The Place Where My Bones Lay
I sit in Los Angeles International Airport, my mind malleable, pliant, after 24 hours spent in transit, waiting to board the plane that will take me to my final destination. I wonder whose land I am passing through uninvited, albeit on a route not of my choosing, albeit only briefly. I have been here before, but it barely counts, each visit occurring within the confines of LAX. The only thing I really know about this place is that US border security requires all passengers to collect their luggage and pass through customs, irrespective of transit or intended final destination. But he aha, that's all behind me now. I sit placidly in the gate lounge, sleep deprived as hell, feeling like I'm underwater. I don't mind this feeling.
I look down at my passport. It's new, pristine, the only stamp inside being the most recent one - barely an hour old, the ink still fresh - and one other, from a brief sojourn to ngā motu o Te Moananui-a-Kiwa last summer for a friend's wedding. I read the te reo Māori subtitles on my passport. I muse on (moreso than wonder) why there is an 'F' instead of a 'Wa' under Wahine/Tāne, and why it says 'New Zealand' instead of 'Ngāpuhi' under Iwi Tūturu. I turn the page, reading the translation of the security instructions in full, savouring it, every last lick of my language. Here, wild with sleeplessness and far from home, I'm hungry for it. Desperate. As I read, I recognise many of the kupu, but read together I comprehend too little of it, it's not nearly enough. I turn my passport over in my hand, and without meaning to, my jaw sets and my lips tighten over my teeth in a slight grimace. I can't help but think that there's a kind of cruel irony here.
I remember in my ignorance thinking that the reo Māori on a New Zealand passport - belonging to the boyfriend of my early twenties, certainly not the first I'd seen but the first I remember observing closely - denoted that the holder was tangata whenua. Later I found out that uruwhenua just meant passport, and that the translations were mostly meaningless because the official data was all in English anyway. Back then, the only passport I had ever held was an Australian one, which my mother had applied for on my behalf so we could visit our whānau back home, and which I later renewed myself, for the same purpose, as a young adult.
"Whakapapa, whānau, whenua. I had – was born with,
have always had and will always have – all three,
but none were considered acceptable proof of admission"
I was born and raised on Bundjalung Country, educated in the territory of the Turrbal people, and finally returned to my own whenua after a stint living and studying within the rohe of Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei, Ngāti Paoa, Te Ākitai, Te Kawerau ā Maki. I left Australia, the colony in which I was born, because I was tired of being an uninvited guest in somebody else's house, especially under a violent colonial regime that continued to inflict untold damage on the people and the land. The doors to the land of my father's people (tangata nō Hōrana) were mostly closed (a citizenship by descent application declined, because my mother wasn't Dutch and my parents were never married), and besides, as the child of a disconnected and displaced immigrant, I'd never been able to experience much of a connection to my culture, to that side of me, i te taha o tōku pāpā.
With my koro and his sisters firmly tying me to the whenua, to our whānau, to my Māori identity, Aotearoa is the only place that ever felt like home. Yet as a second generation Australian-born Māori, I had to apply for the right of citizenship. Those same rights that had been constitutionally enshrined in the document my tūpuna signed, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and yet, like so many other things that were promised, the denial of the right of citizenship, it seems, is yet another breach of this agreement. Whakapapa, whānau, whenua. I had – was born with, have always had and will always have – all three, but none were considered acceptable proof of admission. None were sufficient currency to attain membership, to become a citizen of the colonial government that continues to illegally occupy our whenua, usurp our sovereignty and undermine our hapū rangatiratanga.
When I cried to the Sāmoan immigration officer, she was sympathetic but there was nothing specifically in the Act to provision for this. The Pākehā manager I spoke to on the phone was unmoved, and did not believe that my situation constituted exceptional circumstances. I can’t help but wonder, wryly, where do they think my bones lay? Ngā kōiwi ki runga. This whenua. Aotearoa. What other land would receive me? Where else could I ever belong? Only the Pākehā would think that the connection to land could be severed in two short generations.
"Ngā kōiwi ki runga. This whenua. Aotearoa.
What other land would receive me?
Where else could I ever belong?"
Despite my repeated requests, in the end I had to go through the same process as everybody else – wait through five years of permanent residency, fill out an application form, pay the fee, and attend a public ceremony where I swore allegiance to the Queen. My uncle and our kaumātua had a private whakatau for me amidst the public ceremony. It was the only thing that kept me from crying. Being forced to attend a public citizenship ceremony, as tangata whenua, was one of the most humiliating and painful experiences of my life. Not to mention the indignity of paying for the privilege. I was welcomed as a new citizen, by the Pākehā Mayor, on land that was stolen from my Te Parawhau tūpuna. How's that for irony?
Maumahara hoki. In a past life my diasporic heart beats, heart aches, for my ūkaipō, my tūpuna whenua. The day before I departed for this journey to Turtle Island, I walked over our tūpuna whenua with my whānau, through the repo, past the ruins of the milking shed, following the waterways, through the ngāhere, through the dry stone walls, through the paddocks, past the old homestead. Places rich with taonga and memories. We talked about our beloved dead that had gone before us, the present mahi, and the shining future ahead of us.
When I step off the plane in Tkaronto, my final destination, I am incredibly aware that I am here as manuhiri. Tomorrow I, along with my rōpū, will be formally welcomed onto the territory of the The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Here, as with anywhere else, it is only with the invitation of mana whenua that I have a right to be here. When our kaupapa is concluded, I will return home, ka hoki ahau ki te whenua, to the place where my bones have lain, where my bones do lay, where my bones will lay.