Taika Waititi’s Oscar Win Is Extra Special for Māori Jews Like Me

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: Taika Waititi accepts the Writing – Adapted Screenplay – award for ‘Jojo Rabbit’ onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Taika Waititi’s Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit is a win for Jews and Māoris alike. Waititi, as you may know, is a mix of Māori and Jewish — his mother is Jewish and his dad is Māori, a part of the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe. He has referred to himself as a “Polynesian Jew.”

This may seem like an uncommon mix, but actually there are plenty of mixed Māori Jews out there. I should know, as I am one of them! My mom’s heritage, on both sides, are Māori, from the Ngati Maru iwi (tribe) from the Thames area of New Zealand’s North Island. Through her father’s side, I also have Assyrian Jewish heritage.

Those of us with mixed roots may look more like a particular branch on the family tree than another, but what does a Jewish person look like, anyway? Our spirit is a mix, belonging both to New Zealand and the people of Israel. Waititi’s wit has deep Māori roots, while his Jewish heritage is evident in his social commentaries. Given that Waititi comes from two cultural groups the Nazis felt were “subhuman,” his Oscar win for writing an “anti-hate satire” — in which he portrays Adolf Hitler on screen — is the ultimate middle finger to Nazism. As Waititi himself said, “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?”

I couldn’t be happier about Waititi becoming the first Indigenous director to win an Academy Award. I grew up with stories of being a descendant of a Māori chief. (I suppose I am actually a Jewish princess!) It’s an integral part of my family’s oral history, and it goes like this: Back in the 1850s, the Nga Puhi, a rival tribe, supported the British colonization of other Māori by raiding tribes and taking their lands. (As a result of these attacks, they are the largest iwi left in New Zealand today.)

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