Scoop Review of Books

Questions of Identity

Book Review
This Pākehā Life: an unsettled memoir
by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books, 2020) $39.99
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

This-Pakeha-Life-HRI have been recommending this book to everyone. And those who have accepted my recommendation are now recommending it to others. Its story may at first seem to be a modestly low-key one, but it quickly proves to have a powerful impact, with resonances that will be personal for every reader.

As Alison Jones writes: “Most Pākehā people seemed to know nothing about Māori history, and they did not know what they did not even know. In my experience, Pākehā people like my father who denigrated Māori things knew nothing about Māori. On the other hand, I too knew next to nothing about Māori though my ignorance was tempered by curiosity and attraction rather than rejection and fear.”

The author, a professor in Te Puna Wānanga at the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland, tells a moving personal story that begins with her birth in Cornwall Park Hospital in 1953 — “with no relatives here, my parents and I were alone in New Zealand.” Her parents were immigrants from England, who had arrived the previous year.

From her hospital bed, her mother looked out at One Tree Hill, without knowing that the “volcanic cone, rising high amongst all the other remnant volcanoes in the Auckland area, has another name, another history, and another identity.”

And now, “it officially has a doubled name, joined by a slash. It is Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill. The slash marks an ongoing tension: the mountain’s identity remains unsettled.” And she tells us: “The stories of Maungakiekie and One Tree Hill, the histories that call those places into being, are quite different.”

For her parents, the Māori story of the hill was simply not visible, it did not exist. “In this, my parents were like many of their contemporaries, whether local or immigrant.”

Jones writes about how she came to discover the reality that was not visible to her parents, a reality that is still not visible to so many non-Māori New Zealanders. At the start of her life, there were English squirrels decorating her crib, her mother sang songs about riding a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, and Humpty Dumpty falling from a wall.

For her, “the necessary doubled vision that brought to life both Maungakiekie and One Tree Hill, the relationship between them, was a skill I would learn as I grew into an identity my parents never claimed: that of Pākehā .”

The family moved from Auckland to Blenheim to Dannevirke (where she made her first Māori friend “or thought I did”) to Whakatāne.

When she sought out her “first Māori friend” fifty years later, she discovered that the girl had barely known her. The memory had been invented. “I had to admit that as a child I did not really know Maria or even play with her much… My memory was made of a childish longing for love and for home, two things I did not have, but which Māori — in the person of Maria — seemed to have in spades.”


Alison Jones (Credit: BWB)

In Whakatāne, a local historian told her about land confiscations. But she did not make the connection with the fact that the Māori people were the labouring people of the district, working on land that now belonged to Pākehā. “My nebulous worries never cohered into knowledge. Most Pākehā seemed to have forgotten Whakatāne’s past.” She found a close friendship with a Māori girl at her school. Meeting her again when she was writing the book, she learned that her friend had gone to university where “she went the process of decolonisation” and “became Māori,” learning about Pākehā settlement and the history of Māori land. Her friend found lost whānau connections. She learned about tikanga. For the first time in her life, she felt a sense of purpose.

There were further moves for the Jones family. They moved to Tauranga, and then to Bethlehem, where their house was near two pā and their scattering of houses, each on an ancient waterway. “There seemed to be an invisible wall between Māori and Pākehā .”

Much later in life, she learned about the history of the area. The government had confiscated almost 300,000 acres of Māori land, including Bethlehem. The New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 had allowed the government to confiscate land from any tribes who resisted the Pākehā troops as they forcibly opened up land for settlement. Terrible hardship followed these government actions. In 1898, a Crown official described the people of the Bethlehem pā as having only enough land “to starve on.” Into the 1920s, many in the region were close to starvation, and a 1938 survey of Māori housing in the Tauranga area found one in three dwellings was “unfit for human habitation.”

Jones then writes:

“My house … was on confiscated land, and my family were the beneficiaries of the Crown’s enthusiastic immigration schemes that had flooded the land with white settlers, including my parents.”

She describes the scene outside the gate of her house as “alive with the flows of history and power that shaped all our lives.”

Her university life began at Massey University, with the idea of studying soil science. “I turned away from complexity and towards certainty.” But instead she started studying for a BSc, and then “did” philosophy, where the intellectual challenges “would prepare me for the thorny questions of how Māori encountered the world, and how Māori language formed a quite different reality from the one I took for granted.”

The second half of the book, which is fascinating, describes her move to Auckland, spending time recalibrating her cultural stereotypes in Tonga (“my pale skin alone marked me out as wealthy and privileged”), and how she returned to New Zealand to teach at a girls’ home in Avondale, where almost all the girls were Māori, aged between 13 and 15. “They were funny, intelligent and tough.” She met Donna Awatere who was visiting her father in prison and was told: “The thing he talks about most is the Treaty of Waitangi and what’s happening to our people.”

And then, “on a whim,” she enrolled for a post-graduate degree in education at the University of Auckland.

“I did not know I was entering an academic pathway and a close relationship with Māori from which I would not emerge.” The complexities that she faced, including a year of learning te reo when “I merely skimmed the language’s surfaces,” taught her new ways to think about past and future and the relationship between them. She started to learn about “being Māori .” She also made discoveries about her English ancestors and “could not escape the contradictions, those doubled elements, and nor did I want to.”

Jones writes intensely about the complications of her evolving relationship with Māori. She teaches the reader so much that we did not know, and did not even know that we did not know. Which is the enormous value of this unique and moving book, to which readers will return again and again.