High-profile lawyer and disability advocate Dr Huhana Hickey shares story of stolen identity

Māori, Aboriginal, Navajo and Sami – indigenous backgrounds that define high-profile lawyer Dr Huhana Hickey, but a discovery she made at the age of 24.

At 3 days old, Hickey was given up by forced adoption and was deemed undesirable because of her ethnic background. Her identity was completely scrapped and replaced with Pākehā so families would want her.

Her stolen identity is what she calls a form of genocide and institutional violence. She’s a claimant in the Abuse in Care inquiry and spoke to the Herald about the ripple effects of the trauma it’s caused.

She recalls the day she met her birth parents after putting out an ad to find them in 1989. Her father was a tall Scandinavian man which explained why she was passed as white. Her mother, on the other hand, was small and dark.

“When I saw her, my smile was so big. I said to myself ‘I knew it, I knew I was Māori’.”

Hickey’s childhood was spent at a Catholic school that was determined to wipe out te ao Māori and convinced Māori were inferior and “dirty savages”.

As a child she was frequently beaten, timid and frightened, but she was always drawn to the healing sounds of kapa haka and waiata. Although she grew up believing she was Pākehā, the karanga from her ancestors was constant.

“Meeting my birth parents was the best moment of my life,” she told the Herald. It solidified her identity as an indigenous woman, but it also began to unpack the heavy trauma inflicted by the state.

Experts say that a strong cultural identity is a significant contributing factor to well-being.Someone’s cultural identity being stolen could have “devastating impacts”.

Hickey claimed it was the Crown’s way of assimilating Māori into western society. She adds: “I guess now that’s why I’m driven to break down racism and racist systems”.

“Transracial adoptions are hard because the whakapapa is so different. I wasn’t raised in te ao Māori and it still feels like a loss to this day.

“The fact that they changed my ethnicity on my birth certificate pisses me off. I want it to be rectified.

“The falsification of my ethnicity has denied me any chance of accessing my true whakapapa as a young person.”

Māori leaders have called for a “for Māori by Māori” approach to change adoptions in New Zealand. It’s a process which allows whānau Māori, hapu, and iwi, to make decisions on adoptions for Māori children.

Claimants in the Abuse in Care inquiry have so far given evidence that suggests the Crown system does not work for Māori.

“These institutions need to be shut down and all the institutions involved need to be disestablished,” Hickey said.

“This system does not work for us, this system that causes all this trauma will never heal us. Our people, our whānau, hapū and iwi need to be able to care for themselves.”

National Hauora Coalition Programme director Dr Ainsleigh Cribb-Su’a agrees and says whānau, hapū and iwi involvement in adoptions for tamariki Māori is pertinent.

“To date, we have seen the injustices and devastation that has been perpetuated upon generations of tamariki Māori by the state who were meant to care for and protect these children,” she told the Herald.

“Instead, we have generations of Māori who are the victims and survivors of state abuse and neglect. That system is a system of abuse.

“Why would we not accept the pertinence of iwi, hapū, whānau in the required systems changes? The statutory limitations of Oranga Tamariki prevent it from manifesting the full embodiment of wellbeing and parenting deployment that we would expect from a reasonably average parent.

“Within its Crown body limitations, it cannot be the entity that loves, equips, empowers and enables our tāmariki for a lifetime of success and wellbeing past some trauma or difficulties. But iwi and hapū can be just that.”

Whakapapa is integral to well-being within a te ao Māori cultural construct, and part of Hickey’s journey has involved her trying to access her marae – the start to reclaiming her identity.

“It took a long time accessing my marae, I didn’t know who I could go to for help. I met a cousin who was a nun and she took me home,” Hickey said.

“I met cousins, aunties, uncles and I have had those relationships in my life since. I also met my sister who was adopted but through whānau.

“My whānau have played a big part in helping me find myself and the stories of Mum. She passed in 2008.

“In 2018, all my siblings came back from Aussie and for the first time we all met each other. We had hoped to have a bigger whānau reunion but Covid has stopped that for now.

“We are healing, I hope we continue as a lot of healing is needed.”

A major stepping stone was getting her moko kauae as part of reclaiming her whakapapa.

“It includes my Māori, Aboriginal, Sami and Navajo heritage. It also incorporates my disability and my sons. I have this because everything that mattered to me was taken away. I am not going to let that happen again.

“This was done for me and my mokopuna so they know who they are and where they are from, it was to bring an end to the lies and secrets, and to say to the Crown: ‘You may deny my whakapapa but my tīpuna know me’.”

Hickey has called on the Government to set up a programme to reconnect people with their whānau, hapū and iwi.

“It’s their responsibility to support that whānau reconnection.

“Many [Māori] my age were adopted, and it led to some committing suicide, abuse for others, and depression or anti-social behaviour as it did for me when I was younger.

“I was suicidal from age 11, I only ever wanted the truth.”

Many hapū and iwi leaders are asking for the resources and authority to determine the construct of what “whānau” is within a te ao Māori ethos or cultural paradigm.

It’s crucial that “whānau carers” are defined within the Māori worldview of understanding.

Suicide and depression

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (12pm to 11pm)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)

Anxiety helpline: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY) (available 24/7)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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