Where is my place? Who are my people?


This year’s Matariki festival has a theme around indigenous knowledge systems: “Ngā kura huna” meaning important knowledge and treasured learning that would otherwise remain hidden. It’s a reminder of a time our ancestors were living and a time to gather as a united community to celebrate new beginnings. I’m hoping to convey some of that wisdom and learning through traditional and contemporary art, fashion design and music.by Darryn GeorgeAriki by Darryn George

Celebrating Matariki offers those of us with ancestral roots in other lands a space to think about our own whakapapa, our tūrangawaewae, our relationships, as well as responding to the spirit of a celebration evolved here in Aotearoa, aligning with our seasons and our location in the universe.

I’ve read that when our young people travel overseas, they need only sing, “Tūtira mai, ngā iwi” for another young Kiwi far from home to respond “Tatou, tatou e!” How fortunate they are to learn waiata at school, and to have this anthem of unity to inform their identity.

We usually sing “We are whanau, we are one” [Companions let us pray together] as a communion hymn, and the lyrics by Witi Ihimaera and David Clark are a poem of shared values and rainbow inclusivity.  I love to sing, “We are whanau, we are one” for its Covenant affirmations, but in 2020 it’s still aspirational. While loving its intent and its place in our faith story, I fear it’s a comfortable Pakeha conceit that Christ has won our peace, so we don’t have to continue the work of true partnership.

Fiona talked last Sunday of the “living gift” of music that’s passed down through her family, and perhaps something of the ancient Celts resounds in me when I sing, “I bind unto myself today the strong arm of the Trinity” [St Patrick’s Breastplate]. This incantation of protection echoes ancient prayers and songs, and continues into our contemporary expressions:

st patricks breastplatein the Psalms of David, where repetition and rewording emphasises significance; in the carefully constructed language and gestures of haka; the intentional references and echoes in Midrashic storytelling; in Gregorian chant and Taizé hymns; in ancient supplication to the spirits of the elements; in the reggae anthems that are so much a part of Māori and Pasifika music; and in stylized hip-hop rhythms that accompany cleverly crafted rap chants.

In 2011, Warwick and I spent a week in Herefordshire on the border with Wales, exploring the locations in Phil Rickman’s novels about an Anglican priest whose inexplicable mystical experiences lead to her become a Deliverance Consultant—a euphemism for the Diocesan Exorcist—although its never explicit whether the incidents she’s faces are paranormal, psychic or psychological in origin. As a young, attractive, recently widowed, female priest in a vaguely defined role, she attracts attention from some unpleasant and dangerous people, as well as deeply troubled ones.

So in every new situation, she “protects herself” with St Patrick’s Breastplate: “Christ be with me, Christ within me… Christ in quiet, Christ in danger.”

It’s not lost on the reader that, while the priest agonises over her teenage daughter’s rejection of the Church of England in favour of exploring paganism, she recites this protective, binding spell—parts of which, especially the earlier 5th Century versions, have a strong pagan structure.

It reminds me of my mother’s friend who confided that before going into the cemetery on her marae, she “covered herself in the blood of the Lamb”. At the time I was rejecting Atonement theology and scorning mysticism, and was quite dismissive of this gruesome-sounding ritual. It’s too late to apologise personally to Wanda, but I am deeply sorry now that I disrespected her Māori and Christian spiritual practice.

And the irony’s not lost on me—or you either, I’m sure—that here I am, a privileged white woman with settler forebears, saying we should stop talking and listen.

Ironically, too, it was visiting the UK and being among thousands of years of history, artefacts and culture—and the unanticipated feeling of familiarity in so many places—that helped me just begin to comprehend the attachment to place that’s so important to Māori. I came home wanting to understand how that “spirit of place” —so evident in cathedrals and holy sites after millennia of sacred ritual—is embodied in this whenua, this land of my birth.

Can anything from my settler heritage and Celtic ancestry connect me, not intellectually, but in a bone-deep, heartfelt way to the colonised experience of Tangata Whenua?

Writing about “Contemporary Paganism in the UK”, and the number of people turning to the pre-Christian spirituality of their ancestors,  Denise Cush, Emeritus Professor of Religion and Education, says:

Perhaps the central and distinctive feature of Paganism is the sacredness of the natural world, making it particularly appropriate for a society facing a human-created climate emergency which could lead to the extinction of many species, including ourselves. It could be said that the sacred text of Paganism is not a holy book but the natural world itself. Pagans may be pantheists, polytheists, animists or even atheists but they are united in finding the divine within nature, rather than beyond it… Pagans stress the interconnectedness of all life and seek to live in harmony with nature, viewing the current environmental crisis as a result of humans considering themselves separate from and superior to the rest of life…

The approach to ethics is summed up by the Wiccan Rede – but living without fixed rules can be quite challenging as it involves making constant judgements about what is the least harmful course of action in each context. Important ethical issues for Pagans include environmental concerns, equality and diversity and social justice…[1]

Our offering prayer (below) is a traditional karakia, acknowledging the gifts of food from gifts of food from the sacred forests, from the cultivated gardens, from the sea, from the fresh waters…

Matariki—like all significant cultural events—has inspired many new songs and waiata that remind us of whakapapa and our need to care for the earth. During lockdown, Te Whānau-a-Apanui singer Maisey Rika began writing what started out as one song about Matariki and turned into a collection of nine waiata. While writing, she talked to Māori astronomer Professor Rangi Matamua about the ancient stories of Matariki and he taught her there are nine stars of Matariki, not the seven she already knew about.

Dr Rangi Matamua, a Māori astronomy expert, is the first Māori to win one of the Prime Minister's prestigious science prizesDr Matamua was awarded the top communication prize at the Prime Minister’s Science Awards this month, for his efforts to revitalise traditional Māori knowledge of the stars.[2]  For him, traditional Māori star knowledge and Western science are allies.

In creating her new album, Maisey Rika wanted to connect her waiata about the stars and gods to “what’s happening on the ground” to people in Aotearoa. She says that at the times she was writing Matariki i te pō, “our young māmā in Hawke’s Bay was getting her baby taken away from her and when I heard [the star] Matariki is the mum of all these gifted children, I thought ‘I’m going to try to honour that. It’s time to get our children back’.”[3]

The waiata also touches on suicide, homelessness, and three wishes. “What would we wish for a mother who’s had her child taken? What would she be wishing for, her child back? What [about] a boy who has lost a child to suicide, what would he be wishing for?”

Our final hymn is that paeon of hope and challenge by our kaumatua, Shirley Murray: O God, we bear the imprint of your face. There’s no coddling of white sensibilities here, no concession to the decades when “nobody told us”, or indignant “not all Pākehā” responses, or “I’m not racist, but…”

The hymn carries with it the voices of Te Āti Awa as our settler forebears crowded them off their land around Te Whanganui-a-Tara;

It carries the voice of Courtney Ariel, who suggests to white allies that we listen more and talk less, and the voices of young men who are routinely stopped by police for driving while Māori.

It conveys the message of Ngāpuhi chief Hone Wiremu Heke Pokai, former advocate for the Treaty, and his disappointment that colonisation had not brought his people the prosperity they’d been promised. Wanting to show displeasure at the British government without threatening Pākehā settlers, many of us only know of him as Hōne Heke who ordered the cutting down of the flagpole.

Shirley’s hymn carries the spirit of George Floyd, pleading I can’t breathe, and it reminds us that the riots following his death are in response to generations of economic, social, generational and spiritual violence.

It carries the voice of God in the Covenant with Noah: “I will certainly demand an accounting regarding bloodshed… I’ll demand an accounting from every human being for the life of another human being… because they are made in God’s own image.”

Christ is the brother we still crucify,his love the language we must learn, or die.

Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are insistent that white people should own and be proud of their own heritage—a heritage many of us know little about, which many of our ancestors were keen to leave behind.

So, where is my place? Who are my people?

After all the soul-searching, I realised the answer is simple and profound: I am Tangata Tiriti. My waka is the Bengal Merchant and my people are those who honour the Covenant with the People of the Land.

And if you’ve asked yourself similar questions, here’s another part of the story: This is our place, these are our people: in this whare karakia, on this turangawaewae, this sacred ground where all are welcome and everyone has a place to stand.

Ake ake—forever and ever. Amen

Offering Prayer
Welcome the gifts of food
from the sacred forests
from the cultivated gardens
from the sea
from the fresh waters
The food of Tane
of Rongo
of Tangaroa
of Maru
I acknowledge Ranginui who is above me, Papatūānuku who lies beneath me
Let this be my commitment to all!
Draw together! Amen

Nau mai e ngā hua
o te wao, o te ngakina, o te wai tai, o te wai Māori
Nā Tane, Nā Rongo, Nā Tangaroa, Nā Maru
Ko Ranginui e tū iho nei
Ko Papatūānuku e takoto nei
Tuturu whakamaua
Kia tina! Tina! Hui E! Tāiki E!

[1] The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.  https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/contemporary-paganism-in-the-uk

[2] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/420267/maori-astronomer-professor-rangi-matamua-wins-top-science-award

[3] https://www.teaomaori.news/maisey-rika-releases-new-album-inspired-matariki-stars?_ga=2.50583273.1559706069.1595032744-656937.1595032744