Being Pākehā Now

On Sunday morning, when I was upon deck, I saw the English flag flying, which was a pleasing sight in New Zealand. I considered it as the signal and the dawn of civilization, liberty and religion, in that dark and benighted land. I never viewed the British colours with more gratification; and flattered myself they would never be removed, till the natives of that island enjoyed all the happiness of British subjects.

Samuel Marsden’s Journal, 1814

Well the Union Jack has downsized a little and is now in the corner of the flag flying over these dark and benighted lands, but it is still there.  As for Maori enjoying all the happiness of British subjects?  Is it possible for one culture to enjoy the happiness of being another culture?


This picture shows the spot where Samuel Marsden delivered the first sermon in New Zealand in December of 1814.  The spot is in the Bay of Islands; that beautiful inlet is where New Zealand history really began.  Marsden’s flock was Maori on this occasion and didn’t understand a word he was saying.   The journal entry above was written on the morning of the day he delivered that sermon.

We view the Christian impulse to civilise the Māori quite differently today, and people like Samuel Marsden have fallen a little out of favour in the national story, but shunting these men off to the side when we tell the story of New Zealand is dishonest.  Christianity has had a massive impact on Maori and New Zealand culture to the point where prayer is only slipped into popular social ceremonies if it is called a karakia (with a-me-ni at the end).

In Year 13 History I teach the 19th Century New Zealand history topic.  Recently, one of my students noticed that I had written the word Pākehā up on the board and she said: “some people don’t like that word, do they?”  This is the third year I have taught Year 13 History and this question comes up at least once a term.  The girl who asked me this time was Samoan, and was curious rather than grumpy as most 17 year old white boys are when they ask me.  Each term my answer is something like this (with embellishments):

Until I was about thirty I used to hate the word Pākehā and called myself European, but then when I was about twenty-five or six I actually went to Europe and found out that I wasn’t European.  Of course my culture comes from Europe as do my ancestors, but being in England was like being somewhere eerily familiar, somewhere I half recognised from a dream, rather than being at home.  When I came back to New Zealand to live I started calling myself a Pākehā because that’s what I felt I really was.

There’s a much longer version of this answer that I have in my head, but I don’t like to bore people with it.  That answer involves me telling them about living in Japan for five years and always being asked “What is New Zealand culture?”, and reading a lot of New Zealand history books, and working with loads of Australians and discovering that New Zealanders and Australians are quite different from each other, and so on and so on.  My family came to New Zealand in 1851 and 1852.  The idea that England is a secret spiritual homeland to me is quite alien.  150 years is a lot of water under the bridge.


Perhaps one of the main things that bothers the we’re-all-Kiwis European about being called a Pākehā is that it is a Māori term, and the dominant culture feels that it should define itself and not be defined by the indigenous culture.  Attached to this is a whole lot of other baggage about the word Pākehā actually secretly being a perjorative term, which it seems likely it wasn’t, but who can really say, and anyway the words has a new meaning now.  Considering the changes that Europeans have wrought on Māori culture, and how Māori culture has been forged into something quite different from what it was 200 years ago I think Europeans could let themselves be defined as Pākehā, and acknowledge how Māori culture has brought changes to European culture.

But it’s a sensitive issue, and it concerns identity which is highly personal.  Still, it leads me to reflect on other things that have been going on in New Zealand and my life recently.  By that I specifically mean John Key getting pushed around at Waitangi, and a Māori boy wanting to give me the bash on camp.

Two brothers say they want to make their peace with John Key after being accused of assaulting the Prime Minister on Waitangi Day.  John, 33, and his 19-year-old brother Wikatana had a lot of support at the Kaitaia Court on Thursday, including Māori Party MP Hone Harawira. Harawira says he supports the brothers as part of his whānau.  “The relationship I have with the government is nowhere near the relationship I have with these two boys. They are part and parcel of my bloodline…my whānau” he says.

TVNZ, 12 March, 2009

I often wonder as I watch the Kapa Haka group perform at school about some of the messages involved in the haka part of the performance.  Kapa Haka is undoubtedly a positive thing, and the male haka part of a performance is often a real highlight, a moment that raises the hairs on the back of you neck, but I also wonder sometimes if it doesn’t validate a certain kind of attitude to macho posturing and violence in a society where the government runs expensive campaigns telling us that certain things are not ok.  Like most things of course it’s not that simple.  For some boys it must be an important part of their identity and a way of channeling that dark and benighted part of being a man to do with fighting and violence.  For others though it must be a way to pump  up that same part and appear to be a hard man amongst your mates.

One man that Samuel Marsden had quite extensive dealings with was Hongi Hika.  If you read anything about this man you are in equal measures impressed by his intellect, openess to new ideas and rapid ability to adapt, and horrified by his seemingly endless, unquenchable desire for bitter, bloody revenge.  Hika’s vendetta against other iwi in Northland and around Rotorua was savage.  He looms over the 1820s in New Zealand history like a Shakespearean character full of hurts and emotional wounds that cannot be cured, and finally devour him in 1828 in a long lingering demise from a musket shot.  Hika was a man who took tea with missionaries and met King George IV, who negotiated the bulk purchase of muskets in Sydney, sat for a portrait in England, and assisted a professor in Cambridge with the first Māori grammar book.  He was also a man who thought Christianity was ridiculous, pursued the ancient, insoluble inter-iwi wars to the -nth degree, took slaves as were his due, and performed the ritual cannabilism as his people had always done in warfare.  He was Māori.  European culture was an opportunity and a sideshow.

I respect and despise him.  His way is admirable and dispicable.  I prefer to live in a society that has eliminated the ability of men like this to take over my life.  But that way of life still exists in us.  I believe that it is better to live in a society that thinks it is wrong to assault someone if you disagree with them, than to be trapped into a system that makes you feel you should support blood over decency.  I believe it is better to live in a society that condemns people who use threatening language and actions to intimidate representatives of order, than to be always finding a way to apologise for the behaviour of the thug.  In this way I disagree with Harawira and 13 year old hoodlums.

And yet here is the curious thing…

When I am the Pākehā teacher taking the abuse and the threats from the 13 year old Hika posturing and cussing in front of me but believing I am right then what am I?  Am I some foolish missionary, a desultory ancestor of the men who believed that their duty was to “save” the Māori?

Are we still playing that same endless game?

Published by


I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

4 thoughts on “Being Pākehā Now”

  1. I thought about you this morning.
    I know it’s a case of man versus child (you and the boy at camp) but, think how much angst this incident has caused you. He probably moved on long ago, happy that he nearly got to smash a “homo”.
    On this sloped playing field, I wonder what Patrick would have done differently?

  2. Cultures, like languages, are forever taking in alien ideas, often to improve their lot. All other cultures should thank European culture for the tempered scale.
    The Whine Guy is correct when he says,
    “I respect people who act against injustices but do not respect people who forever have grievances particularly when they themselves don’t attempt to make a decent contribution towards positive change and usually deliver their message via mindless aggression and violence. I like this Post.”
    Violence is something that cannot be excused in any social group.

  3. No, we are not still playing that same ‘endless game’
    People like Hone Harawira and his mother ( a much more intelligent and powerful person whom I respect and fear)would like to think so as that gives them cause.
    150 plus years of experience (and improved representation and legislation) has to mean something. I refuse to be alienated in my own country in which I was born and on both sides of my (Scottish, English and Irish) ancestry date back to the 1830’s and 1840’s. I feel that I and my family have contributed to the development of this country and am proud of it. I respect people who act against injustices but do not respect people who forever have grievances particularly when they themselves don’t attempt to make a decent contribution towards positive change and usually deliver their message via mindless aggression and violence. I like this Post.

Comments are closed.