Story: New Zealand identity

Page 5. New Zealand’s peoples

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Fierce Māori

At least until the 1850s the identity of New Zealand to European observers was strongly affected by the fact that the majority of the people were Māori. Early contact established an image of Māori as fierce fighters and cannibals, and New Zealand gained a reputation in the early 19th century as a dangerous place.

Romantic Māori

The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 established an ideal that Māori and Pākehā were ‘one people’, and there was an official policy of assimilating Māori into European culture. Gradually New Zealand came to promote itself as a model of race relations. Following the New Zealand wars and the pacification of Māori resistance, and with the Māori population dropping to under 50,000 in the 1890s, some Pākehā began to romanticise Māori. They turned to Māori culture as a source of a distinct New Zealand identity and promoted New Zealand as ‘Maoriland’. Māori designs entered New Zealand life and the All Blacks adopted the Māori haka.

One or two?

The idea that Māori and Pākehā were one people became widespread by the early 20th century. Kate Sheppard, the women’s suffrage leader, wrote in 1901, ‘Maori and Pakeha have become one people, under one Sovereign and one Parliament, glorying alike in the one title of “New Zealander”’.1 However, this belief rarely accorded with reality. As historian Michael King has written, New Zealand society was marked by ‘at least two cultures and two heritages, very often looking in two different directions’.2

20th-century conflicts

During the first half of the 20th century Pākehā believed that New Zealand was living a ‘golden age’ of harmonious co-existence among ethnic groups and that the country had ‘the best race relations in the world’.

From the 1960s activism by Māori grew in protest at their political, social and economic circumstances. The 1975 march to Parliament to protest grievances over land loss and Ngāti Whātua’s 1977–78 occupation of Bastion Point (Takaparawhā) in Auckland were examples of protests that advocated a stronger recognition of Māori identity in national life.

This Māori renaissance encouraged a strengthening of Māori cultural expressions in art, language and tikanga (customs). The Māori language was promoted through the kōhanga reo (language-learning nest) movement and Māori-language media from the 1980s. When the national anthem was sung solely in Māori prior to an All Blacks' game in the 1999 Rugby World Cup in England, vigorous public debate ensued. Two important symbols of national identity – sport and language – came into conflict. New Zealanders disagreed over whether bilingualism was central to the national identity.

Despite this, by the 1990s most government agencies had adopted both Māori and English official names and signage and the Māori language was increasingly part of New Zealand life. Māori ritual was increasingly used to welcome foreign guests, and Māori motifs such as the koru (unfolding fern frond) were widely adopted.

Outside New Zealand, Māori culture and indigenous practice became prominent in the country’s external national image. This was partly because, as Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said in 2006, Māori were ‘the New Zealanders who, by definition, make us different from any other nation’.3 An early example of such external promotion was the Te Māori exhibition of Māori arts and artefacts, which toured internationally from 1984 to 1986.

Partly in response to Māori protest, from the 1980s onwards New Zealand governments adopted a policy of biculturalism. This implied a partnership between Māori and the Crown, whereby the government ensured that services were appropriate to both cultures. Some people criticised this approach for identifying a particular ethnic group as distinctive. There was tension between those believing in ‘one nation’, and those who thought that multiple identity groups co-existed within an overarching New Zealand identity.

Immigration, multiculturalism and diversity

From the mid-1980s New Zealand society became increasingly multicultural. Following the Immigration Act 1986, which removed rules that gave preference to certain countries of origin, immigrants arrived from many countries. Whereas in 1986 12.4% of New Zealand’s population identified themselves as Māori, 3.7% as Pacific and just 1.5% as Asian, by 2006 14.6% were Māori, 6.9% Pacific and 9.2% Asian. 21.8% of New Zealand residents were born overseas.

These changes brought vibrancy and visible diversity to New Zealand’s cities. The multicultural society meant there were many ways of being a New Zealander. For instance, the Pacific presence in the national identity became stronger in arts, music and sport. One challenge for New Zealanders was to reconcile a multicultural society with the policy of biculturalism.

New Zealanders have traditionally seen themselves as tolerant and open, and New Zealanders score highly in international surveys on measures of social liberalism. In 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark stated that the government saw New Zealand as ‘a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity’.4 Almost all New Zealand political leaders supported this view.

  1. National Council of Women conference report, 1901, pp. 13–14. Back
  2. Michael King, The Penguin history of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 2003, p. 167. Back
  3. Quoted in P. Skilling, ‘National identity in a diverse society.’ In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 62. Back
  4. Quoted in ‘National identity in a diverse society,’ p. 61. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - New Zealand’s peoples', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Fiona Barker, published 20 Jun 2012