Story: Nation and government

Page 9. Nationhood and identity

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The name of the country

New Zealand was named by a Dutch cartographer some time after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman made the first recorded European landfall in 1642. Australia was then known as New Holland, and so New Zealand was named after Zeeland, the other main Netherlands province.

The commonly accepted Māori name for the country is Aotearoa (‘land of the long white cloud’). Some believe it was given by the early Polynesian navigator Kupe, but it came into widespread use only in the late 19th century. There are also Māori names for both the North Island and the South Island, most commonly Te Ika a Māui (the fish of Māui) and Te Wai Pounamu (greenstone waters).


A separate New Zealand citizenship was created by the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948. The description ‘British subject’ remained on New Zealand passports until 1977.

Almost everyone born in New Zealand is a New Zealand citizen. New immigrants can apply for citizenship by grant, after meeting residence and English-language requirements.

The New Zealand flag

The New Zealand flag has the Union flag of the United Kingdom in one corner and – representing the Southern Cross, a constellation visible in the New Zealand night sky – four five-pointed red stars with white borders, all on a blue background.

Based on an 1869 version of the British blue ensign, it was adopted as the country’s official flag in 1902.

The New Zealand coat of arms

The New Zealand coat of arms was adopted in 1911 and standardised in 1956. Elements of the design reflect the importance of overseas trade, farming and mining.

National anthems

New Zealand has two national anthems. ‘God save the Queen [or King]’ first came into use in 1840. ‘God defend New Zealand’ (written in 1876) was adopted as a national hymn in 1940 and in 1977 given equal status with ‘God save the Queen’. A Māori translation of the first verse is often sung before this is repeated in English.

‘Hear our voices, we entreat’

In 1940 the government purchased the rights to Thomas Bracken’s song ‘God defend New Zealand’ from a Dunedin musical firm, so that it could become the country’s national song. Later, it was made the second national anthem. By the late 20th century it had largely eclipsed the official, British anthem, ‘God save the Queen’. One line in the song continues to puzzle many. There is no agreement as to what Bracken meant by ‘guard Pacific’s triple star’. The most popular theory is that the line refers to the three main islands of New Zealand.

Official languages

New Zealand has two official languages, Māori and sign language. Māori became an official language in 1987 and New Zealand sign language followed in 2006. English remains the most commonly used language.

National holidays

Two statutory holidays relate to national identity. Waitangi Day is on 6 February, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and has been a holiday since 1974. Anzac Day, on 25 April, is commemorated as the anniversary of the 1915 landing of New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, on the western coast of Turkey, during the First World War.

Although church and state are separate in New Zealand, Easter and Christmas are observed as holidays. Secular holidays include Labour Day, Queen’s Birthday and the anniversary days of the various provinces, held on or close to the founding dates of each settlement.

Magical pāua

New Zealand’s most handsome shellfish, the pāua (Haliotis iris – related to the abalone of the northern Pacific), was important in the traditional Māori diet. It is now more widely popular, and its flesh is a valuable export. The lustrous inner shell, with opalescent greens and blues, is of cultural significance. Māori applied it as decoration (often for the eyes of carved figures on meeting houses), and it is also used in souvenirs and in fine jewellery.

National animal and flower

The flightless native bird, the kiwi, represents New Zealand, but it has no official status as a symbol. New Zealand does not have an official national flower, but the silver fern (Cyathea dealbata), which appears on army insignia and sporting team uniforms, is an unofficial national emblem. Other unofficial symbols are the red pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) and yellow kōwhai (Sophora spp.).


The quirky things that contribute to a sense of nationhood are called ‘kiwiana’. Among these are black gumboots, the wooden Buzzy Bee toy, pavlova cakes, plastic tikis, pāua shell ashtrays, marching girls and hefty railway crockery.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Nation and government - Nationhood and identity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2016