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Separatism in New Zealand: The Insidious Development of Separatism in New Zealand: Part One

From the time I started in journalism in 1963 I have seen a number of changes in the social structure of New Zealand and not all of them have been positive. Journalism wasn’t the only occupation I tried my hand at but in those early days of my writing career, most of our training was “on the job” in the newsroom and it could be a brutal training ground for the inattentive student. 

I was however fortunate to have a number of highly skilled and patient mentors who taught me how to observe without being intrusive, to analyse without my opinion being known and to put news developments into logical context. We were to be anonymous observers and accurate recorders of events and people. We had no bylines as our work belonged to the newspaper, not us, and it was many years before we were allowed the privilege of writing opinion pieces under our own names. 

We were also taught the ethics of empathetic journalism and to respect the privacy of individuals no matter how high or low their public profile.  They sound simple skills but they are far more demanding than they appear. I was also reasonably bi-lingual and, I believe, one of the few Pakeha journalists with that skill in those times. That not only gave me an advantage in news gathering, it also imposed a whole new set of ethical considerations which only bi-lingual journalist understand.           

Towards the end of my time in front line journalism I became increasingly aware of the development of an informal duality of citizenship in New Zealand, the acceptance of that duality by community leaders and the long-term potential for dis-harmony and, in 1991,  I wrote a rather long essay on my observations. Over the next few weeks I will present that essay in serial form starting with the vexed question of cultural identity.


Cultural identity, as distinct from national identity, is perhaps the most mis-understood and mis-used concept in New Zealand today. It has grown to be much more than a mere name tag to wear on special occasions. 

National identity says who we are as the people of a nation; New Zealanders with a proud if somewhat insignificant profile in the world order of things. We have worn the uniform of our armed forces in almost every major world conflict in the past 150 years, we convince ourselves that we produce the best butter, mutton, beef and wine in the world and our sporting colours have flown over the recreational fields of most nations. 

However, when it comes to cultural identity we are as deeply divided as any warring third world nation struggling for freedom and democracy. Why has this become so important? The national identity matter is relatively simple; nobody wants to be a nobody! We all have a deep and primitive need to belong to a group. Even belonging to the losing team is better than standing on the sideline not invited to play. 

The cultural identity matter has much more sinister and troubling connotations as it carries with it a perception that the differences between people prevent equality. With those differences in recent times has also come the argument that there are now two forms of citizenship in New Zealand. One for Maori New Zealanders, who have rights of consultation and, by inference, veto or control over central and local government developments, over and above the role of all other citizens in such matters. There is also a perception that attached to that nebulous citizenship concept are rights of access to and use of natural resources over and above those of other people. The other citizenship is for non-Maori or Pakeha New Zealanders who, it is often assumed by Maori New Zealanders, have inherited the culpability for the wrongs of New Zealand’s colonial era. 

This essay deals only with the two major groups of New Zealanders; Maori and Pakeha(New Zealanders of European descent). There are of course many other ethnic and cultural groups which make up the colourful mix of today’s New Zealand.

Who is a Maori?

In a strict translation of the word into English Maori simply means “normal”. 

Native Polynesian New Zealanders applied the name to themselves in about 1830 to distinguish between themselves and Europeans who were arriving in growing numbers. 

In this context it must be remembered that the islands of New Zealand are the most recently human-colonised land mass in the world and Maori came to New Zealand somewhere between only 800 to 1000 years ago from the Pacific islands to the north-east of New Zealand and began developing their unique culture here. That process of cultural development continues today and encompasses the cultural norms of several European countries brought here by later arrivals. 

As Polynesians exist throughout the Pacific, they are natives of New Zealand; there are no indigenous or endemic New Zealand people. 

Today the name Maori can rightly be claimed by descendants of these people. They are truly Maori; the word, when used this way, no longer simply means normal; it now also means a native Polynesian New Zealander. Many people, who can rightfully call themselves Maori today, have more European than Polynesian ancestry and most do not speak their native language although this is changing slowly. They are none-the-less Maori with a culture identical to the rest of the country with the addition of traditional rituals and practices when on a marae and other functions where a token component of “Maori culture” is expected, requested or required. 

Who is a Pakeha?

In a strict translation of the word Pakeha into English simply means “foreigner”. The name has several probable origins and the most common is that it is an adaptation of the archaic Maori word Pakekeha which was one of several names for the mythical fair skinned fairy people of the high forest. Later Pakeha was any newcomer and was not an indication of race. About 1830 the name was applied almost exclusively to British or European visitors to New Zealand. They were the majority of strangers at the time but were none-the-less a small minority of the people living in New Zealand until about 1850. Today ‘Te Reo Pakeha’ translates as ‘the English language’ as different from ‘Te Reo Maori,’ the Maori language.

Today also the term is generally used to identify descendants of those people. It is not, as many assume, an insult or a derogatory term in itself. They are also now natives of New Zealand in that they were born here of parents, grandparents and often great grandparents who were born here; they exist nowhere else in the world. Visitors from outside New Zealand, or those who were not born here, come under the general and generic name of Tauiwi, or strangers. 

Pakeha origins are for the most part English speaking British, with many other countries contributing to the mix over the years. They have contributed to a culture, along with all other ethnicities represented in New Zealand which has evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Their language is a unique English dialect with a number of adapted and adopted Maori words and a number of regional variations. Philosophies and style of humour have all evolved over the past 220 years into a culture, which is also unique to this part of the world. 

A significant influence on that shared culture has also been the pre-European Maori culture. They have adopted much more than “kia ora” as a greeting and the haka for rugby. Many other words, attitudes, community generosity, competitiveness and simply the way New Zealanders think about things have been hugely influenced, particularly in previous generations before the days of global communications technology, by Maori, English, Irish Scottish and European traditions. 

In recent years the use of the Maori language in the news media, local government and other largely non-Maori groups has grown significantly. That language, like spoken and written English, is significantly different to the language spoken by my extended family a short lifetime ago. That is the natural progression and evolution of any living language.  

In spite of their origins Pakeha are no more strangers here than Maori who preceded them by a mere 1000 years or so. Between the first European arrivals and the Pakeha of today are several pioneering generations who, like the Maori before them, initially adapted their lifestyles to fit their surroundings and eventually adapted their surroundings to fit their lifestyles. The law, and indeed the third principle of the Treaty of Waitangi, says they are both natives of this land without priority. *

In between these two broad groups of native New Zealanders is a vast but unknown number of people of mixed ancestry including, Maori, other Pacific Island Polynesian, European, Asian and Scandinavian who have no interest in being identified as anything other than New Zealanders. Those of them born here are equally also natives of the land of their birth.  

In this context, native means people born in a specific place as distinct from people born in another country but afforded New Zealand citizenship (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Some Maori leaders however see Pakeha New Zealanders and other non-Maori as a threat to their own identity and have attempted to turn the clock back more than a century and a half and now refer to Pakeha as visitors or outsiders who are only in New Zealand by permission of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi which, among other things, ceded sovereignty of New Zealand to the British Crown.  Such opinion ignores the facts of history and the natural birthright of any people born in a country, regardless of ancestral origins. 

A good analogy is the status of Northern and Southern Irish people. No-one today would doubt the right of Northern Irish people to call themselves native Irishmen. Many of them however are direct descendants of an army of occupation installed by King William of Orange after the Battle of Boyne River in 1690 and were originally natives of lowland Scotland and Northern England. 

More Scots arrived in Ireland following the Battle Culloden in Scotland in 1746. And the last major immigration of Scots to Ireland followed the Scottish land clearances of 1848 when thousands of landless crofters were sent to Ireland to take up land confiscated from the Irish. Their descendants today are without doubt native Irish. 

More recently Fijian-Indians living in New Zealand have demanded to be classified as Pacific Islanders not Asian or Indian. They are descendants of Indian agricultural workers taken to Fiji by Britain in the 1970s. They claim, with some justification, that the New Zealand government classification of them as Asians and not Pasifika is wrong and must be corrected.

In New Zealand that natural evolutionary process has not been recognised and Pakeha are still considered by many people as English, strangers, visitors or invaders and somehow culpable for the atrocities of the colonial era. They are not. 

Reactions of Pakeha who hear such comments range from mild bemusement to offended outrage. It is for this reason that many Pakeha will have nothing whatever to do with Treaty of Waitangi matters and see them as a threat to their identity. 

Others have described the opinion as fertile ground for ethnic cleansing in New Zealand. While this latter reaction is probably overstating the case to a significant degree it is none-the less an indication of serious disquiet and dis-harmony which some divisive activists have been quick to exploit.


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