Photo by Fayette A. Reynolds, MS, via Flickr

“Awa’s Story” follows several generations of mothers to trace a family line interrupted by white man’s indoctrination. At the center of the narrative is Awa, a Māori child who signifies the rupture — the estrangement from tradition and mother tongue — in ancestral connection. Interspersed with Māori words, this musical, mournful piece plays with language and pivots to English translations halfway through: Awa becomes River when she meets a white man.

Written by Hinemoa Jones and published in Ora Nui 4: Māori Literary Journal, “Awa’s Story” is a dolorous tale about the violence of colonialism and intergenerational trauma that reads like oral storytelling transposed onto paper.

— Alexandra Valahu for Guernica Global Spotlights

Write a story, they said. What story? Who’s worth telling? My father, his mother, her mother, main matriarch mother and her lover?

No one seemed important enough down the line except main mother and her lover — he built the marae, you know.

Maybe he loved main mother, her belly swelling with his seed, but he married Another and thus denied his own daughter, as any proper chief orta.

So the connection was denied, beginning a long line of disconnected mothers and daughters and some sons — so what are the odds of finding a story about an important one?

Generations of mothers — they took it in turns to suffer and in their own ways for main mother’s lover yearn. But he was gone with Another, and it was her children he claimed, and young main mother was blamed. “She seduced him, you know!” He tried to be true to Another, but young mother, she was pretty and bold, and Another — well, she was old!

So chiefly lover had his way all around. He bedded young mother and inherited lands from Another. Young mother despaired, then disappeared, her only refuge being full bellied with lover’s unborn spawn. She birthed her alone by a river, named her Awa — it seemed the only whakapapa she could give her.

Awa grew up with no home. Her tūrangawaewae was Another’s. She stood nowhere. Nowhere to call home, feed a fire, inspire desire. She saw chiefly lover once at a hui — doing all his chief man do eee do eeee. She approached him and said, “Kia ora, I think I am your daughter.” He ignored her, like any important man orta.

Swallowing sorrow, Awa ran through the land, then stopped ’cause she met a white man — damn! He called her River ’cause he didn’t like the sound of the name her mother had given her. He loved her so much it hurt him to hurt her. Then he heard she was with child — stupid Māori slut — and it made him wild. She had seduced and tricked him, you know, so why should he support her? Nah — he gave her the bash, like any righteous man orta.

So here we are. River with child, white man wild. River’s belly swelling, white man yelling. He lets her stay ’cause he feels generous and powerful that way. But River runs deep, and every single night she weeps. She wants to go home, but Awa’s source is unknown. Matriarch mother has passed away, and chiefly father has married into Another’s way. She has nowhere else to stay except with white man — baby belly’s patriarch and savior. So she accepts her fate, regardless of patriarch’s “distasteful” behavior. She has nine children with him, half-castes, born in sin. Even though she married and pledged faith to damn white man’s god, she and her children were always seen as odd. Not quite right! Not quite the right shade of light.

In the deep undercurrents of River’s world with her babies, she loved and nurtured them, whispered to them in her own native tongue, telling stories of Māori before they saw blankets and guns. Sharing tales of her tūpuna clever and strong, about the signing of a treaty — that’s when things went wrong.

Installing Māoritanga in the hearts of her young, connecting paths of whakapapa in the mind of her eldest son. It was his job to remember these histories of old, gifted from his mother more precious than gold. However, colonized thought persisted until white man stepped in and insisted that eldest son wipe his mother’s words from his lips. So off to school he went to suckle queen’s breast. Eldest son didn’t know how these foreign words to swallow, but the teacher had ways to make this Māori boy fold and follow.

“Bend over, son of contaminated River. I’ll take your mother’s sins out on your hide!! Don’t speak that Māori to me — your people are below, beneath, and it is my job to make you see.

So River’s son, he runs, he flows and he goes, and in only one generation he has forgotten all that his tūpuna knows: that he is Māori, that he is young lover and main matriarch’s mokopuna, the source of Awa. So beaten and bullied he has adapted to damn white man’s ways — his generations to come forever to pay.

This brings us to me. So you can see all the layers that I’ve had to peel to remember who I am, to learn how to heal all the moments, all the men that affected my whakapapa, those who denied and desecrated my mothers.

Three hundred cousins and me, displaced and despondent, heaving deep grief, looking back at all the mothers’ lives in disbelief.

And we come from just one of the seeds that were grafted and scattered, trying to connect to roots that have been shattered.

“Awa’s Story,” written by Hinemoa Jones and originally published by Oranui, which describes itself as “a boutique publisher of independent and indigenous literature.” Reprinted with permission.

Hinemoa Jones

Hinemoa Jones descends from the wellspring of memories of all her mothers and fathers before her. She is of Māori (Te Arawa, Tainui) and Pākehā descent. She is a writer, an educator, and a facilitator of Māori language and of the traditions of the whare tapere — specifically, Māori games, raranga, and karetao Māori (the Māori puppet). Hinemoa has performed extensively in Aotearoa and internationally with karetao Māori and is excited about the revival of this taonga. Hinemoa lives and works in Coromandel and draws inspiration for her writing from all her whānau unfoldings.

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