By Kahu Kutia
With the mass urban migration of Māori to Aotearoa’s cities, there are now whole generations of people without knowledge of where they come from. Geneva Alexander-Marsters is a musician in Tāmaki Makaurau, and creator of He Kākano Ahau’s theme music. She always wanted to visit the place that she is from before she turns 30. In episode 6 of the podcast, she makes that haerenga. Scroll to the bottom of this article to listen.
It has been a strange thing to reflect on this series again, in the wake of a global lockdown. A whole world and one year ago we were recording these stories. This series is more than just a project to me. I wove in people and stories that I greatly admire. I cried when Tapu Te Ranga burned to the ground, because that marae was a home for me. I flew into the thick of the fire at Ihumātao because mana whenua called us there and the struggle of Pania and her whānau is a struggle for tino rangatiratanga for all of us. In May last year, I felt deeply the weight and privilege of joining Geneva Alexander-Marsters alongside her whānau on Geneva’s journey to visit her kuia and her uncle for the first time, in the urupā on ancestral land she had never before visited.
I found strands of connection for myself in every episode. It is never just one person’s story but a bend in the flow of all te ao Māori. But this is our way, nē? We never talk about the singular, it is always the collective.
In a world and situation that was already leaving me plenty of time to overthink, I have spent the last week reflecting on this final episode of the series. It has been almost exactly a year now since we made our trip to Wairoa and Frasertown where Geneva discovered for the first time one of her ancestral homelands. I decided to give Geneva a call to check how she’s been during lockdown and to share memories from our haerenga. I assured her that I am a professional as I documented our conversation via a video recording on the Photobooth app.
Lockdown so far has been tough for Geneva. But she tells me she has moved into a new flat.
“I’m surrounded by boxes… there’s 18 people here in my flat. It kind of reminds me of a Pākehā version of a marae. Bigger meals, heaps of people around, people supporting each other, people making sure everybody’s looked after.
It’s like a parallel of what I’m used to if I were to visit a marae, or what is expected of you when you’re in that situation.”
We talk about the government response to Covid-19. While we are not facing the catastrophic health crises seen in other countries, this crisis has laid bare the health inequities in Aotearoa for disability communities, indigenous people, the elderly, and isolated rural communities. For Geneva, there is a whakapapa in the government’s response that leads back to the teachings of te ao Māori.
“There’s this adoption of these concepts of kindness and manaakitanga in the face of Covid-19 and Jacinda is getting all this kudos from the global community saying that she's a leader. She’s actually adopting Māori ways of life. This isn’t new, this is old in my opinion.”
It’s been a year since we hopped on a plane from Tāmaki Makaurau to Heretaunga, and drove our way up the coast to Wairoa. Our crew was as follows: Geneva, her father Daniel, her brother Johnny Five (yes that’s his real name), and myself and the producer of He Kākano Ahau Frances Morton. The idea initially rose out of a conversation between Frances and Geneva.
“Reflecting on what we did last year. If we hadn’t gone then, I probably never would have had the chance to do it. I wouldn’t have known what was there and maybe I would have thought about it now and then - but now I have these really good memories of everyone being there and the random stuff that we got up to right at the beginning of winter.”
I ask Geneva if there’s anything she would change about our haerenga.
“I always kind of regretted my outfit for the urupā, like, I looked really shit in the photos! Because everyone else wore black and I was super cold. So I was really colourful and I had this fucked up beanie and everyone else looked way better than I did.”
I point out to her that really, we were all outshone by her father Daniel Marsters, who met us at the airport in Heretaunga in a slick leather jacket and black cowboy boots. For me, it was admiration at first sight.
“I was so overwhelmed by the other things that were going on in my life. I had every single colour but black on to go to an urupā which is something I would never do at a tangi but I did it to go see my grandmother and my uncle and I always think about it because, like, fuck that’s disrespectful. What am I doing?”
“Presentation is also part of being Māori too in my opinion. Just making it count. If you’re doing something that’s significant to you then you’re going to present yourself properly in that moment. I had a fashion fail.”
One thing we didn’t anticipate was that the Wairoa Film Festival would be on while we were there. After arriving in Wairoa and settling into our hotel, we went for a drive and found ourselves at Nūhaka Marae. That evening there was to be a gala for the festival. Geneva expresses her regret that we were all too tired to go.
“It was difficult to find people in a town that’s not really that busy. I think we would have had a completely different story if we’d actually made it to that gala,” she says.
Next Geneva and I talk about the trepidation that comes with returning home. I grew up on my whenua, and still find myself struck with flashes of imposter syndrome while being in the city now. I think it takes a huge amount of courage to even think about returning to land you were alienated from for the first time.
“I felt kind of weary about meeting my family there. I already felt quite overwhelmed and you’re not supposed to feel like a stranger, but I did and I didn’t want to be confronted by people that were like ‘We’ve been here this whole time and you’ve never come to fucking see us’.”
“I didn’t want to have that conversation with someone and I felt really sorry about that, but I really don’t think I would have gone down [if we didn’t record for He Kākano Ahau].”
Geneva wasn’t the only one having to confront hard ideas in the wake of our trip. We talk about Daniel. In Geneva’s whānau, disconnection began with the early death of her grandmother, and the forcible removal of her father and all his siblings from the area. I bring in my memories of listening to Daniel, and the way he would so casually bring up traumatic memories as we drove through the small town and into the country towards Frasertown.
“Sometimes your connection to a place can’t always be the place where your ancestors were. I know that’s a very different thing to say but Wairoa is just a place to me. It’s important to my family but there are also a lot of painful memories there. I can't really look past it. It wasn’t a happy place for them at all.”
“I think that for a lot of people who are in my situation, the reason we don’t have a connection to those places is because they were traumatised there.”
It’s a history of trauma that is all too prevalent in Aotearoa. As she put it, we were there to specifically explore Geneva’s reclamation of a place, but there’s a whole deeper story of colonisation that could not be explored in a 30-minute podcast and an article. We talk about the fact that only a month after our trip, a media frenzy erupted around a story by Newsroom journalist Melanie Reed into the child uplifts by Oranga Tamariki. The story takes place in the close-by area of Heretaunga. It is evidence that the legacy of trauma that Geneva and her whānau began to unwind on our haerenga are not just historical, they are continued to this day.
I ask Geneva what the next step is in her own journey.
“There’s reclamation and then there’s reconnection, I think we went on a haerenga to reclaim some information but in terms of reconnecting that hasn’t happened yet,” she says.
“People ask me these questions like ‘do you know this traditional stuff’ and I’m like, I’m not from Auckland via my tribe but I can recommend a good flat white on Ponsonby Road.
“It’s not what they’re looking for. They need the spiritual resource that I don’t have. I don’t know what our dialect sounds like. I don’t know what our tikanga is around a tupapaku or what you do in certain situations. I don’t know what runs in our family. I know none of that stuff. I’m happy to admit it but it’s quite a shameful position to be in.”
And what kind of reactions did people give Geneva in response to He Kākano?
“It’s a story about someone admitting that they don’t know where they’re from and trying to figure it out and how difficult it can be. It’s encouraging enough just to hear it, but I think for a lot of people they do need to hear it.
“I’ve had conversations around reclaiming the place that you’re from but still feeling disconnected from it. It’s like that scene in The Labyrinth with that goblin dude. You have to ask the right questions to find the door.”
In making He Kākano Ahau, we could not possibly have anticipated everything that would occur and the journey our stories would take us on. All of them are unfinished kōrero, and continuing to develop to this day. I am so proud of the series we created, and so grateful to all of our kaikōrero for their generosity in giving so much of themselves to the series. He Kākano Ahau could not exist without them.
I also have so much gratitude for the production team that helped pull it together. Our amazing producer and co-writer Frances Morton. Co-writer and series editor of Bang! fame Melody Thomas, who saved our asses when we thought editing a podcast was something we could “do ourselves”. To Kay and Shannon at RNZ, to NZ on Air. Our amazing video director Ursula Williams. All of you who gave me tips and information to guide the story. To all the whānau who shared with us this kaupapa. E mihi ana. Tēnā rawa atu koutou.
I leave you all with this quote from the original rangatira of Māori media, Barry Barclay.
“You're having yourself on if you think the camera's neutral. And you need in a way, I believe, to look at who you are making the film for, and exactly what kind of truth you're telling.”
He Kākano Ahau is for all the glorious tamariki Māori growing up in on urban streets.
He Kākano Ahau is a podcast written, researched, and hosted by Ngāi Tūhoe writer and activist Kahu Kutia. Kahu lives in Wellington after spending the first 18 years of her life in the valleys of her papakāinga, Te Urewera. Over six episodes, Kahu explores stories of Māori in the city, weaving together strands of connection. At the base is a hunch that not all of us who live in the city are disconnected from te ao Māori.
Follow along with the entire series here.
By Ursula Grace Productions, made possible by the RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund.