Growing up in an urban environment where Māori was not spoken, and was in fact actively discouraged, many Māori terms passed me by in my childhood, youth, and much of my young adult life. Whaea – widely translated as mother, aunt, or Aunty – was one of those terms.
I had a lot of aunties growing up though, so the Māori sentiment was there if not the language. It seems every female I met was introduced as “Just call her Aunty”. This included the sisters of my parents, the cousins of my parents, some of the older nieces on my father’s side, right through to their best friends, casual acquaintances and neighbours. Essentially, the only criteria you needed to be an Aunty was to be female and older than me.
When my sister, and a handful of cousins who I grew up with, had their children, I always imagined I’d be hip and cool, and let the kids decide on how they would like to address me. I was not going to subscribe to the belief that respect required a title. That resolve vanished the first time my eldest niece addressed me with a soft and shy “Hello Aunty” at the age of 2. My heart melted and I could not bear to be anything other than Aunty from that moment on. So, Aunty I became and Aunty I remain even now that she’s 24 years old.
As the years have gone by, I have heard Whaea used a lot more frequently in place of Aunty. Even more recently, as I have gotten older, used in relation to myself. More often in the University setting that is my workplace, but also in other areas of my life.
The first time it happened was on my marae. For years, well into my 20’s, to the elders on the marae, I was “kōtiro” or young girl. “Kōtiro, help in the kitchen,” or “Kōtiro, go get me a cup of tea please?” Dutifully, and a little bit sulkily, I would do as they bid. After a few years’ absence, I returned to the marae for a tangihanga. I went to grab the tea towel to dry the dishes as usual and a young girl stopped me, took the towel from my hands and said “I’ll take that Whaea. You go sit down”.
I was dumbstruck. When did I stop being kōtiro? There are varying stages of adulthood that I didn’t feel I had passed through before earning the right to adopt the title Whaea. How could I possibly be the same rank as my Aunties, who were all still alive? What do I call them now if I’m Whaea? Talk about an identity crisis. No one ever prepared me for the transition.
In my workplace, in the University, Māori students call me Whaea all the time. And I am happy to embrace that from students who are my niece’s age and younger. But when the grey-haired courier driver, or mother of two, grandmother of one, then refers to me as Whaea, that feels a little less comfortable. Again, I don’t feel like I’ve earned that right.
I’m confident in my expertise as an educated professional. So a designation that recognises that skill base is warranted. To a certain degree, I’ve grown into my taha Māori developing my te reo Māori me ngā tikanga Māori to a point where I’m confident to test it even though I know it is imperfect. But my Uncle, fluent in te reo, an accomplished speaker on the pae, a recognised kaumātua still only refers to himself as a “boy”, someone who still has so much to learn. Who am I to consider myself anything more than a girl myself?
So, to answer the question “Who is this Whaea Manuhiri anyway?”
As Aunty Manu, I am a loving and devoted Aunt to a handful of the most delightful young adults you will ever meet. As Whaea Manuhiri, I appreciate, or at least am learning to appreciate, the honorific and term of respect that is being bestowed upon me by students and colleagues. But as just plain Manuhiri, in my head and in my heart, I will always be “kōtiro”.