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Ngā haki – Māori and flags

by Malcolm Mullholland

Despite not being part of traditional society, flags were quickly adopted by Māori and given an important role in their culture. Māori have used flags in tribal, political, religious and other social contexts.

Māori adoption of flags

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.

Early national flags

Flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand

The need for a state flag arose in the 1830s for New Zealand trading ships. The Sir George Murray, part-owned by northern chiefs Patuone and Taonui, flew a kaitaka (woven mat) at the masthead in lieu of a state flag. This was considered insufficient and the ship was impounded in Sydney.

When James Busby was appointed British Resident of New Zealand (an official position) in 1833 he wrote to the colonial secretary to ask that a flag be designed. Busby rejected the initial design because it did not contain the colour red – a sign of rank for Māori. Henry Williams of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) subsequently drafted three more designs and had them sewn. The flags were presented to a hui of Ngāpuhi chiefs on 20 March 1834, with a majority selecting one already being used by the CMS. The winning flag was hoisted on a flagpole and received a 21-gun salute from the HMS Alligator. King William IV approved the design. The flag became known as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. Busby hoped that the flag would encourage Māori to act collectively, and in 1835 many of the chiefs involved went on to sign the Declaration of Independence in which they declared themselves the sovereign rulers of New Zealand.

Flying the United Tribes’ flag

The United Tribes’ flag was replaced as the state flag by the Union Jack in 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However, Māori continued to fly the United Tribes’ flag. Ngāi Tahu chief Tūhawaiki flew it on Ruapuke Island, near Bluff, up until his death in 1844. At Pūkawa, on the shores of Lake Taupō, in 1856, a gathering was brought together by Te Heuheu Iwikau to consider the formation of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). At the top of the flagpole the United Tribes’ flag was flown. The Kotahitanga (Māori unity) movement likewise used the United Tribes’ flag as one of its flags. In 1907, at a meeting to discuss a confederation of Māori, Rāwhiti displayed a representation of the United Tribes’ flag.

The flag experienced a resurgence in popularity from around the 1970s through to the early 21st century as a protest flag.

The Union Jack, Te Haki

On four occasions in 1844–45 Hōne Heke, a Ngāpuhi chief, objecting to the flying of the British flag, chopped down the flagstaff at Kororāreka (later Russell). He believed that the mana of the land should not be solely vested in the government, as the British flag implied, but should be shared with Māori as well. Te Ruki Kawiti, another Ngāpuhi chief, said he would just as soon die as let the British flag fly above Kororareka because he felt that the symbol of British rule took away ‘... the authority of our chiefs and all our lands’1.

In 1863, at Manukau Heads, local Māori cut down the flagstaff and at the same time destroyed some boats. In 1892 Kina Ohina Muri was charged at Akaaka, south of Auckland, for taking flags that were displayed after an authorised survey by the government. When he was questioned he stated that he only cared for the Māori king.

  1. Peter McKeefry, ed, Fishers of men. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1938, p. 126. Back

Māori religious movements and flags

Te Ua Haumēne

Te Ua Haumēne was the leader of the Pai Mārire faith, followers of which were sometimes known as Hauhau. He had a flag called Kēnana (Canaan), demonstrating his belief that Māori were related to the Jews. The five apostles of the movement each had their own flag, including leaders such as Tītokowaru and Topia Tūroa. The standard flag of Pai Mārire is reputed to be the largest flag ever flown in New Zealand, at almost 7 metres long by 3.7 metres high. On the flag was a life-sized image of Te Matairenga, the Māori god of war.

Central to Hauhau ceremonies was the use of the niu (news) pole. A 30-foot-high (just over 9 metres) staff was erected in the middle of an open space. On the flagpole three flags were flown:

  • Riki, a long red pennant with a white cross, which was regarded as the war flag
  • the flag of the prophet, apostle or priest who was conducting the ceremony
  • Ruru, another red pennant, broader than the upper one, with a St Andrew’s cross and another design, which was the flag of peace.

Te Kooti

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, the founder of another Māori religious movement, Ringatū, believed in the power of flags and was known to have changed the design of flags depending on his success or otherwise in battle. His most famous flag was called Te Wepu (the whip), which measured 15.8 metres by 1.2 metres. It had been made by nuns at Greenmeadows mission school for the chiefs of Ngāti Kahungunu. Te Kooti captured the ensign in 1868, and held it until 1870 when it was taken by Captain Gilbert Mair at Rotorua. Another two of Te Kooti’s flags were seized at Te Pōrere and Tāpapa, north of Putaruru.

Pāora Te Pōtangaroa

Pāora Te Pōtangaroa, a prophet from Wairarapa in the 1880s, created a prophetic flag, which featured a number of symbols. He called people together in 1881, and thousands arrived. However, no one could interpret the flag at the time.

Mere Rikiriki

Mere Rikiriki of Ngāti Apa led Te Hāhi O Te Wairua Tapu (the Church of the Holy Spirit) in the early 1900s. Rikiriki had her flag gifted to her by King Tāwhiao, who recognised her spiritual power. The white flag bears stars and contains the words ‘E te iwi, kia ora’ (blessings to the people).

Rua Kēnana

Prophet Rua Kēnana of Ngāi Tuhoe continued the use of flags in Māori religious movements in the 20th century. One flag was a large Union Jack, which had been gifted to Tūtakangahau of Maungapōhatu by the governor in 1904. Rua had the words ‘Kotahi te ture mo nga iwi e Rua Maungapohatu’ (there is one law for both peoples) inscribed on the ensign to symbolise a relationship with Premier Joseph Ward and Rua’s acceptance of the authority the government had over native lands. Two of Rua’s other flags were Te Tahi o Te Rangi, which was named after one of his ancestors from Tūhoe who was considered to have performed miracles, and Te Wairua Kino, a black flag that warned of hostile visitors.

Kīngitanga and Kotahitanga flags

Kīngitanga flags

Tension rose between Māori and Pākehā despite the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, as the number and ambitions of Pākehā settlers grew, and war erupted during the 1860s. During this time several Māori independence movements emerged, each with their own symbols of identity. The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) was one such development.

When the first king, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, was anointed in 1858, three flags were hoisted that contained the words ‘Kīngi’ (king) and ‘Niu Tireni’ (New Zealand). Support for the Māori king’s flag was not instantaneous. In May 1860 a hui was held at Ōtaki, with 350 Māori attending. Half opposed the hoisting of the Māori king’s flag, with the other half in support. When Tāwhiao succeeded Pōtatau, a blue and yellow flag with three star-like figures denoting the three islands of New Zealand was designed.

Tāwhiao’s successor was King Mahuta, whose flag was 5.2 metres by 2.4 metres wide. The background of the flag was white and featured the Tainui waka (canoe), the rainbow god Uenuku, Matariki (the Pleiades constellation), with a cross, a crescent moon and the sun. In the 2000s the Kīngitanga flag is still used at the poukai (an annual series of visits to marae affiliated to the Kīngitanga) and at koroneihana (coronation) celebrations.


Another independent Māori movement, the Kotahitanga, or Māori parliament, opened its first session at Waipatu marae, Hastings, in 1893. They flew a flag that contained the North and South Islands with a Māori figure standing with one foot on each island – this was the flag of Māui, the demi-god who fished up the North Island.

In 1897, as visitors were making their way to the Kotahitanga parliament, they were welcomed by a haka pōwhiri (welcome) from a group waving an ‘English flag’ in their hands. There were four flags being flown at the marae: the ‘Treaty o Waitangi flag’ (probably the United Tribes’ flag), Rongopai below that, Māui below that, and Pāora Pōtangaroa’s flag below that. An image of the 1897 parliament shows the Union Jack being flown.

Loyalists and flags

Moutoa flag

Not all Māori fought on the side of independent Māori movements – many sided with the British. Flags became objects that were gifted for service. In 1865 Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi was handed a silk flag known as the Moutoa flag. He had led a contingent of ‘loyal’ Whanganui Māori who drove a war party of Hauhau from Moutoa Island in May 1864, saving the Whanganui settlers from attack. The cost of the flag was £20 and Pākehā women from Whanganui, Rangitīkei and Manawatū came together to create it. It has the Union Jack in the upper corner and in the centre is a gilt crown, below which are two clasped hands, Pākehā and Māori, with the word ‘Moutoa’.


Another flag that was gifted to Māori for their role in fighting for the British was the flag Tangiharuru from the Urewera district. Named after a great Waikato chief who took a large portion of Te Urewera, the flag is a British ensign and is riddled with bullet holes. Some Māori believed that the flag possessed powers and kept 30 of their men safe when they were attacked by over 1,000 Hauhau soldiers before the Europeans arrived to assist with the fighting.

Royalty and flags

In the 1860s Queen Victoria presented a flag called Te Rakau i Mataahu to Ngāti Porou military leader Rāpata Wahawaha. In 1901 Ngāti Tūwharetoa leader Te Heuheu sent a flag to King Edward on behalf of Māori tribes, which was accepted and then returned to him. The following year the Prince of Wales forwarded a Union Jack to the New Zealand governor to present to the Te Arawa people in recognition of their loyalty. The Te Arawa people already possessed a Union Jack received from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870.

The red ensign

From the beginning of the 20th century Māori started displaying the red ensign on marae grounds with the names of ancestors, marae, iwi and waka on them. A tradition had been established by Governor George Grey, in the early days of the colony, that new marae should be presented with this ensign by the government. This flag is usually reserved for merchant shipping, but the legislation that governs the use of the red ensign permits it to be used on land and allows the insertion of Māori words in white lettering.

Āraiteuru flag

At Puketeraki, near Dunedin, in 1903 the Āraiteuru flag was hoisted by Tame Parata, member of Parliament for Southern Maori. A volley was fired and the Kaikorai Brass Band played ‘God save the king’. Āraiteuru was a taniwha (supernatural creature) who in some traditions guided a voyaging waka (canoe) from Polynesia to New Zealand. The flag has an upper white and a lower black section. On the white part is a war canoe with a crew of warriors with the kaihautū (helmsman) leading the men, and a greenstone mere (weapon) that symbolises the cargo the Āraiteuru carried. The black part has the word ‘Araiteuru’ in white letters.

Flags and protest

Protest movements and flags

From the 1970s protest movements began displaying flags as symbols of protest. This was particularly significant at Waitangi Day protests. Some of the flags that were used were the Kotahitanga flag (a red, white and black vertical striped flag with a crossed over mere and roll of parchment in the centre), the United Tribes’ flag and, from 1989, the tino rangatiratanga flag. Another common flag is the Mana Motuhake o Tūhoe flag.

Tino rangatiratanga flag

The tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) flag had its origins in a contest organised by protest group Te Kawariki in 1989. The winning entry came from Hiraina Marsden, Jan Dobson and Linda Munn. The final version was unveiled at Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, on Waitangi Day 1990.

On the flag black represents Te Korekore, the realm of potential and the male element. White represents Te Ao Mārama, the realm of being. Red represents Te Whei Ao, the realm of coming into being and the female element, Papatūānuku. The koru (the unfurling fern shape) represents the unfolding of new life and hope for the future.

Choosing a national Māori flag

In July and August 2009, 21 public hui were held across the country and submissions were invited regarding the selection of a national Māori flag. Four flags of national significance were considered for selection: the New Zealand flag, the New Zealand red ensign, the United Tribes of New Zealand flag and the tino rangatiratanga flag. More than 1,200 submissions were received and 80% selected the tino rangatiratanga flag. On Waitangi Day 2010 the flag was flown at significant New Zealand sites such as the Auckland Harbour Bridge, Parliament, Te Papa (the national museum) and the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

More links and websites

How to cite this page: Malcolm Mullholland, 'Ngā haki – Māori and flags', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 March 2018)

Story by Malcolm Mullholland, published 20 Jun 2012