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?

Unfinished Man

When you walk down Willis Street in Wellington, from the former BNZ building to Unity Books, you come to Chews Lane.  There has been a lot of development in this area over the last few years, and a run-down street front on Willis Street has turned into a series of stores selling designer clothes for the over-paid woman.  There is a lot of plate glass with finely stitched cloth hanging from manequins.  When I was in my  twenties Chews Lane was how you got into a bar called The Carpark, a bar where someone infamously got knifed, a bar off a lane that may as well have had “mug me” graffitied on the walls.  Now it is full of cafes selling variations on the theme of coffee, and overcharging customers for a glass of wine.  I was walking down Chews Lane at lunchtime last month and found that it was filled with two kinds of men. 

The first kind of man had come out of the office blocks in a navy suit with a colleague and a cell-phone, and was confidently walking somewhere with starched white table cloths for lunch.  His shoes were very shiny and his shirts were very white.  One of these men was wearing a black, felt trilby hat.  He probably was considered the office eccentric.  I think we can also allow ourselves to imagine BWMs, SUVs, two kids in a “good” school, golf clubs, etc, gold cards, etc. 

The second kind of man, a temporary interloper, came out of the construction site in one of buildings next to Chews Lane.  He wore work boots, and dirty jeans, a hard hat and a loose singlet.  His hands seemed large and hard, and his face sun beaten and grimy.  He walked in a different way.  Less upright, a laidback, wider sort of stance.  He was slouched across a bench smoking a cigarette and grinning wolfishly at the passing ponces in their navy suits.  His mates were taking their packed lunches down to the park. I think we can allow ourselves to imagine Holdens, SUVs, kids in school, watching the game on Sky, etc, mortgages, etc.

Aside from the man slouched on the bench, neither type of man seemed to notice the other.  Probably this is for the best.  People are different from each other and it’s just better if everyone goes about their business with a minimum of interaction when they are forced together in a lane, or a shop, or a job.

Of course, on camp it’s different.  On camp you are all forced together into activities and dining halls and dorms.  The result can be messy.



Without rules you have anarchy and with too many you have a dictatorship.  The middle ground is called democracy in which nothing is ever finished.  Democracy is the best way but it is not easy because part of us wants to tear down the walls and be totally free, and the other half wants all the things (and people) that annoy us to be dealt with, regulated and punished.  Democracy attempts to do both things, and because doing these two things is impossible it always seems like it is failing.  This appearance of failure is precisely the thing that means democracy is succeeding.


As with society, so with man.  I always want to be finished with myself because it would be a release from the pressure of always finding myself in flux.  But what would I be if I finished?  Either a deluded idealist on the dole thinking I was going to be a rock star or a writer without my wife or my daughter; or man who had put away all my childish things and lived without singing songs, or feeling hurt, or being petty, but had mastered the machinery of being a well oiled cog in the large machine of a business?




I was able to save some boys on camp from the herd.  I was able to take them out of cabins where they felt bullied and alone and put them in a safe place with sympathetic souls.  Others could not be saved.  They were also hurt but their response was not only tears, it was anger and violence.  I don’t know how to save them.


One of these boys sat with us and was told where he had failed, and he had failed, and through his tears he swore at us, and held his head in his hands, and ran and hid.  He was driven home to the people who had made the problem, and hurt their kids, and had passed the circle of anger and hurt on to their children.


The other of those who could not be saved abused me (“faggot, pussy”), and told me he was going to “knock me out”, he stood up and marched at me puffing himself up and shaping to throw a punch.  I have enough anger and foolish pride in me to stand up to the beast and he didn’t throw his punch.  He wanted to.  I could feel the blow flow through the air between us and land, but it was just the dream, the imaginary hope of a blow and not the real thing.  He had another go at me later, and then punched out a window instead.


I feel like I have been disrupted.  I am tired of being responsible and mature with the irresponsible and the immature.  At school I had believed that it was useful for someone like me to be a dean.  I’m not the construction site worker, or the man in the suit, I am somewhere in between.  But somewhere in between means I’m never finished.  Tired.  I’m tired.  To be myself I will have to always appear to be failing.  The problem is that the appearance of failure and actual failure seem the same to me.