Late last year at the library in central Auckland, Ancestry DNA's global specialist Brad Argent spoke on the most primal question faced by humanity—who are we?
His firm, Ancestry DNA, is the world's largest consumer DNA database, harbouring the genetic profile of more than two million people along with several million family trees in their system. It's an unparalleled trove of genealogical gold, a latticework of information connecting us through time and across space. And as with all big data, this wealth of information is starting to give us a glimpse at who we are on a macro level.
During his talk alongside social scientist Dr Carla Houkamau (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou) from the University of Auckland, Argent mused upon what we really mean when we say identity. More specifically, what relation do our biological genetics have with who we believe we are, and who we are perceived to be? I was grappling with the same question.
Several months earlier, in a video for The Spinoff, I had undergone a DNA test complete with both predictions and revelations. Based on an old family tree written in Sharpie on a piece of A4 printer paper, I had come to the conclusion I was around 10 to 15 per cent Māori. When my vial of spit was analysed in a Utah lab, however, it revealed I was somewhere in the neighbourhood of five per cent—which begged the question, does that even count?
But what does it mean to be Māori? What are the prerequisites? What does it mean to be Ngāi Tahu? What are my responsibilities? Who makes the final call? It turned out to be a little more subjective than a DNA test.
According to Houkamau, the Māori census asks both an ancestry question, in order to identify populations for legal and constitutional reasons, as well as a question around ethnic group membership, for use in statistical analysis.
"Statistics New Zealand will count you as Māori if you tick the Māori box and indicate you have Māori ancestry," she says. "You don't need to prove that. I cannot imagine a time when that would ever be appropriate either."
Besides, says Houkamau, whether you identify as Māori in the census or not is a personal choice. In the 2013 census, 668,724 people reported Māori descent. Of that group, 10.5 per cent did not identify as Māori. At the same time, 4212 people without any Māori ancestry whatsoever ticked the Māori ethnic box.
To Argent, the act of taking on another racial identity is a sign of an identity 'crossroads' of sorts.
"As Western culture spreads everywhere and everything is looking quite homogenous, the whole notion of belonging to a particular group is more and more appealing—particularly the idea of being able to belong and to place your identity with something that's unique."
But what identity are we talking about? According to Argent, there are two different forms. Firstly, how do you identify yourself; who do you believe you are? Then, how do you express that, and how does the community accept that identity?
"There are certain identity norms that make being accepted quite easy, but then there are those that are outside of that, that are challenging for the community to accept just as they're challenging for the individual to express.
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