I never understood tūrangawaewae until I experienced another country on fire, writes Lee Suckling.
It took a natural disaster of devastating proportions for me to understand my own relationship with tūrangawaewae: our collective sense of foundation and security in relation to our land.
You all know what's been happening in Australia for the last few months. The east and south coasts have been suffocated by bushfires. More than 45 million acres have burned, 6,500 buildings destroyed, 34 human lives lost, and – devastatingly – half a billion animals, many natives like the koala, killed.
I spent time in Sydney this summer. I often woke up at 3am coughing to the smell of smoke. I had ash falling on me, I experienced the inability to see 50 metres ahead in the central city, the dull red sun, and the apocalyptic pinky-brown skies. I wore a P2 face mask to walk on the streets. I also watched a government seemingly not care and absolve itself from responsibility.
All I could think, throughout all of this, is "how is it Australians are just going about their normal lives like this? This would never happen at home."
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It's here the concept of tūrangawaewae became salient to me. It's the difference between how Australians are dealing in such a crisis, and how we'd approach the same in New Zealand.
Tūrangawaewae is something that makes us uniquely New Zealanders. But it has not been something with which I've identified until now. I've taken for granted our green landscapes, our clear skies, and sparkling waters. I've been looking at them for more than three decades with complacency. Yet when I got off that plane from Australia and breathed that unmistakably clean New Zealand air on the drive home, I had a somewhat spiritual experience. Finally, after 34 years, this Kiwi began to understand what tūrangawaewae really means to him.
I can't stop marvelling at New Zealand and my connection to it. I go walking in the bush and feel toxins being released from my body and absorbed by the trees. I take my shoes off whenever possible and experience the earth or sand between my toes – resulting in a sense that I am one part of the land on which I stand. I go swimming in the river near my house and watch the water run down from the mountain, or lie face up in the ocean on hot summer days and feel its healing properties literally wash over me. I feel my body, and my mind, experience wholeness.
Let me recall a seminal moment the day after I flew back from Australia. Like most New Zealanders, I'm pretty drawn to the water. As I dipped into the frigid sea of Port Nicholson, I didn't complain that the water was warmer across the ditch. In fact, I revelled in its chill. I put my head under and tasted its salt on my lips. I swam and watched its diamond-like gleam on my skin. I thought to myself, "I love this ocean. There are many others like it. But this one is MINE".
I once wrote a column about getting a DNA test and finding out I was "less Māori" than I thought . Ever since this was published, I've had letters and e-mails from Kiwis around the world telling me my Māoridom is not defined by a percentage. You either are Māori, or you are not. It's not about the volume of Māori blood that runs through my veins; there is nobody who is more or less indigenous, and therefore legitimate or pure, than another Māori.
My internal feeling of legitimacy as Māori has been solidified with this new understanding of tūrangawaewae. This inner sense of safety I feel when my feet are on this land? That's tūrangawaewae. This relationship I claim with mountains, seas and rivers that makes me feel calm and empowered? It's tūrangawaewae. This is my foundation. This is my place in the world. This is my home.
It's your home, too. When I compare the Australian experience to our own, I don't get the same sense of collective ownership of the land on the other side of the Tasman. My Aussie friends aren't defined by the same connection to what they walk on. They don't have the same respect for the ancestors whose feet stepped before them. This mutual feeling is something that makes us "us". I hope other Kiwis don't need to wait for a natural disaster to understand this like I did.