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.


  1. I truly appreciate this story. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you. It says a lot that you can share that.

  3. Much love to you, Natalie. Thank you for sharing this. <3

  4. As someone who also has deep love of heritage and culture—but not the burden of experiences you’ve faced—I’m in tears. I love every word, and that picture especially.

  5. I'm so glad you are sharing these stories. I love seeing the photograph again. You look like royalty. I also understand the complicated feelings that come with cultural heritage, though, as you know, mine is kind of a reverse situation from yours. I love talking about New Zealand with you. I keep daydreaming about being able to afford to take my boys there someday.