Monday, March 4, 2019

Remnants and Revelations

There's a clear picture in my mind of my Auntie Leah and my mom using poi balls in Grandma's backyard. It was a searing hot day in summer, and laundry was drying on the metal tree out there. They spun the long poi with, what I saw as a young child, great skill. I was especially impressed with the one-handed, two poi, move where my auntie spun them as she moved them back and forth over her head.

I wanted to learn! And so they taught me the basics of the long poi. I was clumsy and not great, but I picked it up and used them often as a child. I didn't know any songs or official dances—I only knew what I'd been shown. The basics. The remnants of what our family had learned.

There were short poi. I didn't know how to use those (and they're freaking hard to use!). There were the sticks of the "sticks dances" that I saw in some performances but had never used. I learned some basic skills in a Polynesian dance class I took in college at BYU. Many of the students struggles to shake their hands as is traditional in many Maori song and dance, but I grasped it easily and felt like maybe it was in my blood.

The strange thing about being white passing, about being severed from the main body of your heritage, is that life becomes a series of "filling in the gaps."

Not the best example, but the only one I have. The sparse
trees I remember. (Also me at 5 days old.)
For instance, my grandma would always have my grandpa cut a ton of branches off the bushy Christmas trees of North America. I always wondered at their tree during the holidays, why there was so much gap between the tiers of branches. I once asked my mom why their tree didn't have a lot of branches, and the answer I got was "so we can see the ornaments." Which made sense and I didn't question further.

But when I went to New Zealand, I saw a strange tree that immediately reminded me of the way my grandmother would demand her tree to be cut.

"What are those?" I asked my brother, who lives in New Zealand now, as we drove from Auckland to Hamilton. "Those pointy, sharp trees?"

The Norfolk Island Pine, a sharp
silhouette in Aotearoa.
"Those?" my brother replied with annoyance. "I don't know the name but they're everywhere. I hate them. People use them for Christmas trees here and they just don't feel like Christmas."

I couldn't help but smile. "Really?"


"Grandma used to make grandpa cut her Christmas trees so there were big gaps in the branches. Makes sense now—she must have been picturing these trees as what her Christmases used to look like," I said.

My mother's face filled with understanding. "I never thought of that! But she might have, maybe without even realizing it."

It was a small, but beautiful remnant of my grandmother, driving through New Zealand and seeing these pines everywhere.

Other remnants and revelations aren't so sweet, though. I sometimes wondered why my grandma Dorothy didn't teach her own kids more about her Maori culture. Why didn't she teach them more of the language or insist they learn their culture more deeply?

It wasn't until the last couple years that I knew the Maori language was banned from schools for most of the 19th century.

Much like other colonized countries, the Maori were to "assimilate." That's what the Crown wanted, at least. Maori ways and language were looked down on, considered lesser, and were discouraged as a whole during my grandmother's time. As they were pushed off their land and into cities, the governments even place Maori families within white communities, in order to discourage them from reforming their own close ties. My grandmother likely didn't know much of te reo Maori herself. She might have only had remnants, living at a time when another culture was actively trying to eradicate the indigenous ways of Aotearoa.

It wasn't until the 70s and 80s that the Maori were able to regain some of their standing and rights through activism. I now imagine my grandmother's visits back to her homeland, and what she might have been learning herself for the first time during those pilgrimages.

It's these big and small pieces that come over time, and each one gives me a moment to feel closer to my heritage. Perhaps we were separated from it, but it never completely left us. And I see that in so many ways.

I have long known my mother's favorite colors are black, white, and red (she makes many a quilt in these colors). These are also very important colors in Maori tradition and I wonder if she latched on to them early on without knowing.

Traditional Maori storage building
and garden plot.
 I have always had this strong desire to garden and grow things. It probably has a lot to do with my grandpa Gene, whose garden seemed like paradise when we visited it. Rows of vegetables, trees and bushes and canes dripping with fruit. It seems whatever he touches grows.

But I never got to have a garden as a kid.

We lived in an apartment, and I still remember begging my mom to let me plant seeds in the sad plot of soil outside out front steps. I chose cosmos. The area was too shady and too undernourished for such a tall-growing, sun-loving flower—I was not met with success thought I tried very hard and got several seeds to sprout. They never flowered.

When we moved into our first house, I asked for a part of the backyard where I could grow things. I did not get my garden. Once again when we moved back to Utah, I asked for a spot in the backyard where I could grow things. I did not get my garden.

When I married, we moved to a townhouse where I tried over and over to grow things, though I had to lug water from inside to water all the things on my tiny patio.

The first spring in my garden. 
And then finally, after 11 years married, we were able to purchase a modest home with an epic yard. The garden boxes called to me. The fruit trees made my heart skip a beat. This was very much the garden of my dreams, a place I could finally get my fill of working the earth.

It's been a challenge and a trial, a joy and respite from the world's chaos. If you follow me at all, you have seen many pictures.

My sister-in-law told me it's a "Maori thing" to like growing plants. She said it's in my blood. I do believe that's true, even though no one in my immediate family likes yard work or gardens. Perhaps I didn't get the appearances, but there has always been something deep inside me that needs to plant things, that wants to care for the land that I have.

Maori have a deep, abiding respect for the land. Every iwi has sacred sites and locations—mountains, rivers, oceans. As I spent time in that land, I could feel a connection to it. It was spring when I was there, and I could not stop thinking about wanting to plant things. I wanted to see how they would grow in the soil that was laden with water in comparison to my own desert climate.

I see the legacy of our heritage in my daughter's epic pukana. In my siblings' quests to complete med schoo (my grandma wished to be a doctor, but could only be a nurse in her time). I see it when my family came together for my wedding and my Uncle Vernon brought people to sing. He made my new husband do a haka, which Nick was totally unprepared for though he handled it perfectly.

First haka lesson.
Clumsily dancing a hula I learned in my
Polynesian dance class. (I was too scared to
sing in Maori, which dancing comes with.)

While it might have seemed out of place to some, I was so happy my Uncle Vernon organized such a thing for me. He spoke of my grandmother (who was his sponsor when he came to the states), of her strong will and good humor, of how she helped him adjust to a land far away. He led the songs and helped me feel like my grandmother was there in spirit. She was there that night, I know it, watching on as we honored her memory.

My Uncle Vernon (uncle in the Polynesian sense, aka
related more distantly but who cares), speaking of
my grandmother at my wedding.
It has always been hard for me to let moments like this into my life, because I often feel as if I'm not allowed to (which will be the next post), but I am always glad when I ignore that negative voice and let it happen.

My mother would always tell stories of my grandmother bringing home strangers to feed at dinnertime. Of giving all she had even though she didn't have much. Of comforting and caring for the patients she nursed. This was the kind of deep generosity engrained in my mother from my grandmother, and some of it came to me (though much more of it came to my sisters...).

Even now, that is my standard. I have to make extra food if I'm serving a meal, just incase there are more to feed than expected. I have the impulse to give, unable to ask for money when many might (be it food from my garden, furniture, outgrown clothes, or writing critiques). Generosity is also a remnant, or perhaps the better word is legacy, of our family. Of the Maori, I believe.

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


  1. I've been reading your white passing posts and all I can think is how brave you are. These are wonderful, terrible glimpses into your life and self, and also into the world around you that you are sharing with us. I don't think I could do this. You are so strong. Thank you for sharing these experiences with us.

  2. I think this is my favorite post yet. I love seeing all the ways that your grandma's legacy blesses you. ❤️

  3. The picture of the tree gave me chills. So cool! I love all of these posts. I don’t have the challenge you do of passing, but I definitely relate to the feeling of belonging and rightness when visiting where I came from.

    Interestingly, I learned more about my Finnish heritage from my dad (who is not Finnish) than my Finnish mother, who tried to pass as American when she came to the States—to the point that she refused to teach us Finnish, instead determined to have no accent in her English (didn’t work, of course).

    It’s only been the last 20 years or so (she’s 75) that she’s embraced her own background & even brags about it, likely because Finland has a higher profile and better reputation than in 1965.

    I’m so, so grateful that my dad taught me about the food and culture and even a few words when I was little. Even more grateful that I got to live there for a while & visit a couple of times since.

    You can bet that I share that heritage with my kids, just as I’m sure you’re passing on yours to your children!

    Seriously love this series. 💙

  4. Thank you for sharing these. Wonderful to see them.

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