I am my marae, my marae is me – “Ko au te marae, ko te marae ko au”

For Senior Channel Sales Manager Dan Te Whenua Walker, connecting with the local Māori community allowed him to bridge the two worlds of his dual heritage, Māori and Pākehā.

Portrait of Dan Te Whenua Walker

I’m from South Taranaki, a region that is home to our maunga (mountain) of the same name in New Zealand’s North Island, approximately halfway between Auckland and Wellington. My mother was born in South Taranaki and her iwi—our word for “tribe”—traces our family roots to this region. Before I was born, my mum moved down to Christchurch, with the Māori Trade Training programme, a kaupapa designed to help Māori become trade qualified in industries like construction, hairdressing, and hospitality. There, she met my dad, an awesome man who was born in Christchurch with Scottish and Irish roots.    

I grew up in the 1980s in Christchurch, a time when the Māori narrative, what was taught in schools, what was said in conversations, and what was on the news was rarely positive. Things are changing, but in some ways some of those negative perspectives still exist today. Growing up away from the marae and from my tūrangawaewae (my ancestral homeland), I was disconnected from my Māori identity, my language, and my community. Being half-caste (mixed blood of Māori and NZ European heritages) also caused me to struggle with my identity even further. I didn’t have an understanding of who I really was. I knew I had a strong disconnection to my taha Māori and an inferiority complex, and that played out in lots of negative ways, including dropping out of high school with no qualifications and falling into some pretty bad spaces. I was facing the wall of colonization that I couldn’t see past, one that I needed to break down.    

I was lucky to have a supportive whānau: parents who helped me through the tough times and supported me to reconnect to who I am, elders who took the time to bring me back, and wider whānau (family and friends) who kept me grounded. I now embrace my Pākehā heritage as well as my Māori roots.   

Reconnecting through language

Looking back, my disconnection from my culture reached a turning point when my first son, Josh, was born. In Māori culture, the placenta is returned to the land. As my cousin Te Poihi spoke and sang in our native language during the burial ceremony of Joshie’s placenta, I stood there not understanding a word of it. I didn’t have my language, and I was embarrassed. That moment hit me hard and forced me to look at my priorities: to reconnect with my roots, learn my language, and live up to my heritage.    

So, as difficult as it would be to learn my ancestral language as an adult, I knew I needed to go down that road. Over the past decade, I’ve been learning my language word by word. When I first started learning, I only knew kia ora, the Māori phrase for “hello.” Eventually I learned to offer a cup of tea in my language, and then a cup of coffee. The first three years of learning to speak my language was all about processing the fact that it was not my fault that I didn’t know my language. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the way the world has become. When I accepted that, I could make space to learn. Today, I can stand up and speak for more than five minutes in Māori.  

Before having my tamariki, my children, I never would’ve dreamt that I would be able to do that. Fatherhood transformed my purpose and made it clear to me that I needed to break the cycle of shame for my children. I found my purpose through them and want them to grow up comfortable with and proud of their Māori heritage. 

A sacred place

My journey to reconnecting began when I found support from both Māori and non-Māori people, welcoming me with open arms and saying, “Here is your marae. Here is your home. Here are your ancestors that go back 42 generations. Here is where your ancestors have been buried for the last 600 years.” I have this back in Taranaki, and I feel lucky to have an ancestral connection to people and place. 

A person’s marae is typically determined by their ancestry and what land they are from, but Te Herenga Waka o Orewa Marae is open to all and embraces a multicultural vision. The purpose of this marae is to allow everyone the ability to connect to this place—this land—Māori and non-Māori alike. You can come here and have that beautiful journey of connection to people and place. For me, this marae is deeply significant. It’s a gift. It is where I went to learn my language. This is a space in Auckland where I feel a revival of my cultural health and my mental wellbeing. A home away from home. 

Te Herenga Waka o Orewa Marae sits near the Weiti River, ancestral waters where this community sustained themselves; it’s now surrounded by industry. As you enter, you’re greeted warmly by the rangatira, Kereama and Trish Nathan, our leaders and the haukainga of the marae with a kia ora and a hongi. The first question they ask after the greeting is “Where are your people from?” It’s about your heritage. And the concept that wherever you go, you take your whānau, the people you call your family, with you. So when we see you, we see you for the many people that you represent as well. 

A unique haka for Microsoft

As I rediscovered my roots, I’ve gone from being a student of my culture to, now, actively sharing and teaching others about my culture. Recently, the Indigenous at Microsoft employee resource group (ERG), for which I’m a founding member and the inaugural global cochair, created a unique haka for Microsoft. A haka is a traditional Māori dance, and the name of our haka is Tū Hikitia Rā, or “Rise to the Occasion.”  

A haka is precious to Māori. It’s a statement. It’s a movement of connecting our bodies to our ancestors and to the kaupapa, or the purpose, of what we do. To start off the process of creating the haka, first we needed to find someone who was willing to write it for us. We worked with Matua Tapeta Wehi, a world authority on kapa haka; he’s been a leader on the stages of Te Matatini for years, nationally and globally. We connected with him, and right away he asked, “What are your Microsoft values?” and “What’s important to Microsoft?”  

Next, our Indigenous at Microsoft ERG came together to get all of our different views and thoughts on the table. Tapeta Wehi then used that framework to build a haka for us that represents all that’s special about Microsoft, about our people. One of our whakataukī, our proverbs, is “What is the most important thing? It is people. It is people. It is people.” So Tapeta Wehi adapted that whakataukī to say, “What is the most important thing? It is people, it’s still people, but it is innovation, and it is diversity and inclusion.” 

Creating the haka has been a two and a half year journey, and I’m very proud of the outcome.

The haka is a powerful Māori ceremonial expression, historically performed before battles, that serves not only as a display of a tribe’s pride, strength, and unity but also for various other occasions, conveying deep emotions, respect, and honor. For this haka, we are saying we are aligned with the mission of Microsoft. It speaks beautifully through poetry and movement about what our people are doing for the sustainability of our environment, resiliency, and connecting to our core strengths, which are our mountain, our rivers, our land, and our ancestors. Anyone at Microsoft can perform the haka. 

‘A foot in both worlds’

Microsoft is a place where I can be me. I want that for the younger generation and for my children. That’s why I’m doing this. It’s bigger than me. It’s being supported by my ancestors. I’m the channel sales manager for Microsoft Australia and New Zealand. I look after 8,000 to 9,000 partners on their journey with cloud Microsoft, making sure Microsoft shows up in the best way possible to support them. 

The awareness I’ve gained through my own cultural journey helps me interact with people from many different cultures. What informs that openness is the fact that I’ve never fit into one specific group, and it’s allowed me to accept people from all backgrounds, religions, creeds, and beliefs. The thing that I always thought was my weakness, my mixed heritage, has now become my strength. 

I struggled for a long time being disconnected from my Māori identity. I don’t look fully Māori, and I don’t look fully Pākehā either. I didn’t want to say I was Māori, because I didn’t feel that I had the right to claim it. I also didn’t feel that I had the right to say I was Pākehā. It has taken me 40 years but I can finally say I am proud to have a foot in both worlds. I own it.