National identity is a form of social identity – meaning people’s understanding of who they are in relation to others. National identity is a shared understanding of the characteristics and behaviours that distinguish one nation from other nations.
National identity is not fixed and has multiple strands.
National identity is expressed in many different ways. In New Zealand’s case these include:
The external image of New Zealand may be quite different from the way locals see it. In 2004 a contributor to a web page of ideas about New Zealand wrote: ‘I close my eyes and just imagine what "New Zealand" will be like, and I get the best vibes, the cool ocean wind relaxing my senses, the blue skies making me fly, the lovely grass caressing me like a newborn and the people treating me like one of their own. All this when I haven't even seen New Zealand, what happens when I actually do?’1
Before the European settlement of New Zealand, Māori tribes did not share an overarching national identity. The 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand by the Confederation of United Tribes, and the choice of an ensign known as the United Tribes’ flag, introduced some symbols of a shared identity. However, this did not mean that there was a single national indigenous political authority and shared identity. Indeed, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 by chiefs of iwi from around the country may suggest that the British Crown made a treaty with the leaders of many nations, not a single nation with a unified identity.
After New Zealand became a colony of the United Kingdom, largely peopled by British settlers, the relationship with ‘Home’ (Britain) was a central focus of identity. The extent of loyalty to Britain varied over time – but at least from the late 19th century until the 1950s New Zealand’s identity was contained within an imperial identity. New Zealanders saw their country as playing a special role as a loyal member of the British Empire, and for a long time New Zealand aspired to be a ‘Britain of the South’.
Until the 1960s few New Zealanders yearned for an identity independent of the empire. Since then there has been a stronger sense of a separate identity, located firmly in the South Pacific.
Social struggles from the 1960s onwards showed that, as in every nation, New Zealanders had diverse understandings of their country and its identity. This contrasted with the memory of united suffering and identity from the first and second world wars. Debate about New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam War, the anti-nuclear movement, and the 1981 Springbok rugby tour provoked conflict among New Zealanders as to the nature of their country. Debate also existed about whether New Zealand was a bicultural or multicultural nation, and whether it should see itself as part of Asia, as a Pacific nation, or as still closely linked to the United Kingdom.
Land has always been central to New Zealanders’ identity. Māori believed that Papatūānuku, the earth mother, was the origin of all life. People were born from the land and returned to the land. The word for land (whenua) was also the word for placenta. Tribes typically assert their identity in relation to their mountains and rivers.
British navigator James Cook’s three voyages of exploration established a view of New Zealand as a fertile place which could become a site of prosperous European-style agriculture. Sydney Parkinson, the artist on Cook’s first voyage, believed that the East Coast ‘with proper cultivation, might be rendered a kind of second Paradise’1. Such images were reinforced by 19th-century immigration propaganda designed to attract landless rural labourers to the new country. They were promised a land with a benign climate and productive soil for growing crops.
In 1954 Patrick O’Donovan of the English Observer, who was in New Zealand for the royal tour of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, wrote that New Zealand was ‘like one of those fat and promised lands that restless men have always believed to lie on the other side of the hills. It is green and seamed with ranks of trees.’2 The Queen herself was told that ‘a waste of fern, bush and swamp’ had become ‘the rich, productive area it is today’.3
From the early 20th century this rural ideal was strengthened by the idea that men and women who worked on New Zealand farms had strength and do-it-yourself ingenuity, in contrast to the decadent and physically inept populations in older countries. The hard work of the New Zealand pioneers was valued for having turned bush into productive farm land. Even in the early 2000s – although 85% of New Zealanders lived in urban areas – many still thought of themselves as part of a largely rural or agricultural nation.
While some early European visitors to New Zealand thought that its natural scenery had romantic features, for a long time Pākehā saw the bush as monotonous and frightening. However, at the end of the 19th century New Zealand sought to attract foreign tourists. The Department of Tourist and Health Resorts was established in 1901 and promoted a view of New Zealand as ‘the most wonderful Scenic paradise in the World – unequalled Fjords, Awe-Inspiring Geysers’.4 The areas of the southern lakes and the ‘hot lakes’ around Rotorua were especially praised.
During the 20th century New Zealand’s golden beaches became symbols of natural beauty, and as areas of indigenous forest became smaller there was a movement to preserve the bush as essential to New Zealand’s distinctiveness. ‘The most beautiful country in the world’ became part of New Zealand’s self-image. The campaign to save Lake Manapōuri from being raised for hydroelectric power production in the early 1970s was a significant moment in the evolution of this view.
In the early 2000s New Zealand’s wild landscapes were promoted through calendars, glossy picture books and travel advertising. Tourism New Zealand featured a ‘100% Pure’ campaign which suggested a world of unpolluted lakes and rivers and pristine forests. Environmental campaigners frequently pointed out that the country’s record in areas such as water and air pollution was not as ‘clean and green’ as many New Zealanders liked to believe.
The Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 and the replacement Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011, legislating as a consequence of Māori claims to the foreshore and seabed, provoked political debate. In part, this was because the legislation touched the strong and often emotional connection that New Zealanders, Māori and Pākehā, had with the land, beaches and the ocean.
National identity is often shaped by remembered success and failure in war. This is certainly true of New Zealand’s 20th-century wars. But the battles between British and Māori during the 19th century were less often commemorated as founding moments of New Zealand. While Māori remembered them, Pākehā preferred to forget. This makes New Zealand different from societies like the United States, where the major internal conflict of the Civil War is central to national identity and memory.
The first occasion when New Zealanders gained national pride and international attention in war was in the South African War (1899–1902). The 10 contingents of New Zealand soldiers (6,500 men) established a reputation as brave soldiers who were adaptable, full of initiative and natural leaders.
The deaths of over 18,000 and the service of over 100,000 soldiers in the First World War (1914–18) became a key feature of New Zealand’s national memory and identity. Foreign observers gave them international recognition, and in meeting soldiers from other countries Kiwis judged themselves against others.
New Zealanders like to quote, and requote, the praise showered on their soldiers at Gallipoli. King George V said the New Zealand troops had ‘proved themselves worthy sons of Empire’; Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander, said they had ‘upheld the finest traditions of our race’; and poet John Masefield described them as ‘the flower of the world’s manhood’.1
While fewer died at Gallipoli than on the Western Front, the landing at Gallipoli in Turkey on 25 April 1915 became especially commemorated as the first significant occasion when New Zealanders displayed their courage to the world. From 1920 that day became a public holiday, Anzac Day; it has been a national day of commemoration ever since.
Although New Zealanders seek to distinguish themselves from Australians in many ways, the close relationship forged in the First World War between New Zealand and Australia, and commemorated through the ‘ANZAC spirit’, has remained important to how New Zealanders understand their history.
The experience of New Zealand soldiers fighting in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy during the Second World War reinforced New Zealand men’s sense of themselves as tough, adaptable and egalitarian. The service of New Zealand women abroad as nurses or at home as factory workers or housewives established their reputation as dependable and able to ‘make do’.
International sport was another area where New Zealanders demonstrated their identity to themselves and the world. The success of All Black rugby teams since 1905 and netball teams since the 1970s established an image of New Zealanders as good at working in teams and with a physical strength which was thought to have derived from a rural background. Rowing successes reinforced this image.
Individual sporting successes such as Jack Lovelock at the 1936 Olympics, Yvette Williams at the 1952 Olympics, Peter Snell at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Olympics and John Walker at Montreal in 1976 were also noteworthy, and like Edmund Hillary’s success in climbing Everest in 1953, presented New Zealanders as people who had strength and stamina, yet were modest and down-to-earth.
In the 1990s New Zealand’s yachting success in the America’s Cup suggested the image of a people who combined physical abilities with cutting-edge technological innovation.
During the 1890s the innovations of the Liberal government attracted international interest and established an image of New Zealand as a place that pioneered political experiments. These innovations included:
Reports from visitors to New Zealand helped promote the idea that New Zealand had a distinctive political tradition. American journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd described New Zealand as the country without strikes; French socialist André Metin defined its philosophy as socialism without doctrine; and French geographer and economist André Siegfried agreed that New Zealanders had a contempt for theory.
Later governments built on this reputation for experimentation and novelty in such initiatives as the welfare-state measures of the 1930s, the introduction of a government accident compensation scheme in the 1970s, the introduction of a radical policy of open government in 1982 and the free-market policies of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The movement from a British identity towards a New Zealand identity was also expressed in political change. New Zealand did not experience a sudden moment of independence. After its transition from British colony to dominion status in 1907, New Zealand’s relationship with the United Kingdom weakened over time. The 1931 Statute of Westminster of the British Parliament, which removed its right to legislate for New Zealand, was ratified by New Zealand only in 1947. Some institutions took longer to establish in New Zealand. New Zealand’s Supreme Court replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the final court of appeal only in 2003. The country’s place as a member of the Commonwealth still shaped it in the 2000s.
Changes in citizenship policy affected the way New Zealanders understood their national identity. In 1948 New Zealand citizenship was created. However, the Citizenship Act 1977 was the first time that all links between British and New Zealand citizenship ceased. New Zealanders had previously been subjects of the British Empire, but the Citizenship Act 1977 made their citizenship – imprinted in the New Zealand passport – simply that of New Zealander.
The process of moving away from Britain also occurred in New Zealand’s foreign and economic policy. In 1973 the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC). New Zealand lost its privileged access to the British market, and began searching for new markets throughout the world. Active, government-led protest against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific showed that New Zealand foreign policy increasingly focused on the Pacific. Prime Minister Jim Bolger suggested in the early 1990s that New Zealand should think of itself as part of Asia.
The idea of serving as a moral example to the world has been an important element of New Zealand national identity. The anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s, protests against French nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll in the 1970s, and popular support for the New Zealand government’s anti-nuclear position in the 1980s were manifestations of this. In 1985 a United States naval ship, the USS Buchanan, was denied entry to New Zealand and Prime Minister David Lange gave a famous anti-nuclear speech at the Oxford Union debate in the UK. In 1987 Parliament passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, banning visits by nuclear-armed or -powered vessels. Many New Zealanders saw these as the courageous actions of a small nation staking out a clear position on the world stage.
Ever since Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s strong stand at the 1945 San Francisco conference which established the United Nations, New Zealand has consistently promoted human rights and multilateral action through international institutions like the United Nations.
New Zealanders have held to other ideals as central to the nation’s political culture. Although not all agree, some claim that New Zealanders believe egalitarianism, a ‘fair go’, easy access to politicians and ideological pragmatism are important features of New Zealand’s political culture.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Art, literature, music and film unofficially reflect many important aspects of a national identity. The arts confirm a sense of identity for locals and help establish the character of New Zealand for people overseas. In particular, they show us how the geographical and cultural anchors of New Zealand identity have changed over time.
Much 19th-century literature is known for its romantic accounts of rural life in New Zealand. It often embodied the pioneer mythology. Some of the poetry and novels at the end of the 19th century romanticised Māori – as did paintings such as those by Charles Goldie.
In the early 20th century some significant writers and artists saw New Zealand as a desolate cultural landscape. A number, such as the writer Katherine Mansfield and the painter Frances Hodgkins, expatriated themselves. Most novelists published their books in London for a British readership, although they often used colonial settings.
From the mid-1930s a cultural nationalist movement sought to establish a thriving local culture and break with British traditions. The men alone in the rugged bush and mountains, or the moment of European discovery of New Zealand, were favourite themes. They were expressed in John Mulgan’s novel Man alone, Denis Glover’s poems about Arawata Bill, Allen Curnow’s verse and composer Douglas Lilburn’s ‘Landfall in unknown seas’. Painters such as Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston also focused on the distinctive landscapes of New Zealand. At a popular level, writers such as Barry Crump elevated the hard life of the backblocks deer culler into a national icon.
The poet Denis Glover, who helped establish a local publishing outlet, Caxton Press, showed in his 1936 poem ‘Home thoughts’ how ‘home’ had moved for many New Zealanders:
I do not dream of Sussex downs
or quaint old England’s
quaint old towns—
I think of what may yet be seen
in Johnsonville or Geraldine.1
From the 1960s New Zealand television reflected New Zealanders to themselves. Expressive of the rural mythology, Country calendar became New Zealand’s longest-running programme, and John Clarke established a large following for his comic persona Fred Dagg, a gumboot-wearing farmer. Local film-makers took time to become established. Some, such as Jane Campion, left New Zealand to build their career abroad. Not until the 1990s, with the more rapid growth of the local film industry around Peter Jackson’s film productions, was it common for film-makers to make their career in New Zealand. Jackson’s films, particularly The lord of the rings trilogy, became hugely important in presenting images of the New Zealand landscape to the world. Māori filmmakers such as Taika Waititi also presented Māori culture and identity on the big screen.
The work of Weta Digital – creating digital and special effects for movies – conveyed an image of New Zealanders as technically sophisticated.
Contemporary New Zealand literature, film, theatre and music is enriched by the diversity in New Zealand’s population. Composer Gareth Farr incorporates European, Māori and Pacific strands into his classical compositions, while musicians such as Che Fu, King Kapisi and Ladi6 present a strongly Pacific-flavoured New Zealand identity to the global hip-hop scene. New Zealand reggae – infused particularly with a Māori and Pacific flavour – is also represented internationally by groups such as TrinityRoots and Fat Freddy’s Drop.
Although cultural life flourishes in New Zealand, expatriation remained a major phenomenon among New Zealanders in the 2000s. Over 16% of New Zealand citizens, and almost 25% of tertiary-educated New Zealanders, were estimated to live abroad. The largest group of overseas New Zealanders lived in Australia. In 2001 the Kiwi Expat Association (KEA) was founded to connect New Zealanders overseas to the nation, to enhance business opportunities and to promote New Zealand around the world. Their activities are a reminder that the nation also includes New Zealanders not currently resident in the country.
The ‘OE’ (overseas experience), whereby young New Zealanders travel and work abroad, was seen as an important rite of passage. This circulation of New Zealanders in and out of the country had become part of the national identity. It shaped how New Zealand and New Zealanders interacted with, and related to, the wider world.
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’.
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.
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).
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 Āpirana 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.
Barker, F. ‘Political culture: patterns and issues.’ In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2010: 13–28.
Belich, James. Paradise reforged: a history of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the year 2000. Auckland: Allen Lane; Penguin, 2001.
Bell, Claudia. Inventing New Zealand: everyday myths of Pakeha identity. Auckland: Penguin, 1996.
Byrnes, Giselle, ed. The new Oxford history of New Zealand. South Melbourne; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Liu, James H., and others, eds. New Zealand identities: departures and destinations. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005.
Skilling, P. ‘National identity in a diverse society.’ In New Zealand government and politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2010: 54-65.