When RÄnata West left New Zealand for the United States in 2016, he discovered something unexpected: the path of his great-grandmother, who had walked the same route over 100 years ago.
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AAmerica: 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 had never set foot in LA before moving there six years ago, unless I had a brief stopover at the airport on my way to Europe a few years before.
And just like that, I was living in a city that has more people in the metro area than in my whole country. It was an adjustment to live away from home for the first time, but also exciting to experience all that a new city brings. That call home was however always there, never far away – always a voice at the back of my mind.
The job brought me to the United States, including working for the New Zealand Tourist Board, a job that allowed me to see more than half of the United States in the four years I was there. worked there. It was during a few of these trips that I found a little of myself that I did not expect.
In the fall of 2016, I had just started a serious relationship with a guy who traveled from LA to New York for work and back and kept an apartment in Harlem. Things were going well, so when I ended up in New York for work, I extended the weekend.
My phone rang and it was my mom calling me, nothing fancy. I told her I was in New York, and she enthusiastically told me, âYou have to find the Hippodrome. The “hippopotamus, what? ” I answered. âThe Hippodrome! she said again. She kept me on the phone while she rummaged through her old files. âAha, I found it,â she said. “I will scan a copy and send it to you now.” What had she discovered? A roadmap that allowed me to find a personal link with America that I did not know existed.
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âDaily matins, best seats $ 1.00,â read the 1909 advertisement for something called the New York Racecourse, along with a photo of a face I knew very well, my great-grandmother. Kirimatao was her name, and she was a woman of high-ranking Maori descent. I recognized her face from the various old photographs we had around the homestead and seeing copies of famous paintings made of her by early artists Gottfried Lindauer and CF Goldie.
The photograph shows her in traditional dress as only one of the two women watches over a group of male warriors. It was interesting to see my grandmother standing in a haka (war dance) posture, especially when lately the haka is mostly associated with the all-male New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks.
Reading the following pages, I discovered that the New York Racecourse was in fact a revolutionary theater with the largest stage in the country. Accommodating over 5,000 people, the theater had a stage that could accommodate over 1,000 performers and an 8,000 gallon clear glass water tank that could be lowered and raised hydraulically.
The program went on to describe that, “at a cost greater than anything ever undertaken by a theater director,” a contingent of 40 Maori performers – 40 of my parents, who had left the shores of New Zealand for the first time – would star in a drama production called “Inside the Earth”, where the Maori tribe would rescue a damsel in distress and save the day.
I needed to know 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 was once located on Sixth Avenue, but was replaced in the 1950s by an office building. We had walked past the place at least twice that weekend – my great-grandmother had been here over 100 years ago and had watched over me this entire trip without me realizing it.
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Once back in LA, I started researching the story of my family who had traveled from our tiny village halfway around the world for the show. I learned that the production lasted nine months and was seen by nearly 2.5 million Americans. I learned that while the performances were meant for entertainment, the shows sparked conversations about politics, race, and gender.
In 1909, women in America did not have the right to vote. Yet, back home, my great-grandmother had the ability to make decisions in a tribal fashion and had been on the electoral roll under New Zealand law for 20 years prior to her visit. I learned that during their time in New York, my great-grandmother and the rest of the women in the theater company supported the 23,000 local factory seamstresses who went on strike in 1909. I even found newspaper articles with pictures of her and her. friends, seated in the front row of their gatherings.
In 2017, I was still working with the New Zealand tourism board and working on an international exhibition of Maori art and culture in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC It was an interactive exhibit that included sculpture and weaving, cultural performances, and traditional tattooing. A die your moko The artists (tattoo artists) knew the story of my great-grandmother Kirimatao in New York and recommended that I get her traditional design tattooed right here at the Smithsonian. I did and was so happy to have a visual memory of the woman who paved the way for me over 100 years ago.
At the airport on my way back to LA I called home in New Zealand to tell my mom about my new ta moko. It was morning there, and Mom had just woken up. She told me that she was sorry for not calling me yesterday, but that she had researched and found that some of the members of the 1909 New York contingent had also made a trip to the Smithsonian. Photographs were taken for the museum’s collection, and a few selected members of the troupe were also chosen to have their faces preserved, copied into clay molds. My great-grandmother was among them. Kirimatao had found me where I least expected it – again!
I was not able to visit the replica of my great grandmother’s museum, but I will be looking for it soon one day. Until then, I can’t wait to find out where my great-grandmother finds me next.
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