Finding my culture
Introducing Jess's story
Growing up, Jess was a creative rangatahi but she didn't find the right outlet for that until later in life.
Listen to her story about how she overcame challenges and connected with her culture and whakapapa by using her creative side and how that let her make a new path to happiness and fulfilment.
JESS: I want to be myself. The thought of that just makes me feel safe. Safe enough to go down that road and I'll be confident because I'm comfortable. I wouldn't be here if I had somebody encouraging me to be myself, encouraging me to follow my dreams and just someone to talk to and confide in. I didn't have that as a child and it could have done wonders for me. It could be your coach or could be the shopkeeper or it could be anybody, any adult that would have maybe turned my life around because ultimately as a young child and you're in that situation or that lifestyle you're insecure. You don't have confidence. So, I think it's important to have acceptance. That's the beginning of change.
In order to change yourself as well you've got to accept that you are this way and you were brought up this way and you've got to accept that some people live in denial. I pride myself on acceptance, even if it comes down to somebody's opinion, I try to accept it. When you’ve got other people not accepting you, that's what causes you to lash out and what causes you to misbehave and think the worst of yourself. Because at that age you do care about what people think. So that’s who I strive to be and I strive to be a positive influence or even just have a positive impact on anybody, even if it is a child.
I think people just need to realize that they’re the next up and coming generation. Kids grow up and when you're a broken child you become a broken adult. So I think it's just really important just to be aware that kids still need that love, whether or not you're related to them or you might know them from the local school or wherever. It’s simple, yeah, it’s still simple just to give him love and attention. Every kid wants attention, that’s just a child. A child needs attention as well, it's not just a want but it's a need for their lives and it's very important, just to love them. That's the key factor that's missing and genuine love at that, not just oh I love you in front of family but when the family have gone, they don't actually love you, you’re getting abused all the time. It's got to be genuine, genuine love. That and attention is what was missing in my childhood.
My mum had a lot of ongoing issues mentally and emotionally and I don't resent her. I used to resent her as a child, you know, and that had an effect on me where I could have had an ugly relationship with her but I chose not to because I understood where she was coming from. You know, she's got her own challenges. I still understand, you know, as a kid having to teach yourself to think this way going through all these trials and tribulations. You don't get a childhood, you don't get to go and play like with your friends carefree if you've got a lot on your mind, you know, and, I suppose, that's what's given me this mindset today. Everyone's a product of their childhood and I suppose for me it worked out good.
I never met my Grandfather so my Grandfather, he died of alcohol poisoning, so it was my mum's 21st and unfortunately, he passed away in my mum's arms on her 21st. However I met my grandmother and she was with me growing up a lot, depending on her and my mum's relationship. Their relationship was quite rocky, so one minute I would see her, the next minute I wouldn’t. I wish I had more time with her, maybe I would have had that, I guess, more of a cultural influence. It’s quite hard being in here and knowing that she's out there struggling a little bit.
So I grew up with another family. I was whāngai, so I went to my oldest brother's family and they accepted me which I loved. It still affected me even though I had the basics and I was financially fine and stuff I wasn't theirs. I mean I love my whāngai mum, don't get me wrong, she's still in my life to this day. She still comes to visit me as well and you know there will be a time when I am going to have kids and I want them to pursue what they want to do with having that stability and that foundation around culture and our family, yes, and also being able to accept themselves, you know playing on their strengths and accepting them. They might not be the most perfect and that's fine, sometimes perfect isn't always perfect but I would never want my kids to experience any of that trauma and have to grow up quick like I did.
So it took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do. I've always been creative. I think my childhood and the hurt with it is what gave me that creative tool to express myself in the best and safe way possible. I suppose as an adult coming into adulthood, I didn't play on my strengths. I would have loved it if I had that person that said to me “play on your strengths, don't listen to what other people are thinking”. That's where my mind space was cos I was listening to what everybody else was saying: you can't make money off of art, what, why are you doing that, why are you even bothering with that? You need to go and get a 9 to 5 job, that's what puts money on the table.
So I was a hairdresser, I got to my apprenticeship and I got accepted and there was this day when I just finished working I was so tired and I went to my car and I sat in my car and I just thought why am I doing this? Like I'm not even happy, I don't enjoy going in there and doing peoples’ hair. I'm good at it and I've got a skill and I’ve honed the craft but what’s the actual reason of doing it? That's where I started using reflection in my routine and I thought about it and it was for someone else's reasons. I don't want to pursue that career; I don't have a passion in it. After that I gave it up and I had no direction, so after that I was actually quite prone to drugs and prone to alcohol because I was going downhill. After that I made a few bad decisions.
So I've got a bit of direction going on. So, when I do leave prison, I'll be able to jump straight into my apprenticeship, yeah I'll be doing that, and it will be moko, so tā moko. I wasn't exposed to tattooing, I didn't know about it until I come into adulthood and I met my partner which ultimately became my person to confide in. And he's a tattoo artist and when I met him I was on bail so I was actually in the process of coming to jail and I was lost, misguided, I was on drugs and off drugs and then I'd have my days where I wouldn't even talk to him and we were friends at the time, and so when I got to talk to him, he didn't judge me. And I think that's what I needed was someone just not to judge me but just to listen, with everything I've been through. And as a child when you struggle you try not to feel sorry for yourself cos that’s like a sign of weakness and you think that weakness is vulnerability, it’s what's going to kill you in the end, but it's not. You’re stopping yourself but if you had that voice to remind you, like you know, don't worry it's ok to be not ok. He's that influence that I wish I had at a young age and just not judging me and accepting me for who I am and letting me know that you're okay, you're human.
I have had time to think about whakapapa. Eventually I'm most likely going to go and seek that when I am released and when I am in a good space in my life. I think it's important given the journey I'm going to go down, for myself, I've chosen a career that you need to know yourself and that's going to give you confidence. I think finding my whakapapa and my family, the missing links, is what will give me strength and where I will ultimately draw my strength from in my career. Given the craft that I will be pursuing and learning about is traditional Māori tattooing and so I do need to know my whakapapa and where I come from, so that if anyone was to kōrero with me or to talk to me about, you know, it is bound to come up, you know, where are you from sis, or where is your whanaunga from and I'll be able to deliver that to them and I suppose tell them a little bit about myself in confidence. So, I think yeah definitely culture’s intertwined with my career.
Yeah I think I will gain a lot of knowledge and I am seeking it because to me it's intriguing knowing about my culture and the stories and the legends and the myths and where that all comes from. I think I've always wanted to be surrounded by my culture. I didn't have that growing up, it's grounding and it gives me some sort of stability and confidence, yeah from knowing all of that, from having knowledge and, you know, knowledge is power.
I know my mum has the knowledge of where our links are too and where my grandfather comes from or my grandmother comes from and we still have family in Rotorua. My family is one of the first families in Ngāpuna, Rotorua, so my mum knows all the connections there. I suppose traditional tattooing because it's all about whakapapa, that's the point of it, telling the world where you're from and gives you a sense of identity. We call it storytelling on skin. It's very important for me to be intertwined with my whakapapa cos I will be eventually storytelling for other people and having knowledge on those different tribes and hapū is what I plan to seek out so that would give me a bit more tools to work with.
Sometimes as a kid, you’re not really self-aware. You might not accept yourself but other people might see it. So I think if other people were to maybe say something towards that child or that young person and say hey, just make them aware of how they're being so that way they are able to accept themselves for who they are, cos some young children don’t have confidence. How can you accept when you don't know? When other people accept them for who they are, I think that helps but it took me, I had to come to jail to be self-aware. I had to make a lot of mistakes to be like this and it wasn't something I learned overnight. It was kind of adapting, reflecting to my life. So then as I reflect on my day - and I think it's important because you're giving yourself feedback on ok I didn't like when this happened so what can I do next time to make sure that I don't feel this way and that that doesn't happen again.
It kind of provided a space where you're most deepest insecurities are exposed and you’re left with time. Time to think of everything, time to think about why you’re here and I guess that's the point of coming to jail. It comes down to how you use your time that makes you self-aware. I use my time in the correct way, well as best to my capability as I could. And this is one of them, by reflecting a lot, and I kind of put it into my routine now, so at the end of the day when I'm folding my clothes and I've done my washing and I fold my clothes and put them away, I think about my day: did I have a good day, did I not have a good day and it’s kind of like me time, you know, you get time by yourself down here. When I’m in that mindspace, I like to use it that way and think of my day and that makes me feel better.
I do think I'm really respected by some of the staff and also the prisoners just because I’m myself. I don't try to be something I'm not and I think when people see that they understand that you are who you are and they respect that, yeah when you are yourself. So that's who I strive to be, is myself.
HOST: Jess’ story, how I took it, was the importance of having guidance when you are younger and not only that but a parental figure because she talks about how not having a dad and holding the pain from her childhood made her turn towards drug abuse, instead of putting her mind to things that she loved doing, which she found out was tattooing. And she also talked about how being in the hairdressing industry, the beauty industry, she felt judged a lot of the time because you had to wear makeup, you had to wear certain clothes, you couldn't really express yourself as much as she felt she could tattooing because it was something that she loved doing and at the same time could feel comfortable being herself.
Jess also talks about having a cultural influence and that she wished that her grandma was around longer in her life for her to talk to her about those things and learn from her. When she comes out of prison, she has plans, follow through with tattooing traditional tattoos, and telling stories through her tattoos, which I think is a really beautiful thing and a very important thing to look forward to.
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How to help someone going through a similar experience
If someone you know is going through what Jess has experienced, you can help.
Reflecting on Jess's story
Jess’s story highlights the importance of cultural connection and of having someone to encourage us to follow our dreams.
When Jess was growing up, she didn’t always feel like she had someone there to support, guide and protect her. She was discouraged from pursuing her dream of becoming an artist because she wouldn’t earn enough money to support herself. That led to her becoming a hairdresser. Having a job that she wasn’t passionate about left her unfulfilled, so she quit. During this time, she didn’t have strong direction.
Later, she started using reflection as part of her daily routine. She focused on her goals and discovered a way to become an artist that builds her understanding of herself, her whakapapa and her culture.
Jess’s self-reflection, cultural reconnection, as well as her accepting and supportive partner, have all helped her find direction and set her on a path to follow her dream.