Story: New Zealand identity

Page 7. Symbols of identity

All images & media in this story

National identity is also reproduced on a daily basis through national symbols and everyday items. These range from official symbols such as stamps, flags, coins or coats of arms through to trademarks or the popular icons commonly known as ‘kiwiana’.

Stars, land and sea

New Zealand’s location in the southern hemisphere was symbolised by the Southern Cross constellation in both the United Tribes’ Flag (the first national flag, adopted in 1834) and the New Zealand Ensign (the national flag since 1902). The Southern Cross was also used on the tomb of the unknown warrior, established in 2004 at the national war memorial in Wellington.

New Zealand’s distance across the seas from Britain was symbolised in the waves and sailing ships found in early crests.

In the 19th century the Southern Alps featured in early tourism books and were represented in the 1898 stamp issue, one of the first pictorial stamp sets in the world. In the 20th century the beach became a more important national symbol, expressed in late-20th-century Christmas cards of flowering pōhutukawa trees and the kiwiana symbol of jandals.

The national identity of New Zealanders as pioneering farmers was expressed in the use of sheep as a symbol of New Zealand. Sheep also appeared in coats of arms. More recently gumboots, no. 8 fencing wire (symbolising the alleged innovative ‘can-do’ attitude of New Zealanders) and the Swanndri bush shirt have been kiwiana cultural icons originating in farming.

Native flora and fauna

Indigenous plants and animals quickly became symbols of New Zealand. The Māori koru design, which was eventually adopted by Pākehā, depicted an unfurling fern frond. In the 19th century ferns were represented in books and in cabinet-making, and New Zealand became known as ‘fernland’. The fern was used to mark the graves of New Zealand soldiers and appeared on stamps and coins.

Native birds were also quickly adopted as symbols. In the colonial period the moa was a pre-eminent symbol of the country – but from the early 20th century the kiwi was the dominant symbol. During the First World War New Zealand soldiers became known as ‘Kiwis’. This soon spread to become the common name for all New Zealanders and an adjective applied to all things New Zealand. Even the country’s currency became known as the kiwi. In 2011 the dollar coin featured a kiwi and ferns.

In 1990 the symbol for the sesquicentennial of the Treaty of Waitangi was a white heron (kōtuku).

War and sport

New Zealand’s achievements in war were symbolised by the distinctive lemon-squeezer hats worn by its soldiers, and in the hundreds of war memorials placed at crossroads in the 1920s and the memorial halls built after the Second World War.

The success of the All Blacks rugby team made the silver fern on a black background into a widely used symbol of the country. Some even promoted it as the design for a possible new national flag. Edmund Hillary’s triumph in climbing Mt Everest led to his portrait being used on the $5 note from 1990.


New Zealand’s early status as a colony of Great Britain gave the Union Jack a continuing place on the national flag. At the beginning of the 20th century the figure of Zealandia, daughter of Britannia, briefly became a symbol for the adolescent nation. In 2011 the Queen as head of state remained on the coins, the $20 banknote and many stamp issues.

New Zealand’s reforming history found expression in the portrait of Kate Sheppard, pioneering suffragist, on the $10 banknote.


Māori designs were used quite often on 19th-century publications, especially tourist books. They also became common on trademarks and stamps. The $50 banknote featured early-20th-century Ngāti Porou politician Apirana Ngata. A piece of pounamu (greenstone), often carved, became a common item of dress distinguishing Kiwis overseas in the late 20th century, and designs with koru elements were important in the branding of many public agencies.

In sum, the different ways in which New Zealand identity has been expressed over time have been given symbolic form in the everyday imagery of New Zealand life.

How to cite this page:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - Symbols of identity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Fiona Barker, published 20 Jun 2012