The meaning of flags
Māori have been using flags for around two centuries, following their introduction to New Zealand by Europeans. Despite there being no tradition of flags in Māori culture before contact with Europeans, flags have become so integrated in Māori society that there are an enormous number of contemporary and historical Māori examples. These include flags of a tribal, social, political and religious nature. Historically, for many Māori, flags were symbols of mana. They can also indicate where certain allegiances lie, for example with the Crown or with Māori independence movements.
The Māori words for flag are ‘kara’, from ‘colour’, or ‘haki’, from ‘Jack’ – an abbreviation of ‘Union Jack’.
Missionaries and flags
One of the first recorded interactions Māori had with flags is from 1812, when Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara returned to New Zealand after having sailed to England and Australia. He had with him a piece of muslin cloth that was given to him by Samuel Marsden from the Anglican Church Missionary Society. On the fabric were the words ‘Ra Tapu’ (that is, Rātupu – sabbath day or Sunday). In the 1820s, Māori villages in the Bay of Islands would fly a red or a white flag on Sunday to indicate the observance of Rātapu. Missionaries at Te Waimate mission, founded in 1831, flew a flag bearing a cross and the words ‘Rongo Pai’ (good tidings).
Flags on hākari stages
From around the early 1830s giant hākari (feast) stages were built for feasts. In a number of illustrations flags are shown flying from the top of the stages. At one hākari in 1835, Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke climbed one of the hākari stages to hoist a flag which indicated the end of all hākari within the Bay of Islands.