Understanding Indigenous Identity Abroad

Indigenous Identity Abroad

Aiy-yu-kwee’ (Hello) Nek Now (My name is) Brook Thompson; I am from the Yurok and Karuk tribe from northern California. I am a Civil Engineering major at Portland State, and for the last 15 years I’ve been going back and forth between Portland (where my mother and university are) and Klamath, California, where my father and tribe reside.

Choosing Where To Study AbroadIndigenous Identity Abroad

Recently I spent a semester at the University of Auckland, New Zealand studying abroad with IFSA-Butler. I chose New Zealand due to the high Maori population and diversity of the school. Despite having the highest Native American population out of public Oregon schools, Portland State’s students is still less than two percent; conversely, the Maori population at University of Auckland is closer to seven percent. My people are very important to me; in fact, I grew up with my grandfather who was one of the last native speakers of our language, which is also named Yurok. But it can sometimes be hard to go to a school where not many people understand your history or values. When researching the Maori people of New Zealand, it seemed like they had many similarities to the Yuroks, so I decided to study there.

I was the only Native American student in the program group I went with, but everyone I met from IFSA-Butler was very kind to me. At the University of Auckland, I took courses in Film, Physics, Sociology, and “The Maori World.” The Maori world was the best course I had ever taken in college thus far— as I learned more about our historical and cultural similarities like women family values, creation stories, colonization, and Tā moko which is the permanent body and face marking by Māori, I also found they face similar issues to my tribe in a contemporary sense as well.

Similarities and Differences in Maori Culture

The Maori culture is often appropriated for non-Maori through gift shop knickknacks, clothing and even language. The word “tapu,” (aka tabu or kapu), is a Polynesian concept denoting something sacred, with an implied spiritual prohibition or restriction– it’s where we get the English derivative “taboo.” The Maori ornamental symbol “tiki,” for example, is tapu, This is important; it is not respectful to put something with a lot of meaning onto dishcloths and plastic cups for a tiki party or tropical-themed bar. Placing tikis on these objects is like placing a picture of Jesus on a rug. It is disrespectful. Much like Native Americans, Maori culture is also commandeered through cartoonish clothing and acts, like what happened on May 1, 1979 at the very university I attended. Twenty members of a Maori protest group went to the engineering students’ common room at the University of Auckland to stop that year’s “haka party” performance. Despite a decade of complaints, students persisted in performing their own version of Ka Mate while drunk, with obscenities painted on their bodies and wearing grass skirts. The conflict ended in a physical confrontation with the Maori students successfully removing the skirts and since then, the students have not performed such an act.

Likewise, here in the United States Native American culture is often appropriated at events like large music festivals, professional sports games, and by celebrities. Near my own tribe there have even been cases of the name “Yurok” being added to “Tribal” or “Native” clothing items. Because of this, every year around Halloween in the United States I worry about going to a party or event where I will feel awkward as someone else makes fun of my culture, even if it that’s not their intention.dance

Halloween in New Zealand

Last year in New Zealand was my first Halloween away from home and I did not know what to expect. Would there be fewer Native American costumes because it’s just not a part of New Zealand’s history like in the U.S., or would there be Maori costumes instead? Or maybe because there was more awareness about indigenous cultures, people would be more respectful?

I got nervous as the time approached. At one of the popular costume stores, Look Sharp, I saw stereotypical Native American costumes on sale– complete with the fake braids, fringed leather, war paint, and a bow and arrow. When the night of Halloween arrived I went to a friend’s house for a get together and was pleasantly surprised to see that there was not a headdress in sight. Nor did I see anyone wearing a Maori or Pasifika costume either. For once I could just enjoy myself and the holiday, like everyone else.

How Does Indigenous Identity Abroad Change


New Zealand was life changing for me and has made me a more proactive person. By going to the other side of the world I learned a lot about my own tribe and about the state of indigenous people all over the world. I am also more proud of my culture. Before I was often nervous to wear my jewelry to school because it may look odd to others, however now I wear my jewelry
proud and speak my language to my friends before I translate it to English. Additionally, I am more willing to have difficult conversations on race and culture with my friends. My experience in New Zealand has not only helped me grow as a person, but reassured me of who I am. The biggest thing I took away is that everyone is trying to find themselves in some way in college, but when you take yourself out of an environment you are comfortable in or have grown up with, it makes seeing who you are and where you stand a lot clearer. Going abroad was one of the best choices I have ever made and continues to shape me as a person.

Where will your studies take you?

Brooke Thompson is a Civil Engineering student at Portland State University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University of Auckland in New Zealand. 

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