Who can tell why our whānau have heard the ancestors’ call so strongly? Some say the deeper the wound the stronger the call, and the yearning will not rest until it is satisfied.

And here we sit, in the wharenui at the marae we are told we affiliate to – Arowhenua – our ancestral grandmothers Potete Ashwell and her daughter Rebecca Lewis and all our kaumātua now passed on, being represented by we 13 “very blond” Ngāi Tahu Ozzies.

Thirty years of journeying to reconnect with our whakapapa has brought us here. We honour those who took the first steps – our Auntie Grace Rowan and her daughter Rhonda, dear Vivienne Lewis and our darling Auntie Jacqueline McMahon. Uncle Harold Ashwell has influenced our searches and stories and his nephew Rex’s wife, our Te Wai Pounamu whakapapa researcher Lauri – to whom we give many thanks, has given so much information, guidance and hospitality.

Uncle Joe Waaka is not sure of our connection here and to be honest, for us it remains clouded in mystery still – which teaches us so much – about ourselves, about whakapapa, about the connections lost and the consequences of being sheared from our roots and set adrift.

Thankfully though, not all is lost. The ancestors are patient. And those here, who keep the home fires burning, have big wide, open spaces in their hearts as we come crashing through protocols and stirring things up in our innocence and ignorance. We give heartfelt thanks for being welcomed home, as we were here, to Te Hapa o Niu Tireni – words cannot express – they just can’t. Thank you to the Waaka whānau, Te Wera and Gwen and all who made us feel so welcome.

Though only 13 of us made it to Arowhenua on this day, there are 23 of us in the Lewis family Ngāi Tahu Heritage Travellers. Our eldest traveller, Uncle Terry Lewis, is 87 and our two children, Darcie, 11 and Scarlet, 4 are the youngest – three generations returning to the spirit home of our “Dadda” Lewis.

John Henry left his whānau and home shores – plus his mother Rebecca Lewis (nee Ashwell) and younger siblings – in the late 1890s for reasons we are unsure of. He travelled to south east Queensland, to a town called Goondiwindi, where he worked as a shearer. He then met and married a first-generation Australian, Mary Ellen Ursular Hammill, whose parents had come from Ireland like so many others, looking for a better life. John Henry and Mary Ellen settled in Warwick,  a couple of hundred kilometres east of Goondiwindi and created a whānau of four boys and four girls, who in turn have created their own families who have spread out across the globe.

We began our homecoming journey in Te Ika a Māui. Papaioea/Palmerston North is home to our elder, Aunt Nance Thomson, whose generation all passed away in the 1980s in Australia. This was a very precious meeting, bringing our parents and grandparents close to us through the niece of our Dadda. who’d driven five hours to be with us and our taua on that day. We were treated to stories and song from Aunt Nance and met with brothers, Robert and David, who had a month or so prior, in preparation for our visit, travelled to Wellington to lovingly restore the grave site of our ancestral grandmother Rebecca. We also met Peter and wife Jennifer that day. They took us to the Thomson family graves, one of which is that of our great-uncle, their grandfather Frank Lewis and wife Matilda Jane.

On 18 March we travelled to Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara/ Wellington for the gathering of our troupe at the graveside in Karori Cemetery. The Lewis family from Australia and the Thomson brothers representing those from Aotearoa held a ceremony to reconnect our family to the grandmother and great-grandmother that we had only known before in dreams. It was a powerful time. Grandmother Rebecca, a strong woman, has travelled with us on this journey, and held us up through tears and laughter. And now with our homecoming to Te Hapa o Niu Tireni, her mother Potete beckons us on. There have been so many highlights and blessings along the way.

While still in the windy city we had the honour of a visit from our cousin from Auckland, Paul Kilmarten, who shared his 30 years of research into our shared whānau through his tupuna, the sister of our grandmother, Mary Hudson. Paul also joined us as we took part in the Māori Taonga Tour at Te Papa Tongarewa – a wonderful introduction by Lucy Serank into our precious Maori heritage.

With a beautifully calm crossing of Raukawa/ Cook Strait, we hit the ground running and every day has been filled with information gathering and reconnection with spirit prayers and stories from our old ones about their lives in Warwick and beyond; joining in whānau meals to celebrate the connections in Kaikōura with our cousins, Rex and Lauri Ashwell, son Greg, the whānau Tā Moko artist and his wife Mary, also an artist; and learning about culture from Maurice, Heather and Anahira in Kaikōura. We also travelled in the country our Grandmother Potete was born – Horomako Banks Peninsula, seeing and feeling the sacredness of many taonga at Okains Bay Museum. We enjoyed whakapapa lessons in the unit at Ōtautahi Christchurch – thanks to Arapata Reuben and Dr Terry Ryan for their patience. We visited Ko Tāne at Willowbank, who provided education about wildlife and culture in a different way; and we visited Te Ana Rock Art Centre and did the tour – sitting with the taniwha, sharing in the enthusiasm and love of culture shown by Susie and Wes, being inspired and drawn in further to the lives and customs of our ancestors. We’ve prayed and cried and laughed, sung and danced together and remembered that these are the things that have kept our whānau bonded through many years. This a precious thing. We feel blessed and full up and thankful.

The second part of our journey will take in a visit to our supreme ancestor Aoraki and sacred river, Waitaki, the home where our Dadda was born and raised; and where our John Lewis, (his father) is buried at Ōamaru.

For some it has been the history that has touched them. “We have been touched hearing the history of Ngāi Tahu society and the impact of early settlers on both health and land access. It is an injustice that was replicated in America and Australia on indigenous peoples, who for hundreds of years managed the land in a sustainable way. After our visit to Arowhenua Marae to fill in some gaps in our whakapapa, we were extremely grateful for the cultural insights and the warm greetings of our Ngāi Tahu family members. It was a humble experience that we will never forget, and it has given us spiritual strength

For some the cultural aspects have been most important and for others this has been a time of rebirth and the emerging of inner strength. For some it has been the letting go of old hurts.

For our Uncle Terry Lewis, who looked as spritely at the end of the journey as he did at the beginning, it is the bringing together of our whānau that has touched his heart most. It was so precious to reconnect with the family and be treated so well by our Ngāi Tahu family. For Uncle Peter Conway, who we called on to speak for us, the reconnection with family across cultures and the warm welcome we’ve received exceeded all expectations. It filled him with pride to be a descendant, through his paternal line of Charles Reginald Lewis of Tahu Pōtiki. And Aunty Lola, our “matriarch,” who showed us what support and loving can look like, enjoyed every minute and is “still absorbing all these experiences.” For Uncle Eric Lewis, who so very nearly didn’t make the journey, it is the passing on of all we’ve learned and the love we’ve shared during this amazing experience that made it so special.

Suzy from Te Ana showing us the beautiful taonga.

Suzy from Te Ana showing us the beautiful taonga.

Te Hapa o Niu Tireni group photo.

Te Hapa o Niu Tireni group photo.

Maurice Manawatu and Anahira with a group of us.

Maurice Manawatu and Anahira with a group of us.

Our researchers with Arapata Reuben and Dr. Terry Ryan - Barbara Jackson, Cheryl Johnson, Janelle James, Laura Bernadette Potete, Jan Klaer, Anne O’Leary.

Our researchers with Arapata Reuben and Dr. Terry Ryan – Barbara Jackson, Cheryl Johnson, Janelle James, Laura Bernadette Potete, Jan Klaer, Anne O’Leary.