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Descendants of gypsies encouraged to attend celebration

Project a celebration of travelling culture

JESS LEE
Last updated 05:00 02/04/2014
Christine Bowker Wilson and Jess Smith
CELEBRATING CULTURE: Christine Bowker Wilson and Jess Smith are working to spread the word about travelling groups.

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Don't deny your roots.

That's the message Christine Bowker Wilson wants to send to the gypsy community.

She is encouraging anyone with a gypsy or traveller background or who is interested in learning about the culture to attend a gathering to mark Scottish Tartan Day in Royal Oak this Sunday.

Bowker Wilson wasn't brought up as a gypsy but has since discovered ancestral ties to the culture.

A traditional horse-drawn wagon commissioned by the Royal Oak resident and painted by her nephew Daryl Bowker will be the centrepiece of this weekend's gathering.

The wagon is named Rosie and is the start of a wider project to celebrate the travelling culture in New Zealand.

"She's a symbol today to the world that this culture will never die," Bowker Wilson says.

"I have always felt that I have gypsy roots and we have linked it now. I just felt connected to that culture - I felt it in my bones." There are many diverse travelling communities across the world each defined by its own history, culture and lifestyle.

Bowker Wilson started to delve into her family history after visiting Edinburgh in 2009 for her late Scottish-Maori husband's memorial service.

She stumbled across the books of Scottish traveller Jess Smith and something clicked.

Bowker Wilson's mother had olive skin and blue-black hair but hid her gypsy heritage. Many gypsies and travellers deny their roots for fear of persecution, she says.

"They hide who they are, but because my husband John was a Maori kaumatua I realised the importance of ancestry."

Smith instantly recognised Bowker Wilson's gypsy traits when they eventually met.

"She's got the cheekbones, the eyes and all of the mannerisms. If a plate is dirty she'll quickly wash and dry it," Smith says.

"Everything is immediate because you don't know how long you're going to be in one place."

Smith is staying in Bowker Wilson's traditional wagon during her stay in New Zealand. She is working hard to spread the word about traveller culture around the world. Television shows such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, depicting the extreme lifestyles of English and Irish travelling groups, have given travelling communities a bad name, she says.

"That didn't do anything good for our culture - we were absolutely horrified. It's important for us to tell people about our own history and lifestyle because a lot of this negativity comes from ignorance."

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But she says Aucklanders have been extremely positive during her stay.

"By actually seeing what Christine is doing here with that little wagon, it's just to say there's nothing to be ashamed of, indeed what you should be doing now is feeling proud."

Smith will speak at AUT's marae tomorrow from 1pm. Phone Ella Henry on 921 9999 ext 6097 or email ella.henry@aut.ac.nz if you would like to attend.

Scottish Tartan Day will be celebrated with stories, songs and food at 103 Symonds St, Royal Oak on Sunday from noon.

- Central Leader

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