Who Our Ancestors Intended Us To Be

Presented by Kassie Hartendorp as the opening speech of a youth leadership plenary panel from Aotearoa at the Global Feminist LBQ Women’s* Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, 2019. The panel was organised by Elizabeth Kerekere, supported by Alofa Aiono, Bella Simpson, Shon Klose, Tina Dixson and Jelly O’Shea and featured the words of Jaye Barclay, Mengzhu Fu, Georgia Andrews and Toni Duder. 

In the morning prior to this talk, transgender and gender diverse people gathered in a form of protest of their own exclusion from the conference. Our panel did not take the decision lightly to proceed with our talk, and decided as a group to acknowledge and honour those who spoke out, and continue to bring our kōrero from Aotearoa to the wider conference.  Some of the words in response to the statement made before us, have not been included here as they were said in the moment and not recorded. I do not wish for this event to be erased as it was a crucial part of the conference and our learnings abroad. 

For the zine created from this panel, visit our resources section.

Tēnā tātou katoa.

Greetings.

Greetings to the earth, skies and waters of this great continent.

Greetings to the people of this land and to those who came before them. Thank you for sharing your ancestral knowledge with us through your own selves. Thank you.

Greetings to our loved ones who have passed. To those who left us too early, who were taken in hate, or disappeared in silence. We feel your absence, and offer love and recognition for your journey ahead. We will not let you die in vain.

Greetings to all of you who have travelled from around the world to be at this conference, and to everyone who walks with you.

I am humbled to be in this incredible country, to be here with you, and alongside this panel of community leaders, colleagues, and co-conspirers.

The ocean I come from is named Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, the Great Pacific Ocean.

The land, Te Upoko o te Ika a Māui, the Head of the Fish of the demigod Māui.

The mountain of my ancestors is named Te Pae o Tararua.

Our river is called Hokio.

The canoe we arrived on is named Tainui.

The tribe I belong to is Ngāti Raukawa.

The extended family I come from is Ngāti Pareraukawa.

My ancestral meeting house is Ngātokowaru.

Our people were led by Te Whatanui.

My name is Kassie Hartendorp.

I join you today as a descendant both of our indigenous Māori people of Aotearoa, and from the Pākehā or European settlers of New Zealand. As an embodiment of the colonised and the coloniser. I join you as a queer cis woman, as a daughter, sister and aunty. I join you with gratitude for what you give to this world and in hope of some small contribution towards our collective liberation.

I am lucky to have the task of opening our panel here today. Each of our speakers works in different areas of the rainbow community, yet together we create a bigger picture of what we are grappling with in Aotearoa / New Zealand and how our generation is responding.

After ten short years being an active member in our communities, my journey has taken me back to the very beginning. It is not lost on me, that we are currently meeting in Africa, the birthplace of all of our ancestors. And this is important to Māori, because everything in our culture rests on what we call whakapapa. Whakapapa in simple terms means genealogy, lineage and who we come from. But it is so much more. Whakapapa, to me, is everything.

It is the never ending thread, the enduring umbilical cord that connects us to the past, present and future. It links us to the body of our Earth Mother, and stretching up into the stars of our Sky Father. It reaches into a realm beyond the one we see here. It is as practical as a family tree, but it also bridges the living with the dead, the physical with the spiritual. It is our forever connection to those who have passed and those who are yet to be born.

Whakapapa reminds us to never forget who we come from, and therefore who we are, and who we may be. As one of our greatest thinkers Moana Jackson says, it is a series of infinite beginnings. Like the universe, it is always expanding. It is a lens for seeing the world. A growing map of constellations that charts our connection to each other. It defines us by our closeness rather than the distance we are apart. Our way of living shifts when we see ourselves in a neverending web of relationships – tied to each other in invisible ways often just waiting to be revealed. 

Whakapapa shows us our very beginnings. For those who have managed to hold on to their ancestral knowledge, we can trace our journey back to the Pacific islands, back to the first humans, and even back to the birth of the universe. We know that our existence was birthed from the separation of our Earth Mother and Sky Father. Smothered in the cramped closeness between their parents, their children conspired to push them apart, and open up the space where our physical world now exists. The separation allowed nature, wildlife and society to flourish. It teaches us the importance of the spaces in between – when we must push and fight for the freedom to exist, breathe and grow. So much detail and richness is contained within our origin stories, and it is whakapapa that places us within them. 

Whakapapa shows us the land we connect to. When Māori formally introduce ourselves to others, we share our whakapapa such as I did at the beginning of this speech. For my tribe, it is common to start from our ancestral mountain, from our mountain flows our river, from our river sails our ancestral canoe, from our canoe comes our tribe, from our tribe comes our extended family, from our family comes us. Our land, mountains, rivers and lakes are part of our ancestry and identity. We are inseparable. 

Whakapapa gives us a place to stand and people to stand with. We have a concept called tūrangawaewae which we use to describe this place to stand. Our waewae are our feet, and tūranga is the foundation of standing. When we know who we are and where we come from, we know the physical and spiritual base from which we interact with the world. Sometimes this could look like our ancestral meeting houses, which are the heart of our tribes. Tūrangawaewae gives us the mandate to act, stand, and speak – but also from which to welcome others, participate and give back.

Whakapapa tells us the family we stand with. In its best form, it can take the shape of a social web that holds, supports and carries us through life – from womb to earth. Knowing who we come from gives us as Māori strength, and to not know, brings great hurt and shame. Our families were meant to be large and full, bursting with cousins and aunties and uncles and grandparents. Whakapapa is the glue that holds us altogether. 

The whakapapa that makes sense to me has a place for all of us. It does not discriminate against who we love, or the essence of our life force. It does not treat any family member as expendable. It does not see any grandchild as unloveable. The whakapapa that makes sense to me sees us always as a collective whole made up of many necessary parts. It knows that we each have unique strengths and roles that we can contribute to our people surviving and thriving. We can be the aunty that holds the knowledge of the family, or helps those in need. The healer, the gatherer, the artist, the musician, the researcher, the diplomat. We don’t all have to be the same when we can complement each other. Because we are weaker, when we do not make use of all of our strengths. And everyone here is brimming with strengths to give.

The whakapapa that I speak of, is not the one we were all born into. The more I think about the richness of whakapapa, the more I understand how crucial it was to destroy it. Because that is how you destroy a people. As Jaye will talk about later, many of us have become disconnected from this web of life through colonisation. For myself, I was adopted out from my family at six weeks old. Because I looked white enough, it was easy to quietly erase my Māori whakapapa out of my upbringing. My experience was common, especially in the generations before me. Under the guise of protection, indigenous babies are still being taken from Māori mothers, at the rate of three every week. Our children are placed into so-called state care that is more likely to abuse them, and groom them for prison, where Māori are overrepresented. Our people are named as bad parents and criminals just for being indigenous – and I know that this is common across the world. All of this is a deep attack on the family, and a deep attack on whakapapa. 

For those of us who are already disconnected from our roots, being sex, gender or sexuality diverse can lead to even further disconnection. From our families, from our communities, and from ourselves. Before we come out, we subconsciously weigh up the risk of what we will lose. Many of us have made the decision that it is worth further disconnection just for the chance to be ourselves. Does that not say something about our need to exist as we are! Does that not tell us the importance of our spirits and identities?

In Aotearoa, we are in a time where some Māori and Pacific leaders are publicly supporting homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, which is the same old colonial fantasy dressed up as a defense of our culture and so-called freedom of speech. It is yet another attack on sex, gender and sexuality diverse people which asserts that there is no place for us in society. That we are unthinkable and unnatural and there is no possible historic reality where we could ever have existed. That we are anomalies, and mistakes, or somethings gone wrong, or a fad, or an abomination or ANYTHING that is simply not just us being. I canNOT believe that we are some post-modern, advanced capitalist construct. I cannot believe that we are simply a passing fashion. I will not believe that we are anything other than who our ancestors intended us to be. We are not new, we are ancient. We are not unnatural, we are recognisable. We are not strangers, we are family.

So over time, we have had to create our own whakapapa. Some of us literally birth new parents and families. Many of us find our chosen families, the ones who step in to love us like we wish our blood families had. In our community group back home, Tīwhanawhana, we have networks of older Māori who take care of each other in the wake of disconnection. From the everyday cups of tea and helping hands, to laying our loved ones to rest in dignity if the time comes.

We have had to create our own tūrangawaewae, our places to stand. Where possible, we build our own homes. We find community, and organise conferences. We name ourselves into being, sometimes over and over again. We try to stand proud in our identities, because maybe that’s the only place we have ever felt we can stand. And for those of us who are still here, we have made the best that we possibly can in a world that has refused to acknowledge we exist.

But this cannot be where we stay. Even with all the progress that our forebears have pushed for, the visibility, the recognition, the acceptance. In Aotearoa, we have seen great change forged by the hands of social struggle. Yet, we cannot afford to stop here. Because whakapapa tells us that an attack on one family tree, is an attack on the whole forest. While members of our communities still suffer, in our country or elsewhere, we must continue to fight and heal. Because we know that if we have been attacked for our sex, sexuality or gender – we know that people are also being attacked for their disability, age, cultural background, religious affiliation or for leaving their home in search of a better life. We have a responsibility to imagine a world where we are all free, and then make it happen. And for some of us, it means looking to our ancestral beginnings and to remember what is possible.

In the Māori language, the word for leader is rangatira. This is often translated to mean ‘one who weaves the people together.’ The noun of rangatira, rangatiratanga means collective self-determination. The ultimate expression of a woven people who decides their own future, and moves forward together. People-weaving is the work that I think we need now more than ever. And it’s hard, possibly the hardest task that we may ever do. And it is painful, because it confronts you constantly with the hurt that our communities have experienced. It is painful because you have to confront your own hurt along the way. But we need to reweave the webs that connect us. When we are isolated as single units, we are easier to dominate and manipulate. To attack and destroy. We desperately need to bind ourselves back to the natural world that gives us life. We need to remember our connection to spirit, and heal our inner selves so we may heal both our ancestors and descendants.

What you see here on the panel today, is one example of people weaving. By making this journey across the world together, we will be forever bound in some way. By being asked to participate by an older leader who we each look up to, we are being connected across generations. By bringing to light the different forms of marginalisation that we each experience, we are articulating an intersecting web that is bigger than each of us on our own. We are making sure that our identities stay and belong in our whakapapa. By being here with you today, we have already begun to weave our collective paths together. I look forward to what we will all create.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. 

 The group of LGBTIQ+ youth community leaders (and supporters) who spoke at the Global Feminist LBQ Conference in South Africa, 2019. Photo by Tina Dixson. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s