An essay by Ruby Solly about whakapapa, resistance, and the markers of history that often go unseen
In my dark hair, there is a red fleck. Like Tiger’s Eye stone, you see it run when the light hits it. The red fleck of totoweka, the blood in the stone. My hair is precious to me, and genetically it ties me to my Māori ancestors. It shows people that my DNA refuses to be colonized, and it shows that no matter how much they tried to breed us out, they haven’t succeeded because in my hair, there is a red fleck.
Everywhere we walk, we walk on our histories. This once terrified me, and I’d walk so gently that no one would hear me coming. I’d sneak up on myself time and time again. To me, both the ground I walked on and what I saw in the mirror were both mysteries I didn’t have the strength or the skills to unravel. I was just a breeze moving between the celestial bodies that we survive between. I could have stayed in that place for a long time. But lucky for me my ancestors were story tellers. My ancestors learnt to read signs.
I moved to Wellington at 17 and lived in Holloway Road which was built on top of the Waimapihi stream, named after one of my ancestors from Kāti Māmoe. But at the time this was unbeknownst to me. I knew all of the colonial history of this area from the signs at the entrance way to our little world. I knew that I was a modern day Mitchellite named from when the area was Wellington’s hub named “Mitchelltown”. I knew I had a place within history there as an observer and a carrier of that knowledge.
But it wasn’t until I’d long left that street and moved further downstream that I learnt of my ancestor Māpihi, or the pā sites in that area that my ancestors had lived in. It’s strange how things work this way, how the paths we find through the forest of this are often the ones that our ancestors have found before us. Sometimes we’re not making our own path, we’re just clearing the regrowth.
When I was further downstream I was closer again to myself, living on an old riwai plantation that some of my ancestors had gardened with strange plants still fighting through our lawn. Slowly people in my life from these worlds began to uncover things to me by showing me these tohu, by showing me these signs.
But to the naked eye and to those without the whakapapa to these places these things could not be seen. They only had photographs, documents, letters, dates and signatures. But within the physical embodiment of history, what did this hold? I find riwai in my lawn, and nurture them still. What’s a garden without history? What is whenua without the mulching fibers of the past?
I begin to press my heels to the ground as my ancestors did, to move it with tools like Rakaihautū did with his kō when he dug out the rivers and lakes of Te Wai Pounamu. We are all smaller echoes of larger sounds, until we ourselves grow our own songs within us. We were molded from soil, fertile places to create all things; art, history, writing, manuals of survival. It’s important to understand that we were bigger forces then. Great tīpua who bridged the gap between the gods and ourselves. We knew the weight of holding hands with the atua and with the people we would become. Through this we marked and developed the earth beneath. At Pariwhero (Red Rocks) Kupe’s descendants wept and slashed their breasts with grief as he left them on the shore and sailed away from them. Their pain stained those rocks and to this day their pain is present there. We see it and feel it through the consequences of their actions, through those stones reddened deeper still by the waves.
As beautiful as we are, as complex, as woven together from the good and the bad, the past and the future, we are not often seen or believed. I am in a car travelling back from a late gig up the coast. I have always been taught that the night is the place of potential, of listening, of storytelling; and so I tell the driver a story of the battle of Waiwhetū as we pass along the stream. The story of the tohuka who tells my ancestors that we will win this battle, but two of our young rakatira will die. He points to two young men including one of my tūpuna. Sure enough the battle is won, but he is killed. “You can make up whatever you want once people have died” he says. But I know he had no further children. I know I am here as proof of him. Rest easy in the stars reflected, e tupuna paua.
We trivialise these signs as stories. As tales instead of tohu. Because to many people a rock, a stream, a name, or a person can’t be seen as proof of history. But a statue, a plaque, or a monument can be. We have different ways of seeing and in many ways that weaves us together as people. But in other ways it divides us and questions the validity of Māori to tell the stories of these place and be the signs of the past and future within our existence. Seeing may be believing, but so is hearing feeling and being. Our existence is our belief.
When statues and modern tohu are placed on top of the whenua that makes up the land that we have sprung from, we feel it. We feel the weight of the iron, the history being placed on top of ours rather than interwoven with it. Walking through our whenua becomes to feel like a strange hall of mirrors, stretched and changed. We begin to not recognise our own bodies, our own tohu, our own survival.
The tohu we find in the land and within our bodies are ways that we converse with history. When I take a deep breath in I know that these lungs are a gift from Tawhirimātea, as are the clouds that make the white’s of my eyes. These things are part of how we are in conversation with the land and history around us. These things are a part of how we listen to the past and add to the future by watching the past move in front of us. We don’t get to choose when to ignore it because it is everywhere; both within our bodies and within the ground we walk on.
If you are talking over someone, you are not having a conversation with them. You are erasing them and creating an environment that will only hold your narrative. But we have been talking about our history since it was created, because to us, we are proof of that history. We are the stories we tell, and we each use what we have been given to add the next chapters. You too get to decide what you honour and what you add.
Before my people of Kai Tahu moved south to Te Wai Pounamu, they lived here in Wellington where I live now. A beautiful women named Rakaitekura had commited a hē; a mistake, a sin, and slept with another man while her husband Tūmaro was away. When he returned he found Rakaitekura ready to give birth. But when the birth proved difficult, he took this as a sign of her infidelity and began to call the names of men within the kaika. When he reached the name ‘Te Aohikuraki’ the baby came forth into te ao mārama and Tūmaro knew that this man was the father of Rakaitekura’s child. He was enraged and some say that he ordered Rakaitekura to prepare herself for death. When she was preparing her long hair, Tūmaro saw the red fleck in the strands as the sun became caught within its them and he knew then that he could not kill her. So she and her son were prepared not for death, but for Te Aohikuraki. Because of the red fleck, she survived. These are my ancestors and in my hair, there is a red fleck.
* Made with the support of the Matatuhi Foundation *