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Ngā tuakiri hōu – new Māori identities

by Rawiri Taonui

Māori Television’s flagship current-affairs show is called Native affairs, a witty reclaiming of the long-unpopular word ‘native’. Māori in Australia dub themselves ‘Maussies’, Ngāti Rānana is a London-based cultural group, and fair-skinned Māori are waka blondes or kōtuku mā (white herons).

Early Māori identities

Māori terms for Māori

The word ‘Māori’ is thought to be a post-European-contact term for the first inhabitants of New Zealand. It originally meant ordinary or local. Only after another race of people arrived in their country did the original inhabitants need a term to define themselves separately from the new arrivals. Māori also adapted the term ‘tangata whenua’ (people of the land), referring to local iwi or hapū, to define themselves as distinct from non-Māori. This also means ‘those who were here first’ and ‘host people’. It is still widely used among present-day Māori.

Māori used many other terms among themselves to define where they belonged in relation to each other. Those words are still used today for the same purpose. They include ‘whānau’ (family), ‘hapū’ (sub-tribe) and ‘iwi’ (tribe), together with the specific names of their own hapū and iwi. Māori also identified themselves (and still do) by referring to the marae, maunga (mountain), awa (river) and waka (ancestral canoe) with which they are affiliated.

Non-Māori terms for Māori

The first non-Māori visitors used a variety of names for the people they found occupying New Zealand. They referred to them as Indians, aborigines (meaning original inhabitants), natives or New Zealanders, as well as Māori. Some of those early terms to identify Māori dropped out of use or changed their meaning over time, sometimes reflecting tension or conflict between the two peoples. As more non-Māori arrived to live permanently in New Zealand, the term ‘New Zealanders’ ceased to refer to Māori alone. Government officials preferred to deal with large tribal groups rather than individual sub-tribes, so Māori became identified with their iwi rather than their hapū.

Mixed-race people

As Māori intermingled with the new people arriving in their country, a new term, ‘hawhe kaihe’ (half-castes) was coined to refer to those of mixed Māori and non-Māori parentage. The influence of Christian religions, and the evident ill-will displayed between missionaries of rival denominations, was another new source of self-identification, as Māori came to regard themselves in terms of their chosen religious faith.

From native to Māori

Until the mid-20th century the term ‘native’ was still officially used to refer to Māori. Many Māori objected to this description, regarding it as patronising. In 1947, in response to the Māori contribution during the Second World War, the government changed the official designation to ‘Māori’. The Department of Native Affairs, for example, became the Department of Māori Affairs.

Urban identifiers


Between 1950 and 1980, 60% of the Māori population moved from rural areas to cities and towns. Most of these migrants were very willing to escape the poverty of their tribal homelands. Between 1840 and 1950 tribes had lost 95% of their lands, and rural Māori families were often forced to survive on low incomes from labouring and seasonal work. Despite moving to the cities they largely remained at the lower end of the economic scale, but urban poverty was better than rural destitution, with higher incomes and a wider range of more regular employment opportunities.

Urban Māori became concentrated in areas of poorer housing such as Aranui in Christchurch, Porirua in Wellington, and Ōtara, Ōtāhuhu and Ponsonby in Auckland. They often experienced discrimination and prejudice in education, health, housing and work opportunities. Urban Māori were doubly alienated, as they were rejected by the dominant Pākehā culture and yet lived at a distance from their centres of traditional culture.

Pākehā concepts

Pākehā characterisations of Māori were often determined by prejudice. Māori were widely regarded as lazy. A common unfriendly term for a Māori was ‘Hori’ (from the Māori version of the name George). A Māori way of doing things was supposedly slapdash and unprofessional, and ‘Māori time’ meant unpunctuality. Māori in cities encountered even more unpleasant racial language such as ‘boonga’ (an offensive term for an Australian Aborigine) or ‘nigger’ (an insulting term for black people generally).

Gangs and Rastas

The stresses of Māori urban migration encouraged the rise of ethnic Māori gangs such as the Mongrel Mob, known as Mobsters, and Black Power (‘the Blacks’) in the 1960s and 1970s. All gang members were expected to be staunch, meaning tough, loyal and tireless. From the 1980s young Māori adopted Rastafarian ideas and terms (originally developed by the descendants of black slaves in the Caribbean), including the distinctive dreadlocked hairstyle. More recent urban street gangs, inspired by black American gangs such as the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles, called themselves ‘gangstas’.

Gardeners, lovers and philosophers


The Māori educationalist Irihapeti Ramsden rejected the popular image of Māori as ‘toa’ or ‘warriors’, saying it was a limiting and unhelpful description of both traditional and present-day Māori. ‘Once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers,’ she declared in 2004.1


Bro culture

Urbanisation resulted in new ideas about the Māori extended family. Māori from different tribes were brought together in new multi-tribal communities, giving rise to the idea that all Māori were ‘cuzzies’ (an abbreviation of cousins), regardless of which tribe or region they were from. By a similar process, Māori men became known as ‘bros’ (short for brothers). ‘Bro culture’ became cool. Bros greeted each other with phrases derived from black American culture such as ‘Yo, bro’.

Bro culture spawned various subcultures such as ‘toa’ (warrior) identities and variations like ‘sport warriors’. This was a way of both adapting warrior traditions and rejecting negative stereotypes about violent brown men. The resurgence of haka in many sports, and role models such as All Black captain Buck Shelford, helped to strengthen the image of Māori males as strong, athletic and competitive.


Māori renaissance

Towards the end of the 20th century gains in education, a higher profile for the Treaty of Waitangi and other new social opportunities led to a Māori renaissance. A new range of identities and terms appeared as Māori defined their lives in new ways. For example, in 1992 the Department of Māori Affairs was again renamed and became Te Puni Kōkiri – the Ministry of Māori Development. This change reflected Māori determination to have more control over the institutions that directly affected them, and a wider move to give public institutions Māori as well as English names.

Māori radicals

While urban Māori were often marginalised in poor housing areas, those new communities also gave rise to new opportunities. In the 1960s and 1970s Māori were exposed to ideas about the US black civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War movement. Widespread protests at the exclusion of Māori team members from rugby tours to South Africa introduced Māori to the anti-apartheid movement. A new political consciousness gave birth to protest movements including the Māori land march (1975) and the occupations of Raglan golf course (1978) and Bastion Point (1977–78), where Māori land had been claimed by the government for public works. Violence erupted at Auckland University in 1978 when a Māori group called He Taua prevented engineering students from staging a mock haka that belittled Māori culture. Waitangi Day celebrations in the Bay of Islands became the site of annual large-scale protests.

Māori protesters, radicals and activists became part of the terminology of Māori identity. These terms could have negative or positive connotations, depending on whether people supported or opposed their views. The young Māori who led the protest movements of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s became known as the ‘rangatiratanga generations’, from a term used in the Treaty of Waitangi and translated as ‘sovereignty’.

Mana wahine

Māori women such as Whina Cooper, Eva Rickard, Ripeka Evans and Donna Awatere were prominent in the protest movement. Their contribution and that of other women role models and leaders such as Georgina Te Heuheu (the first Māori woman lawyer), Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (the first Māori woman to become a cabinet minister) and Ngapare Hopa (the first Māori woman to obtain a PhD) gave rise to the term ‘mana wahine’, referring to the power, dignity and importance of women in Māori society, and ‘wahine toa’, meaning brave women or women leaders and warriors.

The resurgence of Māori cultural identity has seen the revival of traditional tattooing, including chin tattooing of Māori women. The terms ‘moko kauae’ (jaw tattoo), ‘moko wahine’ (female tattoo) and ‘kuia moko’ (tattooed female elder) have also been revived, recognising the contribution of influential and distinguished women and renewing the traditional status attributed to them in earlier times. More pejoratively, some Māori without tattoos refer to the moko of others as ‘scribbles’.

Cultural revival

In response to Māori activist protests of the 1970s and 1980s successive governments made changes to accommodate Māori expectations. The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975, the investigation of historical land claims began in 1985, and settlements of those claims began in the late 1980s. The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi made their way into legislation.

Māori education

Māori-language immersion teaching began in the mid-1980s with kōhanga reo (pre-school), kura kaupapa (primary schools), tikanga reo rua (bilingual units), whare kura (secondary schools) and wānanga (tertiary institutes such as universities). Young Māori educated in these systems were known as ‘kōhanga kids’.

Māori language

The revitalisation of the Māori language also found expression in Te Taura Whiri i te Reo (the Māori Language Commission, set up in 1987), a national network of Māori radio stations and Māori Television (established in 2004). Te Panekiretanga was set up as an academy for advanced use of Māori language. Leaders such as Katerina Mataira, Pou Temara, Wharehuia Milroy, Timoti Karetu and Taiarahia Black have been prominent in this movement.

No Nazis


The Māori MP John Tamihere used the term ‘language Nazis’ when celebrating the launch of Māori Television in March 2004. ‘Māori television will be a bilingual channel with subtitles, and therefore not held hostage by the language Nazis. That is hugely important because the vast majority of Māori are not fluent Māori speakers, and a Māori language-only channel would have shut them out.’1


The revival of te reo Māori has sometimes created tensions between Māori who emphasise the use of their language and those who work primarily in other areas of Māori advancement and may not be able to speak or understand the language. This tension has given rise to the pejorative labels ‘language fascists’ and ‘language Nazis for those who are particularly militant and uncompromising about the importance of the language.

Reviving traditional roles

The revival of Māoridom has brought with it clearer recognition of traditional roles. Kaumātua (elders), koroua (male elders) and kuia (female elders) are respected for their wisdom, pakeke (adults) are acknowledged for their work, and rangatahi (youth) and mokopuna (grandchildren) are cherished because they are the future. The term ‘rangatakapu’ refers to new generations of young adults emerging from schools with a good understanding of te reo, tikanga and personal identity. 

Corporate warriors

The growing number of young Māori professionals gave rise to the term ‘muppies’ – the Māori equivalent of yuppies (young urban professionals). The term ‘brown middle class’ also came into use in the 1990s.

Treaty land settlements saw an increase in the size and scope of tribal organisations, which developed and employed a new generation of young leaders. They were often rich in worldly experience but new to Māori leadership, and were sometimes known as ‘corporate warriors’. Typical corporate warriors were Tau Henare, Tukuroirangi Morgan and Tuariki Delamere, all elected to represent New Zealand First in 1996.

The ‘Wellington brigade’ are Māori civil servants working in Wellington and advising government on Māori culture and policy. ‘Ngāti Hutu’ (the shoe brigade) refers to these people’s ability to change political allegiances, while advising on and winning contracts and consultancies.


Radical Māori were often critical of Māori in business or government who appeared to be enriching themselves by acting against the interests of Māori in general, and revived the old term ‘kūpapa’ to refer to them. This term was used to describe Māori who allied themselves with the government in the land wars of the 19th century. It came to be regarded as deeply insulting.


New terms for a new world

Plastic Māori

The Māori renaissance made it more acceptable to identify as Māori. More people of mixed descent began doing so, including those with fairer skin who may not have acknowledged their Māori ancestry in earlier times when more prejudice prevailed. This gave rise to the term ‘born-again Māori’ for those who identified as Māori while retaining Pākehā notions of superiority. A related term, ‘plastic Māori’, was used by more culturally nationalistic Māori to refer to Māori who did not know te reo, tikanga or their whakapapa. The terms ‘waka blondes’ and ‘kōtuku mā’ (white herons) were used to describe Māori with non-traditional colouring such as fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.


The development of Māori television, Māori radio and several acclaimed films with Māori writers, producers or stars, including Mauri (1988), Once were warriors (1994) and Whale rider (2002), resulted in the terms ‘Mollywood’, ‘Horiwood’ and ‘mana media’.

Māori overseas

‘Maussies’ or ‘Mozzies’ (Māori in Australia) and ‘Ngāti Rānana’ (the London tribe) refer to the large community of Māori in Australia and their smaller but still significant presence in London.


The worldwide movement for gay rights, the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act (1986) and Human Rights Act (1993), and the 1999 election of Georgina Beyer as the world’s first transsexual MP, promoted greater acceptance of lesbian and gay Māori. The traditional term ‘takatāpui’, originally referring to a close companion of the same sex, is now claimed by gay, lesbian and transgender Māori.

Native affairs

One outcome of the Māori revival is that Māori have a greater ability to label themselves. This sometimes occurs in interesting ways; in 2006 Māori Television named its new current-affairs programme Native affairs, thereby reclaiming and transforming a formerly unacceptable term into a positive one. The term ‘indigenous’ has also become more widely used to link Māori with other ‘First Nations’ people advocating for their rights around the world.

Cultural transvestites

Māori have always called European New Zealanders ‘Pākehā’, but they are also sometimes colonialists, imperialists and tauiwi (strangers). Māori have embraced biculturalism, and also multiculturalism if it does not infringe their rights under the Treaty of Waitangi. When Pākehā advocates of these strategies are patronising, Māori tend to refer to them as ‘neoliberals’. The term cultural transvestite’ has emerged to describe Pākehā who claim a false authority over things Māori. More recently, the Māori term ‘tāwāhi’ (distant) has been introduced to describe new immigrants such as those from Asia.

Census results

The way people of Māori ancestry have identified themselves in the official census provides a further indication of the changing nature of Māori identity. Until the 1986 census, Māori were asked to specify their ethnicity by stating whether they were ‘full Māori’, ‘three-quarters Māori’ and so on. Since then, Māori have not been required to state what proportion of their ancestry is Māori. The 2013 census distinguished between those claiming Māori descent (who numbered 668,700), and those actually identifying themselves as Māori (598,600).  Of the second group, 48.9% also claimed Pākehā identity, 8.2% Pacific and 1.7% Asian.

How to cite this page: Rawiri Taonui, 'Ngā tuakiri hōu – new Māori identities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 February 2019)

Story by Rawiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jun 2017