An indigenous imposter

I recently attended a Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) conference. Historically a conference for the library profession, the conference has evolved to encompass the variety of roles and functions that now comprise the information industry. At these conferences there is always a satisfyingly robust stream of Māori related content thanks in part to a bicultural agreement between the main professional body, LIANZA, and Te Rōpū Whakahau, the corresponding Māori counterpart.

Māori conference workshops and presentations are predominantly targeted towards non-Māori audiences, so I tend to choose other sessions running concurrently. A colleague who has facilitated several of these workshops once told me that attendees generally fall into 3 main groups – the well-intentioned, empathetic non-Māori; Māori who didn’t know any better; and those who wandered into the wrong room and were too embarrassed to leave.

But there is another reason I tend to avoid these sessions, one that I am reluctant to confess because it is based on a small, but very real, fear. The fear that I will be uncovered as a fraud, an indigenous imposter, a Māori who knows almost nothing about her culture at all. The colloquial term that springs to mind is “Plastic Māori”.

I know that’s not true. I do. But knowing that doesn’t necessarily dispel the feelings of inadequacy particularly when you are aware of where your limitations lie. And these limitations tend to get exposed in situations where you are one of a few Māori in a group.  Which, when you are a minority, happens all too often.

A story I have shared in the past involves one of my early roles as an information professional, a part-time entry level support position in a corporate accounting firm. The role did not require anyone with specific Māori subject knowledge of any kind. And yet, when the firm began to be faced with questions relating to the principles of Treaty of Waitangi, as one of only two Māori staff members in the firm, I was approached as a possible expert on the issue. Caught completely by surprise, I mumbled out a clumsy response that did little more than reveal my limited knowledge.

My sense of personal responsibility was enormous. I felt I let down all Māori.

While unfamiliarity with a topic may have been the cause of my weak reply in the above scenario, sometimes it’s just the inability to express in a comprehensible fashion the experience of living and breathing a culture. Essentially, what you are trying to do is describe your “normal”. How do you express with any coherency what is normal for Māori?

This is where education has come to the rescue to some degree, for me at least. While study did not replace the understanding and learning that is derived from being an active member of a cultural or ethnic group, it has enabled me to find a language and vocabulary to articulate the experience.  And although the Māori workshops and presentations are not necessarily designed for me, I no longer avoid them for this very reason.

I still at times struggle to find intelligible answers to the questions that come my way because I am Māori. But as my vocabulary builds and I learn to communicate and read other indigenous encounters through tools like this blog, I find the ability to convey these experiences continues to improve.

I am also learning to come to terms with the fact that the fate of Māoridom does not rest on how proficiently I answer a Treaty question.



  1. Digital IwI

    Thank you Manuhiri for such an informative, personal, brave and courageous blog. He wahine aumangea koe! E tautoko ana a’au ki ōu kupu whakamarama. As Ranginui Walker put it, “ka whawhai tonu mātou!” And we do this in so many ways particularly in the face of on-going hegemony and neo-colonialism. The art of dealing with this is a skill from our tūpuna. Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui nā.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amber Nicholson

    Kia ora Manuhiri. I can relate this all too well. know from conversations with others, it is such a common fear/identity crisis. Too white to be Māori, too Māori to be white. And most of the time, it is our own self that places that ‘plastic’ label onto ourselves. I have a good friend who I see as pretty hardcore Māori, and found out recently that even she has these issues. Realising that even some of the haati-ist of Māori struggle, somehow helped me come a little closer to acceptance. We are as Māori/Indigenous as we want to believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sherievon

    This is a really enlightening post Manuhiri – thanks for sharing. I guess I am one of the “well-intentioned, empathetic non-Māori” who attends the type of presentations/workshops you describe, in the hope that I can gain better understanding of how Maori do live and breathe their culture. It is particularly important to me on both a professional and personal level (I have part Maori grandchildren).Having Maori attendees at those events gives non-Maori a better chance of gaining some empathy and understanding -especially if we are able to network and discuss issues post presentation – it ain’t no use if the room is full of non-Maori participants! For my part I thank you for having the courage to attend.

    Liked by 2 people

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