Maddy’s Story: Culture, education, and generational trauma

By Hayley White

One of the things I am hearing more and more kōrero about is generational trauma, especially when talking about Māori experiences in the many years after colonisation. Generational trauma is sometimes called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, a concept that was developed to better understand how the psychological effects of traumatic events and challenges are passed down through generations in families.

The first instances of intergenerational trauma were witnessed in the children of holocaust survivors. In 1966, psychologists saw massive numbers of these children as young adults seeking mental help in Canada. This trauma was also passed on to the grandchildren of holocaust survivors who, as compared to the general population, were overrepresented by 300 per cent among referrals to psychiatry clinics.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

One of the things I am hearing more and more kōrero about is generational trauma, especially when talking about Māori experiences in the many years after colonisation. Generational trauma is sometimes called intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, a concept that was developed to better understand how the psychological effects of traumatic events and challenges are passed down through generations in families.

The first instances of intergenerational trauma were witnessed in the children of holocaust survivors. In 1966, psychologists saw massive numbers of these children as young adults seeking mental help in Canada. This trauma was also passed on to the grandchildren of holocaust survivors who, as compared to the general population, were overrepresented by 300 per cent among referrals to psychiatry clinics.

Since then, transgenerational trauma has been seen in the family descendants of other cultures who have experienced extremely distressing and life-altering experiences such as African American slavery, Native American genocide, war, refugee status, domestic violence, and colonisation.

Many rangatahi (younger generation) have inherited their ancestors’ trauma. Today, they deal with racism, the loss of their whenua (ancestry), and the disconnection between their culture and their urbanised lives.

Ko Rangiputa te maunga
Rangiputa is my mountain

Ko Whangapē te moana
Whangapē is my ocean

Ko Awaroa te awa
Awaroa is my river

Ko Māmari te waka
Māmari is my waka

Ko Te Rarawa te iwi
Te Rarawa is my tribe

Ko Ngāti Hauā te hapu
Ngāti Hauā are my people

To Penewiripo te whanau
Penewiripo is my family

Ko Te Kotahitanga te marae
Te Kotahitanga is my marae

Madeline ‘Maddy’ Penewiripo

Madeline ‘Maddy’ Penewiripo was born and raised in South Auckland, but never really stayed in one place for too long. Though she is currently based in Auckland’s CBD, she’s also lived in Papatoetoe, Mangere, Papakura, and Waiuku. She says that although these areas are all in and around the Auckland region, there is a difference between the lifestyle and expectations of the people that live in each of those areas.

“Growing up in South Auckland, my family and the wider community all had a mutual understanding that we were poor or didn’t have much; that everyone had issues going on in their homes. Everyone around me had the mutual understanding that if we were to at least graduate high school, it would be seen as the biggest educational accomplishment made for most of us, coming from homes that are still in the process of recovering from generational trauma,” Maddy admits to me.

Through scholarship opportunities, Maddy says she has been living in university accommodation where people’s priorities are clearly different to those she has grown up with. She says that she now sees how people struggle in different ways. Where her peers used to struggle with things like family violence, gang affiliations, drug, or alcohol addictions, her new peers worry about finances, or whether they would mentally struggle to get their degrees. “No doubt that these are also my worries, but based on my past environment, I have been privileged enough to go from, ‘will I ever know more to my life than this’, to ‘what other opportunities are there for me out in the world now that I have finally seen all it can bring’,” she says.

As an urban Māori, Maddy says that she does not consider that a negative. Instead, she looks at it like something to be proud of her ancestors for. “I am an urban Māori because my ancestors saw the way my country was progressing. If they were going to have a chance at providing a stable future for their loved ones to follow, then they had to conform to Pākehā expectations. This meant that to get an education or high paying job, the only way they could do so was to position themselves in a city like Auckland where there are more schools, universities, and businesses to integrate into,” she says, and emphasises: “I am an urban Māori, not because my ancestors were weak for following the ways of the Pākehā, but because they knew that realistically the ways of Māori would not be taken into consideration or highly valued for decades to come.”

In spite of all that, her relationship with her culture has been complicated. Before Covid, she was visiting her whenua and her marae every year, but she has not been able to visit her home since 2020.

“Around Pākehā people, I was expected to know all things Māori. Language, practices, and stories of my people were all something that I was looked down on and seen as ‘less Māori’ if I wasn’t able to recall them on the spot,” says Maddy. She was told by Pākehā that it was her fault she did not know Te Reo Māori and she has had her Māori and Pasifika heritage questioned because of her lack of knowledge. She was questioned over and over how other Pākehā grew up in their home countries and learned their languages but why did she not know hers?

“All of this doubt towards my cultural identity only made me doubt even further,” she confesses. It is not fair that we have generations of Māori youth fighting for the right to call themselves Māori. Maddy says that because she is not able to fully hold a conversation in Te Reo, she relies on her whakapapa (genealogy) and pepeha (Māori expressions) to acknowledge her culture.

Like any Māori family, Maddy says her family continues to suffer the effects of generational trauma. She never felt that going to them was a safe learning space so she looked elsewhere for the knowledge.

“I felt that the only way I was able to truly identify as a Māori to Pākehā people was to do so through a way they understood: obtaining a degree.” Now in the final year of her Māori studies degree at Auckland University, she says it has taken this long for people to acknowledge her claims to be Māori. “Only now are people starting to value my opinions as a Māori, especially within corporates. Only now are they willing to listen to Māori thoughts and opinions – after we completed learning about our culture the Pākehā way during our degrees.”

Maddy tells me about one of her internship opportunities. One of the challenges Māori youth faces that maybe is not talked about much, is being hired to ‘tick a box’. She tells me that she was grateful for this opportunity, but that it was not everything she had envisioned. “It seemed like no one outside of my family was proud of me because they saw my internship position as something I was ‘born to receive’, and had nothing to do with my intelligence or skills,” she says.

“A lot of people saw my internship as something I gained out of pity from corporates for not hiring enough Māori in the first place,” she claims, which created an even larger disconnect between her and her Māoritanga. “This internship was the sole reason I added on Māori studies as a conjoint. Suddenly it felt like all the advantages given to Māori today, like internships, scholarships and stuff, were only helping society look down on us even further,” she says.

“I’ve really started talking to people about why we ended up in this position in the first place – why we’ve needed scholarships, why we’ve needed financial aids, and why we’ve needed internship positions. A lot of people tell me ‘I didn’t get [a] job because a Māori was given it instead, because they had the reserved space that I didn’t have’ and if you look back at it, the reason why those reserved places are there is because Pākehāpeople were always chosen over Māori,” Maddy states.

Maddy says that it should not be something people look down on, but rather something that brings back the balance. It is her understanding that there has never been a space for Māori in the corporate world or the world in general because of their race, even if they did have higher qualifications. Māori should have been accepted in the beginning, but because they were not and were never given the opportunity, it is showing in the low number of Māori in education and workplaces. “None of our parents or grandparents were ever given work or further education, so how are we supposed to be able to afford all the things that you can only get with money that you can only get if you had the education and if you work? So we’re the ones who are trying to come through and fix all the mistakes from generational trauma,” she says to me.

“I feel like the positions of university placements and scholarships are there to aid us in a way that makes sure that we have the best chance at getting through, because we’ve already been disadvantaged our whole lives prior to university. So if we’re able to make it to university, things have to be put in place to make sure that we actually succeed and show other people or other Māori and Pasifika that it is possible to achieve as we’ve always been made to feel like we weren’t able or worthy enough of achieving.”

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