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In America, Searching for the Spirit of My Māori Ancestors

By Rēnata West

Oct 1, 2021

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On a trip to New York City, a traveler from New Zealand discovered that some of his ancestors had performed in the city more than 100 years before.

Courtesy of the author

On a trip to New York City, a traveler from New Zealand discovered that some of his ancestors had performed in the city more than 100 years before.

When Rēnata West moved from New Zealand to the U.S. in 2016, he discovered something unexpected: the path of his great grandmother, who had traveled the same route more than 100 years ago.

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America: the land of opportunity. That’s the phrase that kept repeating in my head as I boarded a one-way flight from my hometown—a village called Whaka for short—in New Zealand to Los Angeles. I’d never set foot in L.A. before moving here six years ago, unless you count a brief stopover at the airport on my way through to Europe a few years before.

And just like that, I was living in a city that has more people dwelling in the metropolitan area than in my entire country. It was an adjustment living away from home for the first time, but also exciting discovering everything that a new city brings. That call for home was always there though, never far away—always a voice at the back of my mind.

Work brought me to America, specifically working for the New Zealand tourism board, a job that enabled me to see more than half of the United States in the four years that I worked there. It was on a couple of these trips that I found a bit of myself I was not expecting.

In the fall of 2016, I had just begun a serious relationship with a guy who traveled back and forth from L.A. to New York City for work and kept an apartment in Harlem. Things were progressing well, and so when I found myself in New York City for work, I extended into the weekend.

My phone rang, and it was my mother calling—nothing out of the ordinary. I told her that I was in New York, and she excitedly said, “You have to find the Hippodrome.” The “hippo, what?” I replied. “The Hippodrome!” she said again. She kept me on the phone as she searched through her old files. “Aha, found it,” she said.“I’ll scan a copy and send to you now.” What had she discovered? A road map that allowed me to find a personal connection to America that I never knew existed.

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“Daily Matinees, best seats $1.00,” read the 1909 advertisement for something called the New York Hippodrome, accompanied by a photo of a face I was very familiar with, my great grandmother. Kirimatao was her name, and she was a woman of high-ranking Māori heritage. I recognized her face from the various old photographs we had around the family homestead and from seeing copies of famous paintings made of her by early artists Gottfried Lindauer and C. F. Goldie.

The fateful Hippodrome program featuring Rēnata West’s great grandmother.

The photograph shows her in full traditional dress as only one of two women standing watch over a group of male warriors. It was interesting to see my grandmother standing in haka (war dance) posture, especially when in recent times the haka is mainly associated with the all-male New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks.

Reading through the subsequent pages, I discovered that the New York Hippodrome was in fact a groundbreaking theater with the largest stage in the country. Capable of seating more than 5,000 people, the theater had a stage that could fit more than 1,000 performers and an 8,000-gallon clear glass water tank that could be hydraulically lowered and raised.

The program went on to describe that, “at an expense beyond anything ever before undertaken by a theatrical management,” a contingent of 40 Māori performers—40 of my relatives, who had left the shores of New Zealand for the first time—would act in a dramatic production called “Inside the Earth,” where the Māori tribe would rescue a damsel in distress and save the day.

I needed to learn more. I asked my boyfriend and a few local friends, but no one had heard of the Hippodrome. A quick Google search revealed that the theater had once been situated on Sixth Avenue, but it had been replaced in the 1950s by an office building. We had passed the location at least a couple times that very weekend—my great grandmother had been here more than 100 years before and had been watching over me this whole trip without me even realizing.

When it was built in 1905, the New York Hippodrome was considered the best theater in the United States.

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Once back in L.A., I began to research the story of my family who had traveled all the way from our little village to the other side of the world for the show. I learned that the production had lasted for nine months and been seen by nearly 2.5 million Americans. I learned that while the performances were for entertainment, the shows stirred up conversations about politics, race, and gender.

In 1909, women in America did not have the right to vote. Yet, back in her home, my great grandmother had the ability to make decisions tribally and had been a registered voter under New Zealand law for 20 years prior to her visit. I learned that, during their time in New York City, my great grandmother and the rest of the women from the theater company supported the 23,000 local factory seamstresses who went on strike in 1909. I even found newspaper articles with photos of her, and her friends, sitting in the front row of their rallies.

In 2017, I was still working with the New Zealand tourism board and was working on an international exhibition of Māori art and culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It was an interactive exhibit that included carving and weaving, cultural performances, and traditional tattooing. One of the ta moko (tattoo) artists knew of the story of my great grandmother Kirimatao in New York City and recommended that I get her traditional design tattooed on myself right here at the Smithsonian. I did—and I was so glad to have a visual reminder of the woman who had forged the way for me more than 100 years ago.

At the airport, on my way back to L.A., I phoned home to New Zealand to tell my mother about my new ta moko. It was morning there, and Mum had just woken up. She told me that she was sorry that she hadn’t rung me yesterday, but she had been doing research and found that some of the members of the 1909 New York City contingent had also made a trip to the Smithsonian. Photographs were taken for the museum collection, and a select few members of the troupe were also chosen to have their faces preserved, copied in clay molds. My great grandmother was amongst them. Kirimatao had found me where I least expected her—again!

I wasn’t able to visit the museum’s replica of my great grandmother, but I will seek her out someday soon. Until then, I’m looking forward to where my great grandmother finds me next.

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