tipuna

A clear example of the types of definitions and control in regard to imagery of Maori people can be seen in the recently acclaimed film The Piano. There is little doubt in my mind that Jane Campion is a film maker of great ability and repute. However, the depiction of Maori people in the film leaves no stereotyped stone unturned. What we have in The Piano is a series of constructions of Maori people which are located firmly in a colonial gaze, which range from the ‘happy go lucky native’ to the sexualised Maori woman available at all times to service Pakeha men. The perception of Maori people given in The Piano is that our tipuna were naive, simpleminded, lacked reason, acted impulsively and spoke only in terms of sexual innuendo, with a particular obsession with male genitalia. For Maori people The Piano is dangerous. It is dangerous in its portrayal of Maori people linked solely to a colonial gaze, that is uncritical and unchallenging of the stereotypes that have been paraded continuously as 'the way we were.’
—  Leonie Pihama, “Are films dangerous? A Maori woman’s perspective on ‘The Piano.’" 

This is my maternal grandmother, Te Ata Ihaia Kiri Kowhai na Manuhiri. This photo would have been taken some time in the 1940s, when she was in her early twenties. She spent her earliest years growing up across two of our marae, Ruamata and Pikiao in Rotorua. When she was in her early teens, she went to work as a servant in the house of a rich pākehā  family (who are still very influential in the area) whose farm was acquired from my hapu well before she was born. Can you imagine, serving a family on your ancestral land? Washing their dirty clothes and scrubbing their floors, on the land that is a part of you and your tipuna? 

She was given the nickname Bessie when she went to work for them, because they couldn’t pronounce her name. Bessie is engraved on her tombstone in our urupa, she went by that as much as Te Ata Ihaia for most of her life.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, more of our land was taken under the Public Works act for the Rotorua airport. It was originally planned for the southern side of Te Ngae rd, which now belonged (by law) to the family my grandmother worked for. They had the power to oppose it, my hapu did not. 

Te Ata Ihaia worked for this family for about a decade (as much as any one can remember), before she left to work at Rotorua Hospital. She never spoke Te Reo after working for them. 

My grandfather, who was a pākehā man of German and English heritage, called her Bessie all of his life. His first (white) wife from Auckland used to tell their children that they would be sent to their father and his ’Māori witch wife’ if they misbehaved.

Despite all the messed-up stuff she had to go through, I remember her as the kindest, most gentle person. I remember making fry bread with her on a wood-burner stove that was as old as she was. I don’t have many memories of her, I wish I had been more interested in her life and her stories when she was alive. She died just over sixteen years ago, when I was ten years old.

This is a common story for so many families across Aotearoa, and I imagine for so many disenfranchised indigenous communities across the world. I love reading about the great navigators and explorers, the ancient history and myths or our people, stories which have been told a thousand times (even though I have so much more to hear and read, I’m pretty ignorant of a lot of our shared history outside of my iwi). But I treasure the lives of our more recent and intimate tipuna. Whakapapa is important. Learn as much as you can about your family, listen to your old people. They are in us and we are in them.