Native Affairs Summer Series - DNA of Māori identity

Do you have to whakapapa Māori to be Māori? The answer seems obvious but, according to one academic, that didn’t stop 4,000 people with no Māori ancestry wanting to identify as Māori last Census.  Māori have always had their own ways of keeping track of a person’s identity and that’s not about to change anytime soon. Or is it?

Last year Native Affairs spoke to experts about identity, including the popular trend toward DNA testing to establish a person’s ethnic makeup.

It turns out no one knows exactly who they are or where they come from. That’s according to Brad Argent, a DNA specialist, who visited Aotearoa last October to discuss the science of identity and how’s DNA ethnicity test has become a global phenomenon with more than 9 million people taking it up.

“It's very hard to find anybody that's 100% anything just because of the nature of humans - we travel, our ancestors moved around a bit as well and they picked up little bits and pieces of DNA that still turn up, even today,” says Argent.

The family historian and international spokesperson for Ancestry believes DNA testing is giving people a greater appreciation of their cultural diversity.

Argent says, “Suddenly, we're realising that our culture is actually quite rich and diverse, our ethnic heritage if you like.”

Māori, however, haven’t been as quick to jump on the DNA science bandwagon. Just 200 of us here in Aotearoa have taken the test.

Dr Carla Houkamau says Māori don't have to take the test to verify their heritage.

The University of Auckland social scientist says, “Traditionally Māori have always had their own ways of keeping track of who's who, you know. We don't have to measure and quantify, and biology is an aspect of that, but relationships are really important as well.”  

Dr Houkamau says there are many layers to defining Māori identity, including how Māori view themselves as an individual as well as their sense of belonging to their culture and history.

She says, “Before colonisation Tangata Whenua in New Zealand didn't call themselves Māori you know. That was a label that was really introduced because we needed to define ourselves compared to another group coming here. Before that, it was just hapū and iwi.”

According to the last Census, only 15 percent of Aotearoa's 4.6 million population are of Māori descent. While that figure is relatively low, Dr Houkamau says the desire to be Māori is on the rise.

“The numbers are going up every Census. So, even younger Māori who've got multiple ethnic affiliations are still ticking that ethnic group Māori. They want to belong to that group and I think it's because it's got such a powerful, positive, influence on the way that people see themselves,” she says.

Asked if she felt being Māori was a good thing, Dr Houkamau said “Oh, totally! Actually, it's so good that 4,000 people want to be Māori when they haven't even got Māori ancestry.”