In the Shaping of History, the late historian Judith Binney wrote, “[T]here have been two remembered histories of New Zealand since 1840: that of the colonisers, and that of the colonised. Their visions and goals were different, creating memories which have been patterned by varying hopes and experiences.” Like many Pākehā growing up in the 1960s, my “remembered history” was shaped by the monolingual and essentially monocultural educational years that reflected the perspectives of my peers and forebears. However, this way of remembering was challenged in the 1970s onwards, not only for me, but also nationally by the emergence of another account in the land that demanded attention. This version belonged to Māori, whose new-found voice found a place to reveal not, in fact, a “new” story, but an enduring one that had informed their claims of identity and belonging, arguably since their arrival by various waka more than a millennium ago.

Since the 1980s, I have taken part in various “education” fora, which aim at bringing Pākehā, particularly, into the conversation about this country’s colonial history. From these events it became evident to me that the call to recognise the historical and present injustices experienced by Māori caused some Pākehā to feel insecure about their identity and sense of belonging. I characterise this response as follows: “Māori seem clear about who they are, but what about us? Who are we, and how do we fit in this land?”


Such a response on the part of Pākehā to the redefining of New Zealand’s political and cultural landscape is both natural and important for our psychological and social well-being. Social geographer Anne Buttimer argues that “location” is important to identity. In The Human Experience of Space and Place, she maintains that “people’s sense of both personal and cultural identity is intimately bound up with place … and that the ‘loss of home’ or ‘losing one’s place’ may often trigger an identity crisis.” Her insights are important, not only in her linking of identity to place, but especially in her observation that a “dislocation,” real or imagined, from these “places” may produce an identity crisis, perhaps echoing what has happened to Pākehā since the 1970s.

In a similar vein, British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has noted that “identity is about belonging…At its most basic, it gives you a sense of personal location, the stable core of your individuality.” Thus identity is intricately linked to belonging and is understood as being crucial to human well-being, or as Weeks describes it, to our “social core.”

Although the post-1970 attempts by Pākehā to re-formulate their identity are not in themselves misplaced, I remain concerned that this identity quest may negatively impact upon others, especially Māori. As Pākehā seek to construct their identity, they will necessarily need to create a narrative, or a story, about themselves. Such a narrative—and by implication its associated identity— will be neither value-free nor exist in a social vacuum.

Rather, it will be an ontological or existential reality that in some contexts may contradict or compete with the social narratives and identities held by others, causing tension or conflict.

As Pākehā seek to construct their identity, they will necessarily need to create a narrative, or a story, about themselves. Such a narrative—and by implication its associated identity— will be neither value-free nor exist in a social vacuum.

An idea that has been posited recently with regard to Pākehā identity revolves around the concept of indigeneity. Late New Zealand historian and biographer Michael King was one of the first to explore identity in response to the new political and cultural landscape brought about by the Māori renaissance. His book Being Pakeha, published in 1985, galvanised a wide-spread response.

One influential notion he posited there was the claim that people like himself who were “committed New Zealanders” had earned “indigenous” status. These claims of indigeneity were echoed in a paper, We are all New Zealanders Now, which was presented by the then-Race Relations Minister Trevor Mallard to the Stout Research Centre in July 2004. His presentation was both a reiteration of some of King’s ideas as well as being a political response to the January 2004 Nationhood speech by the then-leader of the National Party, Don Brash. While Brash did not state explicitly that Pākehā were indigenous, his speech, which challenged the idea of an indigenous “special” status for Māori, equated to a similar outcome. These claims of indigeneity for all (or for none) continue to present themselves in a variety of fora as many Pākehā either promote their own indigenous status or, conversely, deny that the term when applied to Māori accords them any uniqueness. These identity perspectives might also be summarised in the seemingly reasonable and often heard phrase “We are all New Zealanders,” which in turn might be progressed to “We are all indigenous!”


In Exclusion, the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf said that while the will for identity is universal, it is also the fuel for many of the world’s conflicts. Does the Pākehā quest for identity and its appropriation of the identifier “indigenous” have the potential to contribute to ethnic tension or possible conflict?

Certainly, if viewed via the old adage of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” then the use of “indigenous” as an appellation is harmless, and whatever Māori are called or whatever Pākehā choose to call themselves becomes irrelevant. However, given the impact of colonialism, the project of “naming” becomes incredibly relevant.

The Australian spatial historian Paul Carter was one of the first scholars to draw attention to the use of “naming” by settlers as a means of “possessing” new territories. In The Road to Botany Bay, he argues that “by the act of place-naming, space is transformed symbolically into a place that is a space with history.” In the instance of Australia, the “history” that was conveyed via the settler “naming” was an extremely truncated one, but one that effectively cemented the European footprint upon that land. In a similar vein, New Zealand historian Giselle Byrnes, in Boundary Markers, claims that to perceive colonisation in the New Zealand context by only focussing on war and confiscation has tended to obscure the power of “naming” as a colonising strategy. While not all “naming” efforts were necessarily strategic and merely reveal the hubris of a dominant people group, the net effect is a replacement of the indigenous footprint and the associated loss of mana that results from such re-naming.

Sky reconciliation Māori

Although Carter’s and Byrnes’ research pertains particularly to geographical locations, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate their ideas to the Pākehā identity quest.

A careless use of terms such as “indigenous” and “New Zealander” by the majority population equates to a form of identity replacement. The use of the term “indigenous” and the more subtle phrase “we are all New Zealanders” by Pākehā, while satisfying their existential need to belong, has an equalising effect upon Māori—one that subsumes them within a convenient national narrative and undermines the uniqueness of their identity and any associated rights which should be accorded them either under common law or the Treaty of Waitangi.

This equalising move carries echoes of previous colonial practice and provokes some scholars to suggest that “old habits die hard.” Cultural historian Peter Gibbons, for one, warns, “[C]olonization is not just an early morning fog that dissipates mid-morning as the bright sun of national identity comes out.” He argues that colonisation is not a ‘finished event,’ but that colonising tendencies are apparent especially within the wider “New Zealand as nation” discourse. He proposes that while there is a geographical entity that is called New Zealand, in almost every other way the term is a “discursive construction,” as is the related “national identity” or “New Zealand identity.” In other words, they are identifiers which have the appearance of being self-evident but are actually social constructions which carry and signal certain cultural, historical, and political assumptions. It is because of this that the Pākehā quest for belonging should not be viewed as an autonomous or an innocuous activity. Given our history, it is one that requires an historical awareness and sensitivity in order to avoid the perpetuation of past colonising tendencies and a consequent ethnic tension.


It is clear that the Māori-Pākehā relationship continues to be in need of healing, restoration, and clarity. Furthermore, because it is a foundational relationship for this country, vis-à-vis Waitangi, its restoration is an important piece of the wider reconciliatory puzzle within our pluralistic and multicultural society. One way that Pākehā might contribute to the healing of their relationship with Māori is simply by refraining from inappropriate “naming”—this is one side of the reconciliation equation. The other is the search for suitable identity identifiers.

I suggest the term “Pākehā,” which I have been using throughout this article to describe those of European descent, is a good example of a “reconciled identity.” Despite the unfounded fears over its meaning, it suitably identifies a people group and locates them geographically and culturally. Former High Court Judge Eddie Durie has proposed another: he has stated that Pākehā need to understand that the Treaty of Waitangi is not only for Māori but for Pākehā too. Accordingly he has offered the term “tangata tiriti,” or “people of the Treaty,” as a possible identifier. This is a term that affords Pākehā a status of belonging on the basis of the Treaty and juxtaposes their identity with Māori as “tangata whenua,” or “people of the land.” Another possibility has been suggested by Michael King, in The Silence Beyond. He offers that “Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand are in a relationship in the nature of siblings: tuakana and teina, to use the Maori expressions for older and younger brothers or sisters.” He suggests that “the tuakana culture does deserve respect for being here first, of being the longest occupiers of the land and the people who first gave that land names and history.” King continues, “[T]he tuakana culture also has the right to expect the state to respect those things promised in the Treaty of Waitangi, particularly cultural taonga such as the Māori language.”

In one sense, the above identity suggestions: Pākehā, tangata tiriti and tuakana/teina reflect a Pākehā relationship with Māori, itself a significant reconciliatory indicator. Further, these terms require some affinity by the later migrant groups of te ao Māori, particularly te reo Māori me ona tikanga, or Māori language and culture. The irony here is that not only would the Pākehā quest for identity be fulfilled and the associated existential need of belonging to Aotearoa New Zealand satisfied—but it would be accomplished, not by an appropriation of the indigenous identity but by an acknowledgment and participation within their world.

The focus here on Pākehā identity is not meant to imply that this issue is the only or even the most important reconciliatory consideration for Māori-Pākehā relationships, neither are the above identity possibilities offered as an exhaustive list but more to provide stimulus to the on-going national conversation. For besides the necessary virtues of sacrifice and commitment, the nurturing of a reconciled relationship between Māori and Pākehā will require imaginative input from all.

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Alistair Reese

Alistair Reese is a community activist and a Teaching Fellow in the School of Theology at the University of Auckland. His recently completed PhD thesis, Reconciliation and the Quest for Pākehā Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand explores ways in which public theology can o!er reconciliatory ideas that will contribute to the concept of this land as a shared place of identity and belonging for both Māori and Pākehā.