value.
Being told consistently that you are valuable — I believe that’s a major key to a lot of our modern issues like suicide rates, especially in Māori men. There’s been so many times that I’ve wished I could touch someone on the head to help them see the whole picture about who we are and not just what the media says. But I know that that’s their own journey and something we all need to find for ourselves.
I’m so excited when I see kaupapa like this happening because I just think, how many people are going to be impacted by it and see themselves respresented in an uplifting way through everyone’s kōrero. That’s why I love Tokoroa and rep it so hard because as soon as I see friend requests and follows from kids back in Tok, I’m like yes, get on here, look at this because this is what you can do. And not only can you do this, you can do it better than me. You can, you really can, all you’ve gotta do is find that spark, find what gets you going — what gets you fired up — and run with it.
I was thinking about it as we were climbing up the hill to get here. It was easier for me to climb it better and faster because I was following in your footsteps and the path you were forging. That’s how I see what I’m doing. Studying at Victoria, doing this whole uni thing and kinda not knowing what I’m up to because I’m the first in my family to do it, I’m hoping that someone—that everyone coming after me—does better and goes further and reaches higher than me.
At Vic’s Open Day, there were so many kids from my high school that came down and there are at least 5 that are definitely studying here next year. That’s insane. Before me, there hadn’t been anyone down here from Tok in years. After high school in Tokoroa, your options are work or Waikato; not that there’s anything wrong with Waikato, but there's so much more out there than being confined to the region and even then the dropout rate is really high. From my year level alone, there was about 90 of us and 15 that went to university and probably 7 or so that are still holding it down. But now there’s this next group of kids who have seen me do it at Vic and are like, ‘well if she can do it, I can too.’ And they’re right — they can do it, they are capable, they are smart, intelligent people. The fact that they were down here was so encouraging because it showed me that doing this is becoming less and less unrealistic, that it is a genuine option for them and that kids from Tokoroa can go wherever they want to and make it.
The thing about Tokoroa is that it isn’t just another small town in New Zealand, we’ve bred so many well known people — Te Ururoa Flavell was born there, Kevin Mealamu, Quade Cooper, Richard Kahui, Joseph Manu — so many highly-motivated and highly-successful people. Everyone who comes from Tok has such a deep connection back to home. Those who seek out the help they need to make it out of there don’t just become good, they become great and I want to do everything in my power to help my town to create more greats until we’re no longer known for record rates of women being murdered or suicide rates. I know we’re better than that and have so much more to give, especially our young people.
Our kids are dying; they’re hurting and struggling to find themselves. It breaks my heart that I can tell you all of this and not get emotional because this story — my story — is the same story for thousands of other young people across Aotearoa. People have told me about their childhoods and about wanting to kill themselves and for me, it’s never been like, “oh that’s so sad” — it’s never been sympathy, it’s always been empathy because I was them and I still am them. For those who’ve never been through this kind of stuff, all you need to do is listen to understand and not to respond. I’m not telling my story for people to say, “oh wow that sucks”, I’m doing it to show my people who’ve been through this crap and are still going through it that there is light at the end. So many Māori are stuck thinking that they can’t get above their circumstances because for years upon years, all they’ve seen of themselves in the media has been either overwhelming negative or indifferent. Call a kid bad for their entire life and how else can we expect them to turn out?
I want to challenge mainstream media companies — radio shows, news broadcasters, magazine companies, everyone — do better. Stop being irresponsible, stop stripping the humanity from my people and putting them into numbers, percentages and decimal points. We need your humanity, not your commentary. Stop villainizing and fronting us in every negative issue like violence, youth offending, substance abuse, poverty and murder. Everyone already knows. Stop talking about everything that’s wrong with us and do more to support those who are making a difference locally and abroad. You’re happy to take up our haka as a cultural embellishment and show it off to the world, do more to support the people who gave it to you. You have so much power over what people see and the basis on which every day New Zealanders found their beliefs about our people, use it to be a part of the solution — use it to educate, not to discriminate or demonise.
To those who already support Māori and are responsible in how they present the issues we face, thank you. Thank you for your commitment to bringing about positive change by representing us well.
Looking back at my life and where I started, I carried a lot of pain for a long time, but nothing feels better than being able to say that I'm at peace within myself now. To my parents and grandparents who raised me, who provided for me and who loved me when I didn’t know how to for myself, I love you with all my heart and I’ll never be able to thank you enough.
To every one of my teachers at Tok that taught me, thank you so much for bearing with me in my earlier years and backing me in my later ones. You helped me get to where I am now and for that I will always be grateful.
To all my kids back in Tok and to all the kids from small towns in New Zealand, let no one stop you or define what you can and can’t do. You are powerful, you are strong, you can make a difference, you are significant, you are valuable, you can change the world.
Be better than me.
Follow Tam on insta: @tamathapaul