Kiri Nathan’s gift to her son

Kiri shares how opening up about her family’s history has strengthened their bond

When fashion designer Kiri Nathan and her broadcaster son Astley committed one year of their lives to learning te reo Māori full-time, they expected to learn a new language. But they didn’t realise how life-changing the journey would be.

For Kiri, it was both a deeply traumatic and healing experience, as she delved into her family’s history and faced head on the mamae (hurt) and whakamā (shame) of her whakapapa (ancestry) and upbringing.

While for Astley it was a powerful reclamation of his roots and this journey has given him a sense of true belonging.

Speaking about her decision to take a year off to study, Kiri, who is celebrated globally for her self-titled clothing label, reveals she had been trying and failing to learn te reo for 20 years.

“My business and my life were based around te ao Māori [the Māori world] and I got to a place where I couldn’t take another step forward without learning my language,” says Kiri, 48.

‘It’s the first time he’s seen me so vulnerable and not coping’

Very quickly, Kiri realised the full-immersion year at Auckland’s Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa wouldn’t be easy.

“When you’re used to working at a certain pace and achieving, and then you sit in a classroom with 32 other people and everyone else seems to understand and you don’t, it’s really humbling. Not being top of the class really hit my ego,” she laughs.

Astley, 30, studied the same course but in a separate class, and empathised with his mother’s struggle.

“Mum is quite elite in her industry, so to go back into an environment where you’re almost interning or like a baby in te ao Māori was huge. I feel like a baby in every space, so for me it was like, ‘I’m going to make mistakes, teach me what you can and I’ll try soak it up.'”

Kiri shares a unique bond with her son, after becoming a solo mum at just 18 and parenting him alone for the first 10 years, and was overjoyed to see Astley doing so well.

But at same time, she was grappling with a darker side of her whānau history.

“Things were revealed that I never wanted him to deal with, and it’s the first time he’s seen me so vulnerable and not coping,” says the now mother-of-five, speaking publicly for the first time about the decades of systemic abuse that plagued her family.

Astley says it was hard seeing his “supermum” in so much pain

It started with her grandfather, who had a traumatic childhood and ran away from home young. Like many of that generation, he was scolded and beaten for using te reo, so when he met his wife, who shared a similar troubled upbringing, they vowed to raise their six children without the language.

Abuse was prevalent and Kiri’s grandmother eventually fled the marriage, leaving her grandfather alone to raise their tamariki. The children continued to suffer under his care, including Kiri’s mother and eventually Kiri herself when she was born the first mokopuna (grandchild).

The abuse finally stopped when her grandfather unexpectedly passed away in his early fifties. It was his death and tangi that led to Kiri’s going home to her marae.

“That was my first experience of my marae and it was not good on any level,” recalls Kiri, who says her grandparents were so desperate to shed their culture that she was raised to feel shameful of her Māori whakapapa. Yet despite the inter-generational trauma, after becoming a mum, Kiri vowed to reclaim the culture that had been lost to her so her son would feel a sense of belonging. As a designer, she incorporates it into every element of her work. It’s been a long journey, but Kiri says learning te reo Māori has brought her peace.

“It was very healing. By the end of the year, I felt lighter and it wasn’t just from learning the reo. It was facing some of the trauma that had happened in our whakapapa in a very beautiful and Māori way.”

It was challenging for Astley to see his mum in pain, especially while he was loving the programme.

“She’s always been superhero, supermum to me and tried hard to protect me from all of this, so it was quite eye-opening to see the vulnerabilities and cracks on her journey,” says Astley, who graduated Takiura the happiest he’s ever been.

“I am a lot more confident in my identity and who I am with my taha Māori (Māori side) now,” he tells. “I want it to be recorded how grateful I am that I had the privilege because that’s not the reality for many of our people who would love to.”

And Kiri wholeheartedly agrees. She enthuses, “It’s the most amazing feeling when I’m talking to Astley in te reo Māori – it’s a dream come true.”

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