Topic: The Formation and Promotion of Identities during New Zealand's Historical Narrative (2011) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on the formation and promotion of identities during New Zealand’s historical narrative was written by Debbie McCauley on 17 April 2011 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

The role played by New Zealand’s historical narrative in the formation and promotion of identities is key to how the country sees it self today. Many Pākehā New Zealanders are influenced by their European past and role as colonialists. Māori identity, almost destroyed by war, confiscation, disease, and the suppression of Te Reo (The Language), is still affected by the impact of colonisation and the ensuing struggle to preserve their identity.

Operating in the midst of the Enlightenment, Englishman Lieutenant James Cook (1728-1779) and his crew arrived in New Zealand on the Endeavour in 1769 during a scientific voyage of discovery. British domination and exploration, as well as the Enlightenment theory of progress, was part of their national identity. Cook had instructions to seek out the coastline Dutchman Abel Tasman (1603-1659) had found in 1642. The country who could find a ‘Great Southern Continent’ first and map it could then claim it as its own. Cook went on to circumnavigate and chart the North and South Islands of New Zealand which he then claimed as a new country for Britain. His map, including his European place names, is a cultural artefact that is still remarkably accurate today and helps to promote New Zealand’s identity as geographically isolated and European dominated.

New Zealand’s position in the bottom right-hand corner of the world map both reinforces and promotes its identity as ‘down under’ or at the bottom of the world. The whole country was even excluded from some older maps. This geographic isolation is further reinforced by the fact that Europeans have to cross the date line and equator to reach New Zealand and that its borders are dictated by the Pacific Ocean.

Geography has played a part in shaping both Māori and Pākehā identity. The loss of land by Māori and the gaining of it by Pākehā had an immense impact on identities. Historically, much like in European countries where borders have changed significantly over the years, war helped to define boundaries between iwi (tribes). As Walker (1989) explains, ‘Māori traditions abound with accounts of tribal warfare over land. War was the means by which tribal boundaries were defined and political relations between tribes established’ (p. 38).

Along with a common geographical area, the history of European settlement has played a major role in the construction of New Zealand identities. Prior to 1840 there was a surplus population in Britain. The solution was seen as resettlement elsewhere. These people were often unemployed and poor and the situation grim as the 1834 Poor Law Act forcibly separated families into the workhouses. According to Steven (1989) ‘the only half-coherent strategy for dealing with a potentially revolutionary situation was somehow to get rid of the surplus population’ (p.22).

The power of reason and the views of the patriarchal European white male are behind the Enlightenment idea of progress which was used to justify courses of action such as the exploration and colonisation of other countries. This was, as Wilkinson (2003) states, a ‘combination of patronizing ignorance and colonial ambition’ (p. 231). History is written from this point of view as a linear and continuous examination of progress which was used as a reason to justify the colonisation of New Zealand. Enlightenment thought regarded ‘Europeans as intellectually, morally and culturally superior to all other peoples’ (Chimisso, 2003, p. 95) by virtue of the progress they had made and the responsibility they felt for enlightening other peoples. This idea of the linear progress of human advancement has been called into doubt in the post-World War I period.

Ever since New Zealand’s founding document, Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi), was signed by over 500 Māori chiefs in 1840, Māori have been protesting that its promises have not been upheld. The Treaty has become integral to the Māori struggle for self determination and demonstrates a project identity as they strive to have the Treaty of Waitangi honoured. As Herbert (2003) explains, ‘resistance identity can become project identity, although there is also much evidence that is has become legitimizing identity’ (p. 225).

An emerging concept of Māori Nationalism saw the election of a Māori King, King Tawhaio in 1858. Māori had formed a resistant identity which led to the Land Wars beginning in 1860. The 1870s were difficult times for Māori and saw a considerable decline in the population of a now marginalised people. This was due to the loss of millions of acres of land that had been purchased cheaply, swindled, confiscated or lost through the Native Land Court which forced communally owned land into a Pākehā concept of individual ownership. The resulting scarcity of food and poverty had severe consequences for Māori survival, leading to hardship, malnutrition, and starvation and in turn, increased susceptibility to European diseases.

The resurgence of cultural identity among Māori from the 1960’s, also known as the ‘Māori Renaissance,’ raised the awareness of New Zealanders to the issues at hand and can be seen to run parallel with the African American civil rights movement and protests in other post-colonial countries such as Australia and Canada. Pākehā consciousness of Māori grievances grew with the advent of the media and the increasing urbanisation of the Māori population. 

Whether Europeans accept it or not, modern day New Zealand’s identity is largely formulated by the Treaty of Waitangi. The resulting promotion of our bicultural identity can be seen through legitimizing identities such as the government and education system. The Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand history, along with our rich and varied Māori culture, are taught and researched in schools. Our national identity involves the ‘acceptance of a national heritage and recognition of a shared past’ (Emsley, 2003, p. 112).

In 1814 British missionary Samuel Marsden arrived in the Bay of Islands to establish New Zealand’s first mission station. The Enlightenment idea of progress can be seen behind the missionaries’ intention to civilise the ‘barbaric’ Māori. Religion helped to formulate the identity of European settlers and according to Brown (1989), ‘churches have played a part in shaping individual and group identities in New Zealand’ (p. 237). As familiar institutions they promote a Christian identity. Christianity’s dualist foundation with its focus on the individual shaped many settlers’ views. As Wilkinson (2003) explains: ‘without doubt, the assumptions of dualism and individualism have formed and continue to form the bedrock of the European outlook on human life’ (p. 261).

Māori traditionally had many gods. Some shared a belief in a Supreme God, known as the Io tradition, which seems similar to eastern non-dualistic philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism. This is because of the concept of emptiness and the unity of all things, one where individual entities are an illusion that stops one reaching a state of nirvana or enlightenment. As Wilkinson (2003) states, ‘European culture, predominantly individualist, scientific and progressive, would be unimaginably different had it been based on nirvanic assumptions’ (p. 261).

Knowledge used by Māori to form their identity has been gathered by their ancestors over centuries and includes the patterns, songs, dance, carvings, images, names, symbols, paintings, poetry, traditional medicines and histories that help them experience their Māoritanga (culture) in different ways. Māoritanga also promotes guidelines for almost every aspect of life such as funerals, tree felling and cooking food. Like Genesis from the Christian Bible, Māori have a creation story whereby the god of the forests, Tāne Mahuta, pushes his parents Ranginui (the sky) & Papatūānuku (the earth) apart, thereby creating light so that life could blossom. The Christian Garden of Eden also has its Māori equivalent in the legendary Hawaiki. The translation of the first scriptures of the Christian Bible into Māori in 1827 (Elsmore, 1999, p. 9) provided another set of guidelines for Māoridom.

Article four of the Treaty of Waitangi, included by Captain William Hobson (1792-1842) at Catholic Bishop Pompallier’s request, guarantees religious freedom. It reads ‘E mea ana te Kawana, ko nga whakapono katoa, o Ingarani, o nga Weteriana, o Roma, me te ritenga Māori hoki, e tiakina ngatahitia e ia, The Governor says the several faiths of England, of the Wesleyans, of Rome, and also Māori custom shall be alike protected by him’ (Treaty2U, n.d., para. 2). After colonisation some Māori developed a resistance identity by formulating alternative religious identities. It seems as if they accepted Christian doctrine but chose to interpret it in their own way (see Appendix 1).

An example of Māori religion and identity having an increasing impact in New Zealand was when the Auckland-Waikato expressway road-works were stopped in 2003. Local Māori had explained that they were disturbing the home of Karu Tahi, the one-eyed taniwha or guardian spirit of the Waikato River (New Zealand Herald, 2003, para 1). Works resumed after Transit New Zealand agreed to build a 30 metre rock fill to protect the Taniwha’s ‘lair’.

In modern day New Zealand, Christianity still dominates with over two million people identifying as Christian in the 2006 census results. Religious identities can lead to intolerance and conflict and even attacks on religious property. As Herbert (2003) states, ‘religious identity seems set to play a developing role in social conflict’ (p. 187). An example of this was the attacks on six Auckland mosques in the wake of the terrorist attacks on London on 7 July 2005. The New Zealand Federation of Islamic Associations president Javed Khan said that ‘Muslims were "shocked and saddened" by the incidents in London and appealed to the community to be calm and tolerant about the overnight attacks in Auckland’ (TVNZ, 2005, para. 3).

Worldwide there has been a change in the demographics of religion. As Herbert (2003) states, he has noticed a ‘shift away from religious identities based on historical identification with a religious institution, often associated with national belonging, towards a religious identity chosen (if at all) by individuals in a consumer-orientated marketplace’ (p. 187). An example of this can be seen in the religious affiliations of New Zealanders in the census results for 1996, 2001 and 2006. Spiritualism and New Age Religions doubled in ten years from 9,786 in the 1996 census to 19,800 in 2006.

Along with religion, language also helps shape the identity and nationality of the user. In New Zealand’s case, language traces the development of the country from a pioneering one in which the standard British accent was seen as the correct way to speak to modern day where an unmistakable ‘twang’ or New Zealand accent is now standard. As Gordon (1989) states ‘the development of the New Zealand accent from being an undesirable ‘colonial twang’ to a legitimate variety of English is perhaps also an account of New Zealand’s own development as a country’ (p. 87). Pittaway (2003) clarifies, ‘Language allows us to identify our own place in the world’ (p.151).

A central marker of cultural identity, our distinctive language style includes Māori words, influences from Britain, Australia, and the United States, as well as words that were created here. Our names for places include Aotearoa for New Zealand and the Beehive for our houses of Parliament. At our whare (house) we have our own kai (food) such as candy floss, chocolate fish, custard squares, hokey-pokey ice cream, pavlova, and even electric puha (marijuana). Our kai can be prepared using a hāngi, barbeque or boil up. In our wardrobes one might find a Swanndri, gumboots and jandals. Our toys include the Buzzy Bee, most famously played with on the lawn at Government House by the young Prince William during the 1983 royal tour. And where would we be without number eight wire, tea towels, whanau (family), chilly bins and (thanks it becoming socially acceptable due to the 1999 Toyota Hilux advertising campaign) the slang word ‘bugger’. Other terms that help promote our unique culture include: crikey dick, turn to custard, right as rain, stunned mullet, fit as a buck rat, its all kapai, tiki tour, a good keen man and recently Kia Kaha (stay strong) which has been directed toward Christchurch in the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake. As Pittaway (2003) states, ‘language marks out those cultures as different – and that difference helps to define identity’ (p.152).

New Zealand has three official languages; Māori, English and New Zealand Sign Language. Whilst English has been New Zealand’s most common language since the 1860’s, the 1980’s brought about a revival of the Māori language or Te Reo as part of the renaissance of Māori culture. At the time in New Zealand the concept of biculturalism also emerged.  This concept defines two cultures living side by side, respecting and embracing each other’s beliefs, identity, culture, traditions and educational systems. This resurgence has helped to revitalise Māori culture and identity (see Appendix 2). As Pittaway (2003) explains, ‘language has provided one of the pillars of a revival of a cultural, or even a national, identity’ (p. 177).

Many government departments now have bilingual names, for example the Ministry of Māori Development which is commonly known as Te Puni Kōkiri. Māori words and icons are incorporated into logos and stationary and places like Public Libraries display bilingual signage and Māori specific programmes are celebrated around annual events such as Matariki, Māori Language Week and Waitangi Day. Languages are ‘continuously reshaped by the historical experiences of the groups that use them’ (Pittaway, 2003, p.151).

Today, concerns remain that the number of people able to speak Māori are not enough to ensure the survival of the language. This is a concern as Education Minister Anne Tolley explains, ‘There is a severe shortage not only of fluent te reo speakers but people able to teach re reo and that's a very highly skilled job’  (Field, 2010, para. 4).

New Zealand has been able to formulate and promote its own identity in the post-colonial and post-war period. An example of this was in 1984 when New Zealand made a stance against nuclear weapons, declaring itself ‘nuclear free’. This led to a strained relationship with America which has only recently begun to heal with the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2010 and the signing of the “Wellington Declaration” reaffirming ties between the two countries. As Phillips (1989) explains ‘instead of New Zealand seeing itself through its own and British eyes as the loyal and sturdy infantry of the Empire, a vision began to emerge of the country as a Pacific and pacifist power sufficiently detached from world conflict to speak the voice of nuclear sanity’ (p. 107).

Some other defining moments in New Zealand’s identity include the protest against the Springbok Rugby Tour in 1981, Sir Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, winning the America’s Cup in 1995 and 2000, the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985 and latterly, the Christchurch Earthquake. I agree with Novitz (1989) who explains that ‘New Zealanders have turned in increasing numbers to their art, their literature, their history, politics, wars, and their sporting achievements in order to uncover their identity as people’ (p. 277). New Zealand’s ‘Clean Green’ identity is promoted overseas by Tourism New Zealand with its ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ marketing campaign launched in January 2011.

Tracing New Zealand’s history is essential to understanding its role in the formation and promotion of identities. A European past and settlement in New Zealand influence Pākehā identity. Māori saw major changes with colonisation and their identity is often based around the continuing struggle to have the Treaty of Waitangi upheld. Post-colonial New Zealand’s identity is also formed through religion, language and nationalism and is in turn promoted through the media, literature and education.

by Debbie McCauley (April, 2011).



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APPENDIX 1: Alternative Māori Christian organisations


Papahuria cult in Hokianga in opposition to Christianity


Hauhau cult (Taranaki to the East Coast)


Te Kooti (c.1832–1891) transforms the Hauhau into a guerrilla movement


Te Kooti gives up fighting and founds his own protest church known as Ringatu (upraised hand) based on the Old Testament


Te Whiti establishes a commune at Parihaka based on pacifism and separation of the races


Parihaka is brutally destroyed by the militia


Rua Kenana (Urewera) establishes the city of God commune called New Jerusalem.


New Jerusalem invaded by sixty policemen. Rua arrested and sentenced to a year a jail


Wiremu Ratana establishes the Ratana Church


Ratana followers reach 19,000


Ratana political candidate wins Southern Māori


Ratana aligns his movement to the Labour Party


Destiny Church is founded by Brian Tamaki


Brian Tamaki ordained as Bishop of Destiny Church


APPENDIX 2: The journey of Te Reo


Māori is the predominant language spoken in New Zealand.


English becomes the most common language spoken in New Zealand


Use of Māori in schools forbidden

1940’s - 1970’s

Māori migrated from rural communities to urban centres. Many Māori parents stopped speaking Māori to their children.


Nga Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) petitioned Parliament to promote the language.


Report by researcher Richard Benton that the Māori language was in a critical near-death stage.


Māori language day becomes Māori language week


New Zealand's first officially bilingual school opens at Ruatoki in the Urewera


The first Māori-owned Māori-language radio station (Te Reo-o-Poneke) goes to air


Major Māori language recovery programmes began


First Māori television programme begins broadcasting with the half-hour show Koha


Kohanga reo movement, which immersed Māori pre-schoolers in the Māori language, begins


First kohanga reo opened in Lower Hutt


Kura Kaupapa, Māori language total immersion primary schooling


Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori claim, which asserted that te reo was a taonga (a treasure) that the Crown or government was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal found in favour of the claimants and recommended a number of legislative and policy remedies.


Māori Language Act 1987 makes Māori made an official language of New Zealand. The Act also established Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori – the Māori Language Commission.


Māori Language Commission indicates the number of fluent adult speakers is around 10,000


Māori television launched


Education Minister Anne Tolley said there was a ''severe shortage'' of Te Reo Māori teachers, as a Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 262 claim) report warns the language could die out.

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