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Reclaiming cultural identity through connection to place

My personal story behind building ARA Journeys

Growing up predominantly exposed to English-language media, education, and te ao pākeha has given me an identity problem. I've always known I'm Māori, but being raised away from my hapū, my Iwi, and my turangawaewae made me feel like a visitor in my place of belonging. As a child, I always remember feeling like a part-time member of our hapū. I was caught between two cultures (European/Māori) but always felt more drawn to my Māori side. Many people assume reconnection comes easier as an adult. You've had years of learning societal norms, how to communicate with people, what is acceptable behavior, expectations when you enter your marae, the tikanga you must uphold, and which kaumatua and kuia you should never cross. I am grateful to have been raised knowing parts of my whakapapa and having spent some time on our marae as a child. However, I know some of us have to start from scratch, only knowing that we have whakapapa. For many Urban Māori, like me, reconnecting to our culture and place of belonging is terrifying. Reclaiming our language, taonga, and stories can be alienating, whether you know your whakapapa or not. No matter what stage in life you are at, there seems to be a common barrier to starting the process - an internal dialogue people face on their journey of reclamation - where do I start?!

An image of Mount Taranaki with snow top. Clear blue skies and forestry to the front. View from Urenui Pa Homestead.
Mt Taranaki, New Zealand. Photo credit: Vanessa Rotohiko

E kore au e ngaro; he kākano ahau i ruia mai i Rangiātea*.

I can never be lost; I am a seed sown from Ragiātea.

As Māori, our whakapapa tells us we are from the land. Our tūpuna showed us that connecting with the land strengthens the physical and spiritual health of both people and the environment. For centuries, Indigenous peoples worldwide have proven this connection to be a positive driver for lifestyle change. The increased research by non-indigenous people to attempt to measure nature connectedness and relatedness tells us there is shared value in this worldview.

Herein lies the problem. Finding time to connect with our culture and the land can be challenging in a world where technology is designed to keep us attached to our screens. How can we make time for these essential aspects of our lives? Suicide and obesity are rising, and our attention spans are diminishing. Video and mobile games are becoming increasingly violent, and social media is creating unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure (amongst other things). As a parent, I know my tāmariki (children) are spending more and more time on digital devices and consuming content that is not beneficial to their development or sense of self-worth.

When launching ARA Journeys in 2018, our shared vision was to build a digital platform that all Iwi could use to share their kōrero tuku iho and pūrākau. A purposefully built platform that honored our beautiful Māori culture and language but, more importantly, allowed Iwi/hapū and whānau to share their stories in the places they belong. We hoped that by sharing our stories in te reo Maōri, we would inspire many to start their reclamation journeys by wanting to learn more about our language and those who have gone before us. We also wanted to inspire non-Māori to visit locations of historical significance and learn the (often-forgotten) indigenous stories of the land.

Connection to the environment through the use of technology is not new. However, despite this, most of our digital interactions are not shaped by our need to connect. As game developers and educators, we saw the need for our products to support the role of connection and provide a secure base for the safe exploration of one's self and the environment. For this reason, "connection" is the central pillar of ARA Journeys. We intentionally design our digital platforms and games to cultivate a sense of belonging by promoting comprehension and building meaningful connections with the environment. In addition, the collaborative game design further enhances human interaction, strengthening the relationships that players form.

By sharing our identity stories, we can connect with each other. We can find strength in reclaiming our language, taonga, and stories. Indigenous and Western approaches to creating meaningful connections show that interconnection, holism, and balance are integral to our identity. Technological advances enable companies like ARA Journeys to build learning environments that foster secure relationships. Our digital platforms encourage belonging through understanding and creating meaningful relationships with places.

A front view of the main Urenui Pā wharenui. Left is the smaller of the two wharenui, Mahi Tamariki. In the middle is Te Aroha, the large sleeping house. To the right of both wharenui is the toilet/shower blocks.
Urenui Pā, Aotearoa. Photo credit Vanessa Rotohiko

I've grown up as an Urban Māori and have met many others like myself who have, at some stage in their life, been too whakamā (shy) to start their journey of reconnection. I've been fortunate to be raised knowing a decent amount of my whakapapa and having parents, aunties, uncles, and cousins who have helped me by sharing stories of our tūpuna and whenua. I've learned that when we share our identity stories, we normalize te reo Māori and cultural knowledge, values, practices, and beliefs; we are developing a strong sense of who we are, where we are from, and where we belong.

Ko wai au?

Ko tēnei taku pepeha poto ki te taha o tōku Pāpā

Ko Taranaki te maunga

Ko Urenui te awa

Ko Tokomaru, Aotea ngā waka

Ko Ngāti Mutunga me Te Āti Awa ōku iwi

Ko Ruapekapeka, Urenui Pā ōku marae

Ko Mutunga tōku Rangatira

Ko Te Mananui Raumati rāua ko Charles Te Ngaruru ōku mātua tūpuna

Ko Robert Taylor tōku pāpā

​Ki te taha o tōku māmā

Ko Tutamoe te maunga

Ko Wairoa me Kaipara ngā awa

Ko Mahuhukiterangi me Māmari ngā waka

Ko Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, me Te Rarawa ōku iwi

Ko Ahikiwi, Ahipara ōku marae

Ko Nepia Te Morenga tōku Rangatira

Ko Tui rāua David Nepia ōku mātua tūpuna

Ko Vicki Nepia-Murray tōku māmā

Ko Amber Taylor tōku ingoa

I tupu ake au i Tāmaki Mākaurau.

Middle-aged Māori women with red hair and white top. Sun is shining on her through the trees.
Amber Taylor

*A whakatauākī (Māori proverb)

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