This blog was originally published in tea&bannock.

July 9, 2018

If you know me now, you know that every other sentence that comes out of my mouth begins or ends in “New Zealand.”

If you don’t know me, I spent the past three years studying law in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and I recently returned to Canada in December 2017.

I’m well aware that, to some, I don’t “look native;” I have fair skin and green eyes. However, I gravitate to and find comfort in being in the presence of Indigeneity, especially Indigenous people, so once I arrived in Aotearoa, I gravitated towards M?ori. I made almost only M?ori friends; I immersed myself in M?ori because it felt natural to do so.

I almost wanted to say I was lucky that I met so many wonderful people but that wouldn’t be true. It was not luck. I know that anyone who would travel to Aotearoa would have the same hospitable and welcoming experience.

I’m not an extrovert by any means and I think a lot of people assume I am because I love to travel. To be honest, if I travel alone I usually stick to myself, don’t chat to many people, and I just take in the sights and culture. This is how I am fulfilled.

However, when I started law school, I kept hearing “you need to find a study group,” and “you won’t pass if you do it on your own.” Looking back, I’m glad I let these statements scare me. I needed a squad, and not just any squad. So I found my university’s M?ori Law Students Association, Te Whakahiapo (10 points if you can pronounce that first try), and I attended one of their hui (meetings).

I was more than 12,000 kms away from my lands but I felt so at home – brown faces smiled at me when I timidly entered, I felt the love, and most importantly – as we do – we were fed. Their custom of manaakitanga (hospitality, to care for others) is so heartwarming and prevalent. As comfortable as I felt, I also knew I stuck out like a sore thumb as soon as I spoke (and let’s be honest, I was one of very few vanilla faces):

“Ayyye where are you from, bro?”

“Truuuue, Canada?”

“Are you like American Indian then?”

“Oi, her accent is cool as!”

“Ah yip, have some kai (food).”

I feared being deemed a crazy Canadian tourist trying to impose and freeload some kai and I wanted to yell, “I swear, I am your Indigenous cuzzy!” but I didn’t have to. I was accepted as one of their own, being Indigenous, but was also usually greeted with excitement and questions about my culture too.

In my final year of study, I was nominated by fellow students for positions on Te Whakahiapo’s executive board and accepted the Secretary position. I would never mention this to boast but that feeling of acceptance, comfort and safety is something I don’t want to leave untold.

We are so different, diverse and separated by great bodies of water but so deeply connected at the same time. I didn’t spend my time there looking for acceptance because I knew I fit in from day one, but receiving those affirmations that I was in the right place at the right time was an invaluable experience.

Witnessing every day how the culture and tikanga (protocol) was so well known and embedded made me want to learn more about my culture and history.

Anyone who knows much about Aotearoa or Indigenous rights knows that they are decades ahead in terms of Indigenous Rights development and recognition. I’ve included some of the language in this story to show how easily I picked it up. How many people do you know have visited Canada and have left knowing how to say hello, thank you, and a handful of words in the Indigenous language of the territory they visited?

I’d bet not many.

I am often asked about my experience there and what I enjoyed about it. I always encourage and recommend travel to Aotearoa, but I couldn’t imagine traveling there and just being a tourist in the sense of staying at a hotel, eating at fancy restaurants and only seeing the cities. You’d be wasting your time and money not to experience the beautiful culture of M?ori, whether you are Indigenous or non.

This experience allowed me to grow tremendously, form lifelong friendships and have another place I feel that I can always call home. And I’ll be going back. Who’s coming?

– Lana Garcelon is Denes???né from English River First Nation located in Northern Saskatchewan. She is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation.