16 September, 2021

We korero with Harbour Hospice clinical nurse specialist Claire May about the extraordinary journey she has taken to understand and incorporate te reo Māori and Māoritanga into her private and working life.

It was the road trip of a lifetime – Claire May, her son Patrick, husband Paddy and father Peter - all crammed into Paddy’s work van headed south from Auckland to Greymouth. They stayed overnight in a Wellington hotel and took the car ferry across Cook Strait. Once they hit the South Island they stopped at all the places Peter loved, and listened to the birdsong he’d always enjoyed hearing. They laughed, they cried, they sang songs and they talked liked they’d never talked before.

There’s just one detail about this road trip that takes it out of the ordinary. Peter was making the journey in a coffin. Claire was taking her father home.

Claire is not Māori and neither was her father. But because Claire holds a strong affinity with Māoritanga (the Māori way) she chose to follow Māori tikanga (custom) and return her father’s body to his birth place.

Web Claire and dad
2021 Maori language week blog post

Some might think it unusual – I am Pakeha with an English mother and a New Zealand-born father of Irish descent. But lots of people say there are similarities between the Irish and the Māori and maybe there is something in that. Perhaps it’s because I’ve worked with many Māori patients and their whānau over the years, and I’ve seen families wrap grandma in a blanket and strap her into the backseat with the kids to take her body up north. Returning the body has been normalised. All I know is that it felt right, and it’s what my father wanted too.

” At Harbour Hospice Claire works as a clinical nurse specialist who has taken a special interest in working alongside our kaiāwhina (Māori advisors) to understand and meet the needs of our Māori patients. She incorporates the use of te reo into her daily practice and acknowledges and understands Māori tikanga (customs) and beliefs around end-of-life care. “Not everyone knows their whakapapa (family history) and not every Māori patient feels comfortable speaking te reo. But when I work with patients, I try to understand their needs and speak in te reo if it feels right and it’s important to them. For me, it’s the respectful thing to do.”

Before Claire joined Harbour Hospice in 2012 she worked for 20-plus years as a nurse in south Auckland. Many of her patients were Māori, and from the beginning she felt a pull towards the people and culture. “I loved their warmth. I loved the way they connected as family and I loved their connection with the whenua (land) and wairua (spirit). Everything is interwoven.

“When you’ve worked for enough years in one area you also get to really know the different iwi and layers of family. So I could say, “Oh you're from Te Rawara? I've looked after whānau from Te Rawara. And that would absolutely open doors.”

While Claire confidently uses te reo, she has never learned it formally and that’s her next goal. “When I hear our beautiful kaiāwhina doing their karakia and mihi at hui I understand most of what they say. I can understand more than I can speak, and that’s my next step – to formally learn te reo.

“The funny thing is, you can learn the language but not understand the culture. I think I'm the other way round. I’ve incorporated what te reo I know with a deep understanding of where it comes from.

“For me it has always been about utterly recognising the validity of the place that Māori hold in our world. If you’re truly walking alongside someone you need to put any biases or pre-learned ideas aside. It's the right thing to do.”