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Leo Koziol: Naked in Nuhaka

Kia Ora,

This is the first edition of Naked in Nuhaka, launching a weekly/fortnightly column exploring issues of identity and culture in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century.

Maori words in the column are translated for overseas readers. An interesting web-link (usually related to the text) is provided with each month’s column. The author can be contacted at

Leo Koziol Nuhaka, Aotearoa NZ 3.9.02


Identity constructs interest me. It does help that I’m a Maori Polish American Thirty-Something New Zealander with a Mum who’s a lapsed Mormon and a Dad who’s a lapsed Catholic. I was conceived in Santa Cruz (California) and born in Wairoa (Hawke’s Bay), and I grew up in Nuhaka, on the East Coast between Napier and Gisborne. Over the past ten years, I’ve lived in Palmerston North, Ponsonby, and San Francisco and now somehow find myself back in Nuhaka.

This is the first in an ongoing series of columns, Naked in Nuhaka, that I write not for fame but from an internal desire to get my thoughts out there in an unconsciously deliberate fashion. This will be a weekly (or inconsistent fortnightly) rant by me around the topic of identity in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ).

Why Naked in Nuhaka? I like that the title is nicely alliterative and I’m a great fan of David Sedaris. The thoughts will be naked, but not much else, and the columns will be written here in Nuhaka.

* * * *

Last December, I moved back to NZ after five years living in the uber-hip metropolis of San Francisco. It was fun living there, but urban life had begun to weary on me, and I felt the spiritual draw of home calling me back. So I joined the hordes of post- September 11 trickle-back brain-drainers, and came home.

One of the most surprising things for me living in San Francisco was that many people who I met, after I had told them I was from NZ, responded “What on earth are you doing here?” They then went on to query me whether I had been to NZ’s spiritual portal, the seventh one in the world matched by places such as Taos, New Mexico, the mountains of Nepal, and Macchu Picchu, Peru. I replied that I had not; indeed, I did not even know where it was located.

But the more I dwelt on this thought, the more I came to the conclusion that perhaps I had been there, but had not known it; and that perhaps I needed to return to recapture it, to search for that elusive seventh spiritual portal.

San Francisco itself is a bit of a spiritual portal. It’s a bubble, a place of intellectual awareness and progressive thought unmatched in the world. There are over 1,000 nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area working on progressive causes both locally and globally. It’s a hotbed of activism in regard to race issues and the battle against globalisation, and the birthplace of the modern women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental movements.

Looking back at my recent life in San Francisco seems a bit like a peek into the future of NZ. Smoke-free bars, restaurants, and cafes. Electric and hybrid cars zipping around on the streets. Real acceptance – not just tolerance – of people regardless of race, religion, or sexuality. San Francisco is at the crest of the knowledge wave NZ is currently striving to jump on; even with the recent crash Silicon Valley remains the place to be.

However, living there did have a darker side. San Francisco is becoming a hub for biotechnology in the U.S., including an expansive new biotech business park on converted industrial land south of the city. There’s a large homeless population, and nothing like the social support mechanisms we have here. ACT Party policies rule on the social welfare and healthcare fronts, with the resulting dislocations and social problems quite evident. I experienced unemployment there twice, and it was not a pleasant experience.

California only has two commercial nuclear reactors, one in San Diego, the other near San Luis Obispo, both distant from San Francisco. But catch Bart (the high speed suburban train) out to the East Bay, and you can look at the missile silos stretched across the hills of Livermore and Pleasanton. Nuclear free? No. GE-free? No.

* * * *

I’ve returned with aroha (heart) and pride back to Aotearoa NZ and to my iwi (tribal) heartland. Back in December 2001, I wrote the following in my journal:

“What a strange melange and mix of people is Aotearoa NZ. Our indigenous Polynesian people who collectively call themselves Maori, deep in spirit with the heritage of this land, somewhat confused yet excited by the western McWorld. Our transplanted Pacific Islanders, keeping in touch and spirit with their own islands yet able to fully realize the economic opportunities of this new home. Our Europeans (mainly of Anglo stock), some of whom have decided to settle their souls here and call themselves Pakeha, troubled and torn between the traditions and landscapes brought with them and the effects of living in this back-to-front “Middle Earth” down under. And the growing population of peoples from the other great continents – from Asia, from Africa, from South America – flocking here either for the potential economic opportunities or to flee terror in their own homelands.

All of the people who feel they still have immigrated to this land strive everyday to hold on to some remnant of the their cultural past. They feel unsettled in this place not quite small enough to be islands, not quite big enough to be continent. A spirit of place slowly seeps into us all, changing us and gifting us with a uniqueness. Returning home, I feel everything that is unique about this place slowly seeping into me, slowly overcoming me.

Here in these beautiful islands, we live in a land that possesses the natural beauty and diversity and climate of California with a thirtieth of the population. We possess, amidst our small population, great and progressive talent of our own in regard to arts, culture, technology, and the creation of progressive social and environmental policy. An independence of mind and state that gives us a unique kind of sentience. Sentient islands. To state it bluntly, where else in the world do you find a beautiful brown transsexual and a dread-locked white hippie among the nation’s elected political leadership?”

Now the tranny and the hippie have been joined by a dozen Christians, a Muslim, and the world’s first Green Maori MP. Based in Nuhaka, I’ve made it to both Wellington and Auckland on a number of occasions. I’ve begun to explore parts of this country I hadn’t seen before, as well as rediscovering old haunts and hang-outs.

I’ve had interesting thought processes around deciding where to live in NZ. Auckland I have fondness for, but I must admit that I never really felt that this great sprawling archipelagopolis was home. Maybe I'll try again when the town’s matured a little, and gotten over the America’s Cup, auto-obsessiveness, and derision of people from Hawke’s Bay. Wellington is a lovely little Geneva of the South Pacific, a tightly packed hobbity little town; but it lacks the subtropical feel of Auckland and the California-Mediterranean feel up here on the East Coast. It’s cold blast energy is not quite right for me, right now, but it definitely deserves respect. Christchurch, that Salem of the South Seas, has never seemed a probable choice, and I’ve never been to Dunedin (though Invercargill is sounding increasingly fabulous right now given its free higher education).

I still haven’t found the seventh spiritual portal, but admit to Nuhaka being a close second.

Here I’ve learnt more about my ancestors, about Kahungunu, his son Kahukuranui, and his grandson Rakaipaaka. About my great-great-great Grandfather Ihaka Whaanga whose Goldie portrait hangs in the Wairoa public library. I remember being back in San Francisco, Ihaka’s face stared out at me from the cover of a ReSearch book in the window of Virgin Megastore, beckoning me home.

Club culture has not invaded Nuhaka and district yet, but cafe culture has, with a half dozen places to get a latte in Wairoa district alone. Bigger neighbour Gisborne even has a burgeoning cafe district.

Morere mineral springs are nearby, as are the empty expansive beaches of Mahia Peninsula. I see this as the “spiritual coast”: Mahia’s coastlines face four different directions, and was the site of that greatest of Maori romances, Rongomaiwahine and Kahungunu (indeed it is infamously reputed that the couple consummated their love frolicking in the hot waters of Morere (1)).

Nuhaka is also at the heart of the Maori heartland. I can sleepwalk through the supermarket in Wairoa and listen to casual Maori conversations going on all around me. I currently hope to be acolyte to such leaders as TV-man Derek Fox and United Nations Activist Pauline Tangiora, who spoke for the traditional fisherpeoples of the world this week at the second Earth Summit. Both Uncle Derek and Aunty Pauline live down the road in Opoutama. I’ve also discovered that esteemed writer Witi Ihimaera is part of my iwi. Why isn’t he in Waituhi?

* * * *

So welcome to Naked in Nuhaka. I hope you choose to become a regular reader. This column will be one part excavational reminescences of life in California, one part cultural commentary on the significant changes now going on in NZ, and ten parts manifesto for living the fullest possible life. A manifesto for living that truly celebrates the sense of place which we all possess. Our uniqueness. What makes us us. Personal histories, day-to-day experiences, and shared visions for the future.

I do hope to eventually find the seventh spiritual portal. So this is a bit of an adventure, as well, most definitely. A Project. Everyday epiphanies from the spirit coast, naked thoughts from Nuhaka.

Online resources: Distractions: The Personal Website of Leo Koziol

(1) I read this written beside a portrait of a Kahungunu tribal member in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2002.

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