When the 1955 Adoption Act came into force, many Māori children were separated from their birth parents and became part of non-Māori families.
Now, a new University of Otago research project, supported by a Marsden grant, is looking to help descendants of Māori adoptees reconnect with their birth families.
School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies Te Tumu researcher Dr Erica Newman said the project was socially significant because it would bring to light the consequences of trans-racial adoption on identity and wellbeing for adoptees and their descendants in New Zealand as they searched for their turangawaewae.
"These adoptees had no knowledge of their Māori ancestry. And because they were unable to [or chose not to] have contact with their biological whānau, their unknown history has not been passed on to their descendants.
"The absence of taha Māori [Māori side] for descendants of Māori adoptees can have an effect on their identity, their health and their wellbeing.
"Finding whakapapa connections can benefit and strengthen their Māori identity by knowing who they are and where they come from."
The Marsden Fast Start research project would follow descendants of Māori adoptees on their journey to find their turangawaewae, Newman said.
"The research will explore how descendants of Māori adoptees identify with their taha Maori, avenues they may have already taken to connect to their turangawaewae and how they are accepted by their whānau and hapū."
A private Facebook community had been established for Māori adoptees and descendants of Māori adoptees, a place where stories could be shared and support gained from each other, as well as ideas on how to start or continue their journey searching for their turangawaewae, she said.
She was inspired to do the research partly because she was a descendant of a Māori adoptee searching for her own turangawaewae, Newman said.
She planned to work with others who were on the same journey.
"Others may have already begun, or only now taking that first courageous step.
"This is a journey, and one that might not come to a conclusion, but still a journey of discovery, healing and acceptance."
For adoptees and descendants, there were often barriers that could make the journey daunting, she said.
"This could be accessing adoption files or making contact with hapū or iwi."
She hoped that by building a relationship with the Oranga Tamariki adoption service and iwi whakapapa units, she would be able to work with them to gain a full understanding of their processes as well as provide them with an understanding of the stressful and overwhelming challenges faced by adoptees and descendants.
Ultimately, she hoped the research would help to develop a new direction within the field of trans-racial adoption globally, through an international symposium and a book.