Monday, February 25, 2019

When I Lost What I Once Had

After my grandmother's death, I was desperate for ways to stay connected to her. I still feel that even now, always searching for something to bring us together though she is not with me physically. I've often felt compelled to visit her grave, and I sit there in the quiet and tell her what I've been up to. I wrote a whole novel about a grandmother and granddaughter and their loving relationship (House Of Ivy & Sorrow). And, of course, I try to connect to her culture.

Little Maori doll my sister-in-law
left in my care. To show the clothing.
My mother inherited my grandmother's pari (bodice part of  Maori dress) and tipare (headband) after she died. I did not know these words at the time. Nor did my mother. It wasn't as if we had Google back then to look up words, which is what I do now to learn te reo Maori. It was a very small dress, and as a 9 or 10-year-old I could fit in it.

So I decided I would wear it to school for Halloween.

"Are you sure?" I'd said something like this as my mother painted a moko (traditional tattoo) on my chin.

"Yes," she'd have replied. "Many Maori women would have had these. And your ancestors were chiefs, royalty, so you would have had one."

I took her word for it. And as I looked in the mirror I felt proud. I was descended from royalty? I was basically a princess then, right? Mom found a feather to put in the tipare, and she let me bring a set of poi balls I'd been practicing with. Even though I didn't have the piupiu (flax skirt that goes over the pari), this was as Maori as I ever looked. And I could feel my grandma looking down on me, proud.

Then I got to school.

Many of you can probably guess how this story goes. What I was so proud of that morning was not met with the same enthusiasm by my classmates, who had no idea what I was.

"Why do you have a beard?" some asked.

"It's not a beard! It's a tattoo!" I tried to defend.

"That's weird...why do you have a tattoo on your face?" would be the next and not-much-better question.

"Because I'm a princess! I'm Maori!"

"Princesses don't have tattoos on their face," would be the assertion.

And what could I say to that? I had never seen a princess with a face tattoo either. My childhood was filled with the same Disney movies as everyone else. All I had to go on was my mother's word. Had she lied to me? Everyone at school seemed to agree that tattoos and princesses did not mix.

If it wasn't this conversation, the day was also filled with another one:

"Are you an Indian?" a kid or teacher would ask. (It was the 90s, and people still said "Indian" more than they used "Native American.")

"No, I'm Maori!"


"They live in New Zealand," I would try to explain, happy that they were at least not making fun of my moko. "They are part of Polynesia, and my grandma was Maori."

"You don't look Polynesian," would be the next assessment.

I don't look Polynesian. I don't know how many times that day I was told this, but it sunk in deep and crushed my sense of self. I had been told I was Maori. I was still young enough that I really only interacted with my family and a few friends, all of whom never contradicted what I was told. So I believed it with my whole heart.

But after a day of having to explain something far too complex for a 9 or 10-year-old little kid to explain, I had to question.

Maybe I wasn't Maori.

No one at school seemed to believe it was possible. I had light skin and blond hair. My eyes were green, not brown. To everyone there, I was dressed up as some weird kind of "Indian" with a tattoo/beard on my chin. It meant nothing to them. I was just a white girl in what might now be deemed a culturally insensitive costume. Not a single person considered that Maori could be part of who I was.

I washed the moko off half way through the school day. I never wore my grandmother's pari again. What I learned that day was I had no right to claim something that wasn't obvious in my appearance. I now know this was a crap lesson, but it happened nonetheless. And I hadn't realized just how deeply it had affected me until, once again, I visited New Zealand in 2017.

My sister-in-law, who grew up in New Zealand and knew much more about our Maori culture than I did, wanted to give me as many cultural and Kiwi experiences as I could have while I was there. Which I completely appreciated. But there was one that I dreaded:

She had scheduled a photo-shoot for me to dress in Maori clothing, so I could connect more to my culture.

I was having serious panic attacks over it. I didn't want to do it.

"Why not?" she asked when I told her I didn't want to go.

This story from my childhood then smacked me in the face. I had pushed it out of my mind for the most part. It had been so painful I blocked it off. But I began to tear up as I told her about my only other experience wearing clothing tied to my Maori heritage.

She looked so sad and sympathetic. She said that a lot of Maori in New Zealand looked pakeha (white), because colonization was a thing that happened. It wasn't weird there. She got why I felt that way growing up in America, but New Zealand was different. It wasn't about appearance as much—it was about whakapapa (genealogy). She even said my iwi, Ngapuhi, was often pretty pakeha because the British landed on our shores first. We had the longest and most intertwined contact because of that.

I hadn't known about any of this. That's the strange thing about being cut off from parts of your culture—you often learn much of it backwards. It's a complicated puzzle that you piece together without instructions and often completely out of order.

Growing up in America, where books are most certainly judged by their covers, I had been told repeatedly that I could not be Maori simply because I didn't look it. Nothing else really mattered. That Halloween was the beginning of many more stories of unbelonging, but as I unpacked what that day did to me I discovered it was so much more than I'd realized.

I can now pinpoint why that age was when I started to hate my appearance. I even seriously believed for a good few months that I was secretly adopted and my parents were just refusing to tell me the truth. My mother finally pulled out all my baby pictures and my birth certificate to prove to me that she did, in fact, give birth to me.

I was still skeptical, but I eventually came around.

When I dyed my hair brown, just to see how
it would feel. It didn't bring the magical
"belonging" I hoped it would...
For a long time, I wished to have dark hair and tan skin (Honestly, sometimes I still do...). In fact, I even envied my brother and sisters who did have dark brown hair like my parents. I began to notice over the years that they didn't have the same problems I did. When they mentioned their heritage, people were surprised, but they also said, "I guess I can see that now that you say it." Just having dark hair was enough to flip that narrative a little.

I was particularly jealous and mean to my little sister, and as I've thought about this time in my life more in depth, I wonder if this was part of my trauma I took out on her. She had the dark hair and figure and could tan. She had long hair, in contrast to mine being short (ironically, because my grandma convinced me to cut and perm it into a mushroom top at 8-years-old). She has my mother's cute button nose, while I had my father's more prominent Polish one. She even has my grandmother's smile (and her talent for medical care). Looking back, I was so deeply jealous that she looked Maori and I did not. I was too little to unpack that, but it's come to me backwards like most things having to do with my culture. (And none of this justifies how I treated her and I have no excuses, I'm just diving deeper into understanding my own stupid issues and how I took it out on others unfairly.)

After that Halloween, I didn't share about my culture to others very often. Each time I got up the courage, I was met with similar skepticism. So I locked it away in my heart, because it was important to me and I couldn't stand being told over and over that I didn't belong.

That was the baggage I brought to New Zealand, the weight I carried around for most of my life. So it was hard to believe my sister-in-law when she said the photographers wouldn't treat me like I was taking something that didn't belong to me.

But she helped me gather my courage. And we drove through the oppressively green Waikato region in the cool early days of spring. We arrived at a home and I felt as if my heart would jump right out of my chest. I was trying my best to suppress a panic attack as the photographers finished up their current session. We sat on a well-worn couch and began to look at their portfolios. And, just like my sister-in-law had said, there were many pakeha in those pictures.

The two wonderful ladies who run Soldiers Rd Photography sat down with me and asked about my heritage. They embraced every piece of it, and not once did they look at me like I was lying or like I didn't belong there. They told me that part of the story of New Zealand, for better or worse, was colonization. I was a product of that, we all were. They wanted to capture all of who I was, both my Maori ancestors and the Scottish part who immigrated to New Zealand long ago.

I was so self-conscious—I have never loved taking pictures of myself—but they had eased much of my fears already. They chose both English styles and Maori. They added plaid to reference my McKenzie line. I wore my Great-Grandmother Isabella's gloves and held her kete. It was so much more clothing than the single pari and tipare I'd worn that Halloween, but I felt just as exposed. I was quite literally wearing my heritage for all to see.

Then it came time to do my hair. They placed two red feathers there, a shadow of the feather I had worn that terrible day. Then they came with the black makeup, time to place a moko on my chin. I could feel that little child inside me, scared once again that I could not so boldly claim this. The laughs and questions and skepticism that followed me my whole life stood right there, demanding to be believed.

They held a mirror up for me to see, and the person looking back was overwhelming. It was me, but it was all the pieces no one ever saw in America. It was a vibrant, visual statement of who I was, and who my ancestors were.

It's hard to push out a lifetime of American views, but my two weeks in New Zealand certainly helped me understand and unpack a lot of my complicated feelings as a white passer. It was nice to be in a place for two weeks where I belonged, and where my story was normal and believed.

I had to fly home before I got the final pictures of me, and by then I had fallen back into the American trappings and felt a bit silly for having taken that picture. But when I opened that email and saw myself, I was glad I had done it. One trip and one picture did not fix everything, but it has provided a balm to my soul. It did help me look deeper and find the words to better explain the complexities of my own identity. And for that, I'm especially grateful.

This is the second post in a series about my experiences as a white-passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.

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.