Reconnecting adoptees to their taha Māori

By Marena Mane

A University of Otago research project looking to help descendants of Māori adoptees reconnect with their birth whanau has set up a Facebook page to talk to each other.

The project is being run because under the  1955 Adoption Act came into force, many tamariki Māori were separated from their birth parents to become part of non-Māori families and their connections to wider whānau were hidden. 

This has led to many adoptees feeling displaced and disconnected from their taha Māori (Māori side).

Dr Erica Newman is the coordinator of the indigenous development programme at Otago and was awarded a Marsden scholarship of $300,000 earlier this year, to study the journey adoptees are taking to find their tūrangawaewae (belonging through kinship).

Newman says she has made progress since obtaining the scholarship five months ago by forming a rapport with Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Justice to make it safer for adoptees or descendants to locate their tūrangawaewae and taha Māori.

“I created a Facebook page as a private one for us, where we can kōrero with each other, talk about what we've been doing, our progress, how our journey is going so far, asking questions. Just a safe space for us really,” she says.

This is a personal journey for Newman as her mother, who is Māori, was adopted into a Pākehā family at only four weeks old.

“We have been looking, searching, it's been a lifelong journey for us.”

Generational effects

Newman recalls feeling disconnected and "floating" since she didn't know who she was or where she came from, and she knows that this is a common experience for many descendants of Māori adoptees and adoptees themselves.

“Not having that whakapapa, that tūrangawaewae, that place to belong. It does play heavily on your emotions on how you identify yourself, and there are so many things every day that come up that reminds you of that historical trauma that your family has been through and trying to find their journey,” she says.

Adoptees may acquire information about their biological parents as early as the age of 20 under the 1985 Adult Adoption Information Act, she says. However, that information is restricted by legislation, so it isn't complete, and accessing it can be difficult, even though Oranga Tamariki adoption agencies work with adoptees to obtain information.

“There's a lot of work that needs to be done there and with the reform that’s coming up this can be rectified.”

Genetic testing

Dr. Newman says she has used commercial DNA testing to reconnect with her taha Māori and, while she understands why many Māori are opposed to it, it may be quite valuable for those in her circumstance where no information was recorded.

“I've been lucky in the fact that they (her taha Māori) have been welcoming and embracing and very supportive, whereas you know this isn't necessarily the case for everybody.”

Newman says this is a lifelong journey for her that will never end, and she plans to write a book after the three-year Marsden project in the hope of helping others on their own journeys.