National identity is a form of social identity – meaning people’s understanding of who they are in relation to others. National identity is a shared understanding of the characteristics and behaviours that distinguish one nation from other nations.
National identity is not fixed and has multiple strands.
- Different people and groups view the nation in different ways. A Southland farmer may describe New Zealand identity differently from a Pacific person in South Auckland.
- National identity may change depending on the situation. Many people notice that being a New Zealander means something different to them when they travel overseas.
- Internal national identity may be different from external identity. An external identity is how a nation state presents itself to other peoples and countries. A strong external identity helps a country to have a strong diplomatic presence internationally and to advance national economic interests. Major export-oriented industries, such as education and tourism, rely for their success on a positive external image or ‘national brand’.
- National identities evolve over time. New Zealand identity has changed due to the shifting relationship with Britain, changing relationships among Māori, Pākehā and newer New Zealanders, and the interaction of New Zealand with other countries and cultures.
Expressions of identity
National identity is expressed in many different ways. In New Zealand’s case these include:
- deliberate promotion of images by the state through symbols like flags or coins, immigration propaganda or tourist advertising, or through displays such as international exhibitions
- the performance of New Zealanders internationally in war or in sport
- major political acts that attract international attention, such as when New Zealand banned visits by nuclear-powered and -armed ships
- artistic portrayals, in films, books, art or music.
The overseas view
The external image of New Zealand may be quite different from the way locals see it. In 2004 a contributor to a web page of ideas about New Zealand wrote: ‘I close my eyes and just imagine what "New Zealand" will be like, and I get the best vibes, the cool ocean wind relaxing my senses, the blue skies making me fly, the lovely grass caressing me like a newborn and the people treating me like one of their own. All this when I haven't even seen New Zealand, what happens when I actually do?’1
Before the European settlement of New Zealand, Māori tribes did not share an overarching national identity. The 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand by the Confederation of United Tribes, and the 1834 choice of an ensign that became known as the United Tribes’ flag, introduced symbols of a shared identity. However, this did not mean that there was a single national indigenous political authority and shared identity. The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 by chiefs of iwi from around the country suggests that the British Crown made a treaty with the leaders of many nations, not a single nation with a unified identity.
Colonialism and New Zealand identity
After New Zealand became a colony of the United Kingdom, largely peopled by British settlers, the relationship with ‘Home’ (Britain) was a central focus of identity. The extent of loyalty to Britain varied over time – but at least from the late 19th century until the 1950s New Zealand’s identity was contained within an imperial identity. New Zealanders saw their country as playing a special role as a loyal member of the British Empire, and for a long time New Zealand aspired to be a ‘Britain of the South’.
Until the 1960s few New Zealanders yearned for an identity independent of the empire. Since then there has been a stronger sense of a separate identity, located firmly in the South Pacific.
Social struggles from the 1960s onwards showed that, as in every nation, New Zealanders had diverse understandings of their country and its identity. This contrasted with the memory of united suffering and identity from the first and second world wars. Debate about New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam War, the anti-nuclear movement, and the 1981 Springbok rugby tour provoked conflict among New Zealanders as to the nature of their country. Debate also existed about whether New Zealand was a bicultural or multicultural nation, and whether it should see itself as part of Asia, as a Pacific nation, or as still closely linked to the United Kingdom.