Story: The New Zealanders

Page 12 – Bicultural New Zealand


By the first half of the 20th century Māori were participating in the major rituals of New Zealand life. They voted, had their own members of Parliament, played rugby, fought in wars, and intermarried with other New Zealanders.

However, because most Māori lived in the country their distinctive traditions were kept on the marae, out of sight of most Europeans. After the Second World War, and increasingly during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a major migration of Māori into the city. In response efforts were intensified to turn Māori into British New Zealanders. In schools and workplaces Māori were discouraged from speaking their own language, and housing policy encouraged ‘pepper potting’ – dispersing the Māori population to prevent residential concentrations. The Hunn Report (1960) recommended that New Zealand move beyond ‘assimilation’ to ‘integration’, whereby New Zealanders would become one people through mixing the two cultures. In practice, because Māori were a minority, this tended to mean the swallowing of the smaller fish by the bigger.

Māori sovereignty

From the late 1960s on, some Māori challenged this policy. Urban movements led by groups such as Ngā Tamatoa emphasised the need to strengthen Māori language, culture and political power. In 1975 there was a protest march from one end of the North Island to the other expressing unrest at the loss of Māori land. In the same year the Waitangi Tribunal was established to deal with infringements of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

In 1981 the activist Donna Awatere published an argument for Māori sovereignty, and as Māori began to promote their own traditions and values, the term ‘biculturalism’ appeared. For some, this meant that New Zealanders could exist in one nation but as two peoples. Māori could speak their own language, pursue their own traditions, have their own educational institutions such as kōhanga reo (preschool language nests), kura kaupapa Māori (schools using Māori language) and wānanga (universities), provide their own social services, and control their own businesses. The financial settlements which flowed from Waitangi Tribunal recommendations began to make this possible.

Bicultural institutions

Some institutions made a concerted effort to implement a bicultural approach. When Te Papa Tongarewa, the new national museum, began operations in 1993 its exhibition programme was divided between those areas which represented the tangata whenua (people of the land – Māori) and the tangata tiriti (the people here by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi – non-Māori). Increasingly institutions gave themselves Māori names and adopted Māori rituals such as the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony).

Mixing it up

Some New Zealanders avoid an exclusive Māori or Pākehā identity and appreciate their heritage from both. Artist Alan Wehipeihana from Paekakariki, who uses both Māori and European symbols in his work, says he is one of those ‘of mixed heritage who stand in this space scratching our skulls, not sure whether to tick the “Māori”, “Non Māori” or “Other” box on official forms, feeling like we leak through any definition of race and culture.’ 1

Pākehā identity

Other New Zealanders played with the idea of a distinct Pākehā culture. This was the culture of those whose families had inhabited the land for – in some cases – 150 years or more, and had developed their own traditions and identities, such as a love of the beach and the bush, and the ritual of rugby games.

The historian Michael King wrote Being Pakeha to explore this idea. When first published in 1985 its subtitle was ‘an encounter with New Zealand and the Maori renaissance’. On re-publication in 1999, the subtitle had changed, significantly, to ‘reflections and recollections of a white native’. But the number of white natives who were really comfortable about being considered Pākehā was small. They preferred to think of themselves as ‘real New Zealanders’.

At a popular level, however, the idea that non-Māori New Zealanders did have a distinctive culture was reflected in a heightened interest in ‘kiwiana’ – iconic objects such as Buzzy Bee toys, pavlova, Marmite and meat pies, or clothes like jandals and bush shirts.

  1. Kapiti Observer, January 19 2004, p. 23. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'The New Zealanders - Bicultural New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12