Finding my Pepeha in New Zealand

The ceremony was supposed to be a homecoming, but I felt oddly foreign. Alex and I took our places atop Mt. Eden in Auckland, New Zealand, an extinct volcano the indigenous Maori consider tapu, or sacred and untouchable. Across from us stood Tracey and Tom, descendants of the Maori chiefs who founded the city.

Kia ora,” began Tracey, “We will now formally welcome you home to New Zealand according to formal Maori protocol.”

Our father is from New Zealand and we are full citizens. We’ve always considered New Zealand to be our distant homeland, but I’ve never lived there and never felt very Kiwi. Neither are we Maori. We are descendants of Pākehā, or European New Zealanders, and I was acutely aware that we now stood on land historically belonging to Tracey’s tribe.

“First,” he continued, “we will acknowledge the creator. Then we will bless you – our visitors – acknowledge your ancestors, and introduce them to our ancestors, who walk alongside us at all times.”

According to custom, strangers cannot enter tribal land without blessings, formal introductions, statements of intent and asking permission in the form of a song and a poem. It is a tradition originating from when New Zealand was divided amongst hundreds of warring tribes and travelers could not casually walk across the country without risking trouble.

These days, such a formal host/visitor relationship is an increasingly antiquated concept in our globalized world of vanishing borders. But to me it represented a chance to formally reconnect with my kiwi ancestry, a chance to be welcomed not just into this particular place, but into the other half of my heritage.

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