My grandmother was 4 feet and 10 inches on a good day with a head full of short, bouncy curls and a laugh that sounded like oversized jingle bells, a matriarch in every sense of the term, both in our family and for my people.
Grandma had spent time in Aotearoa in the 80s with Hawaiian elders. She had been invited to travel throughout the country to examine the language learning initiatives in Aotearoa. Now, over 30 years later, I was attending the He Manawa Whenua Indigenous Conference to present: Haa Tuwunáagu Yís/For Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Practices of Perseverance and Healing, which focused on the importance of traditional Indigenous youth practices, like the women’s coming of age ceremony, in fostering resilience.
For years, I had been fighting an inexplicable pull to travel to Aotearoa. In the dark aeroplane cabin, I drummed my fingers against the cold window, pondering. I had never travelled internationally by myself, and never to Aotearoa, but I found myself tracing my grandmother’s steps in her incredible career.
I had instructions from my friend Te Rawhitiroa to take a shuttle to his house in Hamilton and to semi-break into his house because he was out of the city when I was arriving. Caught in the rain past midnight, jet-lagged, and struggling with the lock, I sat down on his back porch with my suitcase. What was I doing?
I closed my eyes and leaned back. I watched the droplets pattern on the rocks in Te Rawhitiroa’s garden. The rain sounded like home, like a morning prayer with my grandmother when I was barely 15.
Tendrils of smoke from smoldering sage and tobacco rose in the cold morning air from the abalone shell I held. I fanned the burning materials with my Eagle feather and breathed in the brisk, densely scented air, listening to the lapse of the Pacific Ocean sweeping into the shore 20 feet from the cabin balcony where I knelt in the darkness before sunrise.
It was my sixth day without food, my sixth day out of 8 of fasting in seclusion for the Tlingit women’s ceremony. Every part of my body ached. My joints had a dull soreness to them with every movement. My core felt as if it were seized up into a ball.
My ceremony was the first conducted in my village in a century. Through the hurting body, the physical exhaustion, the morning prayers, my grandmother had been there with me every step of the way. I looked up into the rain in Te Rawhitiroa’s garden. Was she still here with me?
The next morning, Te Rawhitiroa’s friend Hine took me out to a coastal beach community called Whāingaroa (renamed Raglan), known for its black-sand Ngarunui Beach. Hine radiated light like a field of sunflowers with her broad smile and dark golden curls. My grandmother would have unofficially adopted her if she could. As we crept further to the coast, Hine told me about the history of the area. She pulled up to the Marae where her mother was waiting for us.
Angeline Greensil was intense and strong. Her eyes shined like black pearls. Angeline told us about her mother’s grave, which was on the premises. Her mother had fought vehemently for their tribe’s land reclamation from the crown.
She took us outside to a bright and sunny flat and well-tended field. Angeline stepped in front of us and began to sing a haunting Karakia in Te Reo Maori. Karakia are Māori incantations and prayers, used to invoke spiritual guidance and protection.
“I needed to introduce you to her, so she understands who you are.” Angeline said.
I suddenly felt the overwhelming presence of my grandmother and found myself crumbling to my knees at the foot of her mother’s grave. I began to cry quietly. 10 months before I had knelt in the same way at my own grandmother’s grave. Suddenly the sun was gone. It began to rain. The kind of rain I had found myself in Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon, 1 1/2 years before.
The day my grandmother passed, I remember my heart pounding after my mother phoned with the news. I asked my friends to pull the car over at a ledge in Oak Creek Canyon. I remember their worried brows and searching eyes, fearful, not knowing how to help me.
I scrambled down a cliff of rocks in a skirt that resembled stained glass, not feeling the jagged river stones grazing my ankles. I lost my slippers at some point. I waded into the water, the pull of the cold, clear current dragging the gown out from under me. I did not feel the bite of the rapids on my bare legs. I tilted my face to a pouring sky and sang a prayer song. My ancestors sang through me, through my prayer, tears streamed down my face as I pleaded and bargained with ancestors and a God I didn’t know how to address. I cried out into the darkness of an Arizonian night when my grandmother was taken from me and all her adopted children. I thought the universe could hear that scream.
In the absence of my biological father from the age of five, my maternal grandmother and grandfather had stepped into the space of a parent. I felt orphaned by my father, and now the loss of my grandmother was another loss of a parent.
I sought answers and memories of my grandmother in places and people.
In the next year and a half, the current of my grief brought me forward. The kind of forward where you are continually falling but still moving forward. Forward, to where I knelt at Angeline’s mother’s grave. When I came to comprehension from my memory, in what felt like hours later, the rain had stopped. The sun had returned. I turned around from where I knelt on the ground to see Angeline and Hine standing there in silence.
To get to Angeline’s house, I had to climb down a wooden ladder to a sandy beach. I had to balance carefully when going down the ladder, and go barefoot for better grip, due to the strong winds on the beach. On the wide beach, I grinned into the wind and heard peals of laughter from children further down on the beach. I suddenly felt a synergy between this place and my hometown village of Yakutat, Alaska. This beach reminded me of Cannon Beach, a place where I had gone for reflection and prayer with my grandmother as a teenager.
Each gust of wind brought a different emotion. Joy. Grief. Humility. Thankfulness. Heartbreak. For the second time in the day, I crumbled to my knees and let the emotions wash over me like waves. I didn’t fight them this time. I welcomed them.
A week later, I knelt on the same porch I had collapsed on at Te Rawhitiroa’s house. Gazing up at the stars in reflection of the week at the conference, my thoughts wandered to words from one of the keynote speakers, Moana Jackson. He was one of the last speakers before we closed. Towards the end of his keynote, he paused for a moment in silence. Then he gently said: “The most powerful beating of the human heart… is the desire to be free.”
The stars above me were reversed from Alaska. I looked up at them and searched for familiar patterns, but all the constellations I knew were reversed from Alaska in this hemisphere. I listened to the crunch of a car pulling up in the driveway; I was shortly joined on the porch by a tall young Maori man named Te Rangiaorere that Te Rawhitiroa had set up to be my guide for the next leg of my journey.
Te Rangiaorere had a scar on his cheekbone that you can barely see unless you’re up close. He had dark hair with a curl that fell forward often on his forehead. He seemed cautious around me, but there was a strange familiarity about him I couldn’t interpret. We had met on the first day of the conference for a dinner at Te Rawhitiroa’s house but hadn’t seen each other since. We were both silent and I felt my heartbeat quicken as I looked back up at the stars again.
In the car, the city of Hamilton swept away as we drove towards Auckland. Te Rangiaorere and I shared about the differences and parallels of our cultures. After some time, he told me one of the oldest legends of the Maori people. We had turned off the music in the car and the road was clear of other cars. The only light was the headlights of the car and the reversed stars above.
“In the beginning, the creator, Eo, created Rangi, Sky Father, and Papa, Earth mother. He created them separately, and they explored time and space, searching for the missing part of their heart. Rangi saw Papa from behind and he made his way up to her. To her back, he said,” Te Rangiaorere paused and looked over at me. The lights of the speedometer on the dashboard carved out panels on his face and reflected in his eyes. “Turn around. Turn around and embrace me, so that I may nurture you – so that I may love you forever.”
My heart plummeted to my stomach.
The world as we know it was created by Sky Father and Earth mother in the Maori creation story. The center of it all was their Aroha, their love. The legend goes on to share that Sky Father and Earth mother were locked in a close embrace until they were forcibly separated by their children, who were cramped in the small crevices between their parents.
I told Te Rangiaorere that the creation story made me sad because of the forced separation of Sky Father and Earth mother. Te Rangiaorere told me that despite their separation, it was a good thing. Within the separation of Sky Father and Earth Mother, there would be space for the world, beings, and other life to grow in the light between the worlds of the sky and the earth. As a man that became a father at a young age, Te Rangiaorere understood all too well the importance of space in co-parenting his son with the child’s mother. I could see his thoughts turning to this as he spoke of the separation of Sky and Earth.
A few days later, we climbed onto a cliff in the middle of a storm. It was a cliff of Piha, a coastal settlement on the western coast of the Auckland Region, with arching volcanic cliffs that contrasted with wild, ravenous white waves. At the top of the cliff, the strong winds were blowing my small frame around so we sought shelter in a cave we discovered. My shoe slipped on a part of the cliff, and Te Rangiaorere lurched forward to catch me as we tumbled into the cave.
“Be careful,” he whispered gently. The curl on his forehead fell forward. “I don’t want to spend another lifetime looking for you.”
It was there in that high cliff cave that we watched the storm pass. Cold rain and winds from the Northern ocean swept in and sprayed my eyelashes, cheekbones, and knuckles. Legend tells that the rain are the tears from Skyfather for his wife down below. I leaned into the rain from Sky Father that sought to eradicate my grief and my loss. Below me, the surging waves on Earth far below the cliff pulled to be closer to the Sky, but between them, where I was on the cliff, there was the daylight, looking towards my future. With my eyes closed, I thought of my grandmother’s strength in the beauty of the storm, and found her love amidst the worlds of the living and the dark, between the worlds of Alaska and New Zealand.
Not unlike the necessary separation of the Sky and the Earth, the forced separation of my grandmother and I through her death brought forward the space I needed to grow into the light. Without it, I wouldn’t have traveled the world on my own in search of her shadow, a shadow that I felt led me to New Zealand and brought Te Rangiteaorere into my path. Through my entire time of searching for her, I realised, she had been by my side.