A sense of whānau far from home

Victoria University of Wellington graduand Rebecca Burke never imagined she’d end up calling New Zealand home.

Rebecca Burke

Like many young Germans, Rebecca first came to New Zealand as a tourist. She was interested in Māori culture, but it was something she’d only ever read about. 

“I remember walking down Queen Street in Auckland and seeing a man with a full-face moko (traditional tattoo) and I couldn’t turn my eyes away,” she says. “That was a big moment for me—you can learn about Māori culture in books or on television but until it’s real and in front of you, you realise just how different and special it is.”

The spark of interest was ignited. Rebecca returned to Germany once her holiday was over, but the pull of Aotearoa proved too strong to resist and she came back to New Zealand and embarked on a PhD in Māori studies at Victoria University.

“My encounter with Māori culture made me want to find out more about the experience of early European settlers who came here—how strange and different it must have been for them. So my research looks at the early interactions between Māori and Europeans in the Wakefield settlements—Wellington, Nelson and New Plymouth from 1840 till 1860.”

Rebecca has used diaries, letters and journals as her source material. “I wanted to find out what both peoples were thinking about each other, how they were interacting. I wanted to use these sorts of private records and personal experiences, as opposed to official Government records or even newspaper articles, which were often quite biased. I wanted to get the real story.”

She was surprised at the amount of interaction between Māori and the foreign settlers. “The interaction was a lot more positive than what is presented in the current literature. Settlers relied extremely heavily on Māori, and without the support of Māori, the settlement of New Zealand would have failed.

“The biggest surprise for me was to find that the settlers learnt te reo Māori very quickly—you can see in their writing when they first arrive that it’s all in English, then gradually Māori words—such as whare, or kai—creep into their writing. And as time passes some even say they are having conversations in Māori, or using it for trade purposes.”

Rebecca says it was initially challenging to get a foothold in the Māori world. “I started from scratch with no knowledge whatsoever about the topic, the literature, the place—nothing. But I worked for quite a long time at Te Papa which helped me understand things like protocol. 

“At Victoria I’ve had some amazing mentors, including Te Ripowai Higgins, who’ve shared their stories with me and welcomed me into their lives. I’ve also dried countless dishes on the Marae—it’s amazing what you can learn by just being in the midst of it all! The key for me has been to live the culture. It’s about more than just studying it—you’ve got to really embrace it to understand it.”

Te Herenga Waka Marae on Victoria University’s Kelburn Campus became such an important place to Rebecca that she got married there. 

“Doing this PhD and engaging with Māori culture has changed me so dramatically—my view of the world and where I stand within it, and what’s happening around me. The Marae and Te Kawa A Māui became a home away from home for me, with my family all overseas. I’ve also had great support and guidance from my PhD supervisors Peter Adds and Richard Hill.”

When she graduates on 10 December, Rebecca will be wearing a traditional korowai which she has woven herself. 

“That will be quite special,” she says. “My family can’t come over from Germany for graduation, but to be able to wear my korowai and be part of the formal Māori ceremony will be pretty cool. I think I will be the only German in the world to have a PhD in Māori Studies!”