About ancestral roots
Who would have thought learning te reo Maori would propel me on a quest to discover Wales?
My father was from North Wales but I was born in Aotearoa New Zealand. I love the beauty here, the landscapes, skies, mountains, rivers, coasts both gentle and rough. Birds and marine creatures. After travels abroad I’ve always returned because it’s my home, my tūrangawaewae – my place to stand, or be, in life.
But earlier this year, when I began learning Maori, our national language along with English, I became fired with the need to know my father’s land.
A lost past
You see, I discovered that learning te reo is not just about language. It’s also about knowing who you are, where you come from, where you feel you belong. About connections, with people and land.
A big part of my learning was building my pepeha – an introductory recitation based on whakapapa (genealogy), and links to land and water. Pepeha are recited as greetings, at meetings and gatherings, not only in traditional situations but also, increasingly, in professional life. It’s about relationships, connections. And context.
For me, building my pepeha was fascinating, scary and emotional.
I found that, beyond my parents, I knew little of the people responsible for my existence. I didn’t know my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side or my grandmother’s name on my father’s side. Or anyone further back. Just that my mum’s mother’s people had a tannery and possibly a mill in early Christchurch, and that my father, who spoke Welsh, came from somewhere in North Wales.
So while my classmates recited names and places, I struggled to fill in the gaps of even a rudimentary self-intro.
Tribe and land
My tutor told me to build from my father’s side. I understood his side took precedence over Mum’s. All right. I didn’t mind that. But Wales was on the other side of the world and I knew only that my grandfather’s name was Gabriel Jones. I couldn’t name a mountain or river.
Somehow, with info from a family member or two, I managed to find the farmhouse where my father was born on Google Earth. Shrieks of excitement! And more than a bit of eye wiping.
Then a lovely Facebook friend living in North Wales went there for me. She visited the elderly couple who now own the house and sent me photos. Here was our ancestral home, sold out of the family sometime in the 1920s – a centuries-old, slate-roof farmhouse, with an enormous traditional hearth complete with bread oven. This was where my father was born.
Gillian, archaeologist and manager of the Llangollen Museum, also gave me names of hills nearby, and the name of my river. Later, thanks to Pam, a rellie who has worked on a family tree, I found my Welsh grandmother’s name. Mary Ann Jones.
At last, my pepeha was taking shape. Here's part of it, from my father's side.
Tēnā koutou katoa
I te taha o tōku matua:
Ko Moel y Waun tōku maunga
Ko Clwyd tōku awa
Ko Wera tōku iwi
I whānau mai au ki Ōtautahi.
Ko Gabriel Jones rāua ko Mary Ann Jones ōku tūpuna
Ko John David Jones rāua ko Amy Barnett ōku mātua
Engari, kua mate rāua inaianei.
Ko Bronwen Jones tōku ingoa.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa
Greetings to you all
On my father’s side:
Moel y Waun is my mountain
The Clwyd is my river
My tribe are the Welsh
I was born in Christchurch (NZ).
My grandparents are Gabriel Jones and Mary Ann Jones
My parents are John David Jones and Amy Barnett
However, they have passed away.
My name is Bronwen Jones.
Therefore, greetings, greetings, greetings
Claiming my heritage
As my lessons in te reo progressed, I became fired with the need to go to Wales. I had to go there. Soon as possible. Never mind the cost. With the help of my tutors, I did my tests early, and jumped on a plane. Now here I am, in a northern winter and on the quest of a lifetime.
I’ve visited the house in North Wales, been inside, laid my hand on the ancient wooden beam above the hearth, and on the old, old wooden doors. I’ve walked the lanes and hills, heard our ancestors’ voices on the wind. On a recent Sunday, I went to a chapel service where my father might have sung, and elderly ladies remembered the family, legendary, it seems, because of all the kids.
As I walk the land, learn the stories, I know this is my place too. In my pepeha I claim my mountain and river using the word tōku (my) for belonging rather than te (the) for affiliation.
If only my dear father could be with me. How thrilled he’d be to walk me around his boyhood places, to tell me the stories, to see me discovering my Welsh heritage. But he’s gone. A kind, loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
We all miss him, me more than ever.
The tragedy is, he thought of us girls as Welsh but in my case I denied it to his face. I’m a New Zealander, I insisted, as a callous and disrespectful teen. Remembering now, I see him slump a little, a lost look on his face.
Now it’s too late to tell him I’m sorry. Too late to tell him, Yes, I am Welsh as well, Dad. I’m both.
But then, perhaps he hears me as I walk the land of his youth, though he’s buried so far away in New Zealand. I think he does.
My father’s eyes
so my mother said,
her face lit with memory.
by the time I looked
but they shone with love
Do others have stories of searching for their roots? I'd love to hear, so do leave a comment below.
First, a postscript: Arohanui to my te reo class whanau for an unforgettable farewell when I embarked on my journey to find Wales. And for these gifts, which include a lily woven by Carla, and a blessed toki from Ro to keep me safe on my travels. See you in class next year!
Anyone thinking of learning te reo Maori, do it – it’s incredibly rewarding. Classes are free at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, which has sites around the country.