January 03, 2021
OPINION: My moko kauwae is calling
By Atakohu Middleton, Kaiako/Lecturer, Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau/Auckland University of Technology
At 1 pm on a Sunday in January, I will enter a small studio off the road that leads to Whāingaroa (Raglan), climb on to a bench and lie down.
Around me with gather my husband, my brother and a hoa pūmau, a close friend. After reciting a karakia, my whanaunga, my Ngāti Mahanga relation Simon Te Wheoro, will take up his tattoo gun and touch it to my chin, starting the process of revealing my moko kauwae.
Why now? In recent years, I have watched others take moko kauwae but never felt the call that those women said they had. However, in the past six months, something has changed. My doctoral thesis, which took so much mental energy in the past four years, is complete, and I have had space to ponder other things. My thoughts have turned to moko kauwae so frequently in recent months that I figure the tūpuna are trying to tell me something.
At the same time, I’m comfortable in my identity as a child of Te Tiriti o Waitangi: that is, a woman of both Māori and Pākehā heritage who moves easily between both worlds and who works, as a journalist and academic, to help non-Māori understand what it means to be an ally. I know who I am and how I contribute.
There’s one other thing that I am still unpacking: I have just turned 51, so am now older than my much-missed mother ever was. I am still working out exactly why that’s relevant to the way I look at my life; maybe it’s because there is no longer a template for my own ageing?
However, in making the decision to mau moko kauwae, or bear moko, I had some unhelpful chatter to deal with. As moko kauwae have become more visible, so have risen some inhibiting ideas in te ao Māori about who is worthy: that you have to look Māori, be a fluent reo speaker, a kuia, or someone of high social standing.
There was also some anxiety to examine. Thanks to my mum’s Irish-Australian genes, which stomped all over my dad’s brown ones, I am fair-skinned. I didn’t grow up in te reo and tikanga; I connected with my whakapapa, reo and iwitanga as an adult. Over time, I have learned to ignore the ignorant non-Māori who believe that fair skin disproves Māoriness. In time to come, there will be Māori who are strangers to me who will see my moko kauwae and make unfair judgements. That will hurt, as all prejudice does.
However, the answer to chatter, anxiety and the judgement of others can be parried with one word: Whakapapa. For wāhine Māori, whakapapa makes moko kauwae our birthright, a marker of identity reserved for us.
The Māori word for identity is tuakiri; I like the way Hirini Moko Mead, in his book Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values (2003) breaks it down as tua, meaning beyond, and kiri, meaning skin. Our identity, then, is beyond skin colour. Our identity as Māori stems from whakapapa and is strengthened through the practice of reo and tikanga.
In this, I have been inspired by fellow academic Dr Hinekura Smith, a fair-skinned redhead from Ngāpuhi who took moko kauwae alongside her mother nearly three years ago. Answering the question “who am I to wear moko kauwae?”, she wrote this column (https://www.twistedtreaty.com/post/hinekura-smith), which I recommend. She wrote,
“My moko kauwae is part of my tuakiri, etched into my white skin with lines that bring to the surface the whakapapa Māori that lays beyond what the eyes see.
“My moko kauwae is a visible marker on my face.
“It is a reclaiming of an identity that colonisation attempted but failed to take from us as Māori women.
“As we reclaim this birth right, who ‘can’ or ‘should’ wear moko kauwae continues to be entangled in colonised thinking that judges who is worthy or ready, who is ‘Māori enough’ or ‘good enough’, fluent enough, brown enough, old enough.
“Enough. What is enough, and according to who?
“Māori women have, for too long, been told we are not enough.
“If we wait until we are enough, according to others, would we ever get there?
“We. Are. Enough. Now.”
And I am enough now. At the end of the day, I am a child of Māhanga and Paratai, and because of them, and all those tūpuna before and after them, I am enough. Soon, I will proudly carry that whakapapa on my face.
+ Atakohu Middleton would love to hear from other wāhine Māori about their journey to moko kauwae and their experiences and thoughts before and afterwards. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Radio Waatea and its board would like to advise that the opinions posted are those of Atakohu Middleton and not the views of Radio Waatea, its management or its board.
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