Friday, February 22, 2019

The Beginning: My Grandma Dorothy

In nurse's uniform. She studied to be a nurse
in New Zealand, and even qualified for
the extra certification to become a midwife.
I have long been thinking about telling my story of being a white passing Maori in America. But it terrifies me. I have held it in, afraid of what others would say. It's a complicated story, with complicated feelings that are hard to express. Some of those feelings I'm just beginning to understand more clearly.

But I'm ready to share. 

And I'm going to use this old blog to do it. Because, back in the day, I was good at blogging. And posts about my life are what often brought other good people into my circle. I hope that will be the same now. 

Disclaimer: These are solely my own experiences. I am not speaking for anyone else or all Maori or all white passers from other mixed heritages. The stories I tell are from my own life and memories. Everyone will have unique experiences with this.

So we're going to start at the beginning: My grandmother Dorothy Mary Repia McKenzie Buss. 

She was my origin point to the Maori part of my heritage. I didn't understand a lot when I was small, but I loved my grandmother deeply. I don't really know why I was so specifically attached to her, but every minute I could spend with her I would take. I loved to hear her speak. She said to-mah-to instead of to-may-to. I knew she was from a far away place called New Zealand, where my grandfather served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She laughed often and had a radiant smile.

We would visit my grandparents once a year or so, driving from California to Utah. I was always eager to be with grandma again. I loved the tiny house she lived in, with its safe walls that were constantly close enough to touch even for a child. I loved the garden my grandfather tended vigilantly, a paradise of fresh food. I loved laying on the sheepskin by her bed. I did NOT love how she never let me have more than two inches of water in the bath. "That's plenty to wash with!" she'd say.

My absolute favorite thing was when Grandma Dorothy would tuck us in at night. Because that was when she would sing. And she would sing songs in a language I didn't know, tunes I hadn't heard, but I loved them all the same.

I was too young to remember the music now, but I do understand that she was singing Maori songs. She was singing the songs she practiced for the Utah Polynesian Choir she was part of. These songs, just a fleeting memory, are the deepest and earliest connection I have to the world my grandma left to come to America. And still, when I hear this kind of music, something inside me springs up. I'm taken back to that tiny bedroom with barely enough room between two mattresses to walk. I can see her sitting there, her smiling face above me, singing my ancestors into my heart. And I cry nearly every time.

How I knew Grandma in her later years.
I didn't know having blond hair wasn't common for Maori people when I was little because when I knew my grandmother she had blond hair. It was lost on me that she had dyed it until after she had left this world and I saw photos from her youth. My Auntie and Uncle had blond hair like me, though my own mom didn't. I felt like I belonged when I was too little to know different.

She was the only Maori from New Zealand I really knew. She was my standard. She was the key for all of us, really. 

And we lost her when I was eight. 

I have never really gotten over it. Her death was my first experience with a life ending. And, looking back, it was almost as if part of my heritage was locked away with her. I still miss her desperately. I miss all the things I might have learned. I often wonder if I would have had a firmer footing in my Maori culture had she lived longer. Instead, I've had to piece it all together from scraps of pictures and family memories and historical records.

My mother tried. And really she did a good job with what she knew herself. She had been an exchange student to New Zealand her junior year of high school, and she shared many stories of my grandmother and her family. But as all American immigrants of that time, I think my grandma wanted her children to have American opportunities and be "American." Being different wasn't...embraced back then. And even my mother and her siblings could pass as white. Perhaps that is why Grandma Dorothy colored her hair in the end, to blend in a little more. (There is a wonderful story about her accidentally dyeing it green once, because of course she did it herself.) Utah is still quite homogenous today—I can't imagine how much more it was in the 60s and 70s. 

It wasn't until long after she died that I learned more about where she came from. Born in Maromaku. Part of the Ngapuhi iwi (tribe). Her grandfather was Hohepa Heperi, an icon of sorts in the LDS Maori circles. My mother would show me a picture of Euera Patuone, one of our ancestors with a full moko tattooed on his face.

I also learned that she would go to New Zealand yearly, leaving her family for a couple months at a time. It likely cost more than my grandparents could afford, and the whole family could never imagine going together on a carpenter's salary. I think my grandma missed her homeland very much. More than she ever said out loud. 

I know she was far from perfect. I don't envision her in an idealistic way as I did when I was little. She had a hard childhood she didn't talk much about. Her brother died before his time. Grandma Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 35. My mother was 10. She was ill, and not always there for her family. Yet she was also generous with her time, giving it to care for others. She would love on me, but also be stern, telling me to wipe up my crocodile tears and get on with it. She was that strange combination of hard and soft I also see in myself. Perhaps it is in me because of her. 

Meeting her first grandchild. (Me.)
I was the first grandchild on both sides of my family, and I feel lucky to have all the memories I do have of Grandma Dorothy. I have discovered not even my closest siblings and cousins in age remember as much as I do. 

But it's hard, too. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier had I been younger, had I not been able to grasp what I lost. And maybe that is why I cling so much to the Maori parts of myself—because it's what connects me to my grandmother. To her legacy. And, ultimately, the legacy of Aotearoa and our people. 

I've learned over the years that most people don't even know who the Maori are. If they do, we are often lumped into Polynesia as a whole, though all our cultures are unique despite being related. If they know anything, it is the haka perhaps (the most commonly performed one...not the hundreds of others that are all specific to the iwi who used them.). 

Great Auntie Claudia slicing Maori bread.
When I finally had the opportunity to go to New Zealand in 2017, I was going to be with my family (brother and sister live there). I was going to connect to the place of my ancestors, see my great-grandparents' grave, finally get a chance to be in a place that I had dreamed of going my whole life (the trip at 9 months old didn't count because I can't remember!). What did most Americans ask me? 

"Are you going to see the Hobbits?"

They thought it was funny, clearly. But after about the 5th time (and many more after...), I was deeply upset. This place that meant so much to me and my family was only known for the fictional characters filmed there. I was sure most of the people who asked probably didn't even know who the Maori were. And it made me angry and tired. I dreaded even saying I was going there, because I didn't want to glare at the next person to ask about Hobbits.

For the record, I did not "see the Hobbits."

My great-grandparents' grave site.
Dorothy's parents.
But I did visit my Great Auntie Claudia, my grandmother's sister and only one still living of their family. She shared pictures we hadn't seen, gave me tea cloths from the family, and showed us her well-loved doll collection. For a moment, it felt as if all was right, a bit of my grandma was there in Claudia. 

She lives right across from the cemetery where her parents, my great-grandparents, are buried. And as I stood in front of that gravestone—the physical proof that I was, indeed, tied to this land of Aotearoa after all—I once again felt like I did when I was little and Grandma Dorothy was alive. 

Like I belonged.

This post is the first in a series about my personal experience as a white passing Maori in America. Stay tuned for more.


  1. Beautiful!! I have felt many similar feelings growing up and not quite feeling connected to our roots. It’s been a blessing to go to NZ and spend time with family!!❤️

  2. I love this! I am incredibly European/American, but I love hearing stories from others and I wish I would have been more exposed to it growing up. And as an adult too. I keep living in mostly homogeneous places--though usually they are more diverse than people realize.

  3. A wonderful tribute to your grandmother.

  4. Hi Natalie. This made me cry, thinking of my own Grandmother. I look forward to reading more or your history.