One of my favourite photographs shows my father (named, like me, John Tamihere) and his first great-grandson, also John. The family resemblance isn't great: you could definitely tell that Dad was Maori just by looking at him, while John junior is as blue-eyed and blond-haired as your average Scandinavian.
The difference in physical characteristics is the result of a great deal of intermingling between the races in our family, typical of the pattern of many families as we increasingly intermarry and increasingly share mixed ethnicities.
My father was of Ngati Porou descent; he grew up on a dirt floor speaking Maori in the small settlement of Mataora on the Coromandel Peninsula. You couldn't get much more "traditional" Maori than Dad was, although he happened to be named after a Pakeha who showed great honour to our family.
My Mum was a Pakeha of Irish and Scots descent. They met and fell in love and the result was a whole bunch of kids of mixed Maori-Irish-Scots ancestry.
That's great - in fact I hold great hope for our nation's future race relations largely because of this demographic trend. That future is being decided in our bedrooms, not our boardrooms.
It is pretty hard to sustain unconscionable views about the inferiority of any particular ethnic group when you are married to someone from that ethnic group, or have children who belong to that ethnic group.
Yet this same blending of ethnicities has also been used to suggest that there is "no such thing as a Maori" anymore. National Party leader Don Brash, in his lecture on things Maori, had it all neatly prescribed for us: "There is no homogenous, distinct Maori population," and "by 1900 there were no full-blooded Maori left in the South Island. By 2000 the same was true of the North Island" (he didn't mention the survival rate of "full-blooded Pakeha") and "what we are seeing is the emergence of a population of New Zealand of multi-ethnic heritage, a distinct South Seas race of New Zealanders where more and more of us will have a diverse ancestry."
The trouble with that is that we are told what our identity must be - a matter that is surely the prerogative of each individual, or family or community. We can't just be told we are "one people", when quite plainly we are not.
We certainly have many things in common and Waitangi Day should be a day to celebrate that but we also have many differences. They are not differences that should divide us if we are properly tolerant and respectful of those differences that make all of us unique.
One size does not fit all, and to suggest that we will all one day blend into a bland homogenous "one people" is getting dangerously close to a return to the failed policies of assimilation of yesteryear.
I am Maori. I am also proud of my Maori and Scots blood, but I think it is because I live in New Zealand that I feel a stronger pull towards my Maori ancestry. "Maoriness" is not about fractions of "Maori blood" or big lips and noses, or even about being fluent in the language.
For many Maori their strongest sense of identity might be with their traditional iwi. For many others, like myself, dislocated from their traditional homeland and tribal structure by the huge upheaval of urbanisation last century, their identity might be as a member of an urban Maori community.
Yet when my father took me back to our land at Mataora for the first time when I was 14, the feeling of connection was instant and absolute. I'm proud to be an urban Maori, Kiwi, Ngati Porou and a Westie. I don't need anyone to tell me who I am or am not.
Every one of you will have your own equally complicated and personal reasons for your own particular sense of belonging and identity. That is your choice, and it should be respected.
Of course the talkback callers will allege that people bearing a trace of "Maori blood" might claim "special" treatment on grounds of race and therefore gain unfair advantage that people of other ethnicities could not.
What I know is this: my father was typical of his generation in that he left school at 12; all five of his sisters died of tuberculosis before the age of 18; he laboured hard all his life in jobs that didn't pay much and struggled to raise 12 kids with not much to go around. We have come far enough in just a few generations that my nephew's life will hopefully travel an easier road.
Much of that progress has been made through the treaty settlements and treaty clauses in legislation that have been implemented in the past decade or so. Without that process the tensions that were simmering in the early 1980s (and I know of some major programmes of "direct action" that were being seriously contemplated then) would not have been resolved without the sort of serious racial divisions that other nations have experienced.
We still have a lot of work to do, and Maori remain disproportionately represented in all the worst statistics in health, education, welfare, justice and employment.
Maybe in some cases the pendulum has swung too far in addressing the inequalities. Maybe resentment has brewed where some see genuine attempts to give a hand up to those in need as "political correctness" and privilege based on race.
No one said this was going to be easy. Building a nation doesn't come with an instruction manual and we'll go through some testing times as we write our own. I suspect that right now we're going through some of the toughest tests we are going to face as a nation, but I hope we will come through it with dignity and respect for each other.
* John Tamihere is an Associate Minister of Maori Affairs.
Herald Feature: Maori issues
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