I guess you could say things have changed since that day, back in 1961, when a teacher hit me across the head whilst proclaiming, for all to hear, “You’re not on the pa now, hori!” I was 11 years old and had just arrived at boarding school from a small rural village on the East Coast of the North Island.

On discovering that this Pakeha-looking kid who went to a largely white Catholic boarding school and did pretty well academically was actually part Maori, the Pakeha reaction was almost universally, "Ah, but you're not really Maori!''

But, all these years later, that memory resurfaces every time I hear, or read, that Maori need to climb down off that Treaty bandwagon of theirs and listen to “middle New Zealand” because in middle New Zealand we are all equal. 

What exactly “middle New Zealand” is has always eluded me but, growing up as a Maori kid in the '50s and '60s, I became accustomed to receiving the most back-handed of compliments from well-meaning "middle'' New Zealanders.

On discovering that this Pakeha-looking kid who went to a largely white Catholic boarding school and did pretty well academically was actually part Maori, the Pakeha reaction was almost universally, "Ah, but you're not really Maori!''

How was I meant to take that?

I'm OK because I'm one of you?

I'm OK because I have taken on your values and, to my shame these days, left mine behind. 

Nothing could be more patronising than being told "you're OK now because you're like us''.

This year, I had the privilege of introducing the inaugural Maori Innovation Award at the NZ Hi Tech Awards.

Why, I hear you ask, should Maori have their own category?

Surely if they're good enough they could enter the main awards?

Well, here's how I explained it to an audience of 900, largely Pakeha, leaders of our hi-tech economy.

"Going to school in the 1950s and '60s I learned about Captain Cook and how he discovered this land occupied by a race of head-hunting cannibals.

"No-one told me about the amazing feats of design, engineering and navigation that must have been needed to build that great fleet that sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaiki to Aotearoa.

"No-one told me about the innovation in agriculture and horticulture that must have been needed for our ancestors to adapt to a land that was nothing like the one they had left.

"No-one told me about the fur seal trade routes these same ancestors opened with China long before that free trade agreement we are all so proud of.

"So we Maori kids grew up with no role models to look up to in the world of science innovation and technology, and you wonder why we languish at the bottom of the education stats. Well, tonight, with these inaugural Maori Innovation Awards, we start the journey to change that!''

The entries were stunning and all carried something uniquely Maori.

And one of the finalists entered the main award last year and won.

This year, they were runner-up to the eventual winner of this, the Maori Innovation category.

When our Maori ancestors designed vessels and navigation systems that saw them navigate, conquer and settle the biggest ocean on the planet – 1000 years before any other humans even dared:  I’m pretty sure no one would ever have said to them.

“Aaah but you’re not really Maori!”

My wish for the future is summed up in a video we made for the America’s Cup in San Francisco. We called it “From a Nation Born of Sailors” and it celebrated a lineage of design, innovation, engineering and risk taking that stretched from those ancestors who sailed across Te Moana Nui a Kiwa from Hawaiki through to the design of, arguably, one of the most technologically advanced sailboats ever built.

The video was created by a group of young pakeha from Dunedin. They tell this story stunningly because they see it as their story as well.

Therein lies our future.


That’s Us is a campaign by the Human Rights Commission that asks Kiwis to start sharing their personal stories about racism, intolerance and hatred, as well as their hopes for the future of New Zealand as one of the most diverse countries in the world. Read more stories and click here to tell your story.