We could not have been more otherly. From our up to our down, in our good shoes and ironed shirts; we stood stiffly under a savage sun. As we picked our way along the path, across the pretty, awkwardly laid stones, we were nervous. One among our women was nominated to respond to the karanga. It would be her first time, she said, but although she looked fearful, her call rang out true and clear. Our men spoke, one older, one younger. Even with my smattering of te reo, I sensed they were far from fluent, and yet they spoke with a careful kind of ardour, and it was enough. Should we stand? We hobbled through our first waiata, started to hit our straps with the second. And finally it was time to hongi, and our anxiety rose again. Kia ora, kia ora. Bend down. Stretch up. Clasp hands. Press foreheads. Were we doing it right?
Our journey last weekend to Takahanga Marae began with a phone call. Six months ago a woman rang my husband. In February, she said, there would be a family reunion. All Heke Clark's descendants were welcome. I first heard of Heke 19 years ago, a few weeks after my husband and I started going out, when his father jokingly referred to "our Spanish relative". He did not mean to be awful; it was how previous generations had referred to my husband's Maori great-great-great-grandmother. We knew Heke was Ngai Tahu and that she'd had a daughter called Jessie, and that because of this my husband had claim to part of a block of land in deepest Southland and our children could apply for financial assistance when they went to university, but this was all we knew.
As soon as my husband told me of this invitation that had come so out of the blue, I knew we would go. I am not Maori but as a small child my father taught at a Maori boys' college, and later I studied te reo, initially because it was compulsory and then because I chose to. There was a marae on the grounds of my high school. It was as much a fixture of my education as the sally lunns for sale at the tuck shop. I don't know if it's the almost 10-year age gap between my husband and me, or if it's because he grew up in a far more suburban, white environment than I did, attending schools less interested in biculturalism, but I have always felt at home with tikanga Maori in a way he never has. I knew his lack of exposure to Maoridom, and hence discomfort around it, bothered him. I knew when our children had to prepare mihi for homework, and we had to make up their hapu, take a stab at their awa, google their maunga, he felt he had failed them somehow.
This is your turangawaewae, they told us in Kaikoura. Does it feel like it, I asked my husband. I'm not sure, he said. He's a keen hunter and gatherer of kaimoana and he was pleased to discover he's from a place famed for its crayfish and paua. We travelled in convoy to see the original site of the pa, the shore upon which a fierce battle had been waged. We ate together and we washed hundreds of dishes together. There were tears shed. Many people had spent many years trying to find Heke and it must have been wonderful to finally know where she lies. There was a man who works for Ngai Tahu's Whakapapa Unit who, since 1965, had been seeking the answers to these questions on behalf of the family. He'd caught the bus from Christchurch to Kaikoura that morning, because, he said, for him it was closure. After the last official speaker had finished, a local man got up. When you arrived, he said, I saw a bunch of Pakeha for whom much of this was probably pretty foreign. But, he said, I think change is afoot in this country. There's a coming together of our peoples. And, in coming here, you showed a willingness to be a part of that change. A willingness to understand we're not so different beneath it all.
The next morning I saw him at breakfast. How was it, he asked. Great, I said. Even the communal sleeping bit, which I was dreading, wasn't that bad. Yeah, he said, I'm not really into that part either.