Identity Within Māori Nationalism

Written by: Lila Ovington/Edited by: Ewa Bialoglowska

Lila is a third year BA International Relations student interested in theories of settler colonialism, cultural genocide and First Nations identities.

The indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand have fought for self-determination ever since the first substantial wave of European settlers arrived in the early 19th century. Compared to other states such as Australia, they have encountered considerable success. One of the core dynamics of any nationalist movement, however, is the identity that unites people, and identity within Māori nationalism has always held a certain ambiguity.

Central to this issue is the fact that Māori have not traditionally formed a single homogenous group. As did the First Nations of Canada, the United States and Australia, prior to settler arrival the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand lived in numerous distinct groupings. There were different levels of social organisation; people lived within a hapū, and different hapū would form an iwi. Iwi and hapū throughout the lands were characterised by different histories, cultures and forms of political organisation, and thus separate identities.

One of the most significant consequences of European settlement was the reconfiguration of this Self/Other identity. Prior to this, the Self was an iwi or a hapū and the Other was another iwi or hapū. In the aftermath of settlement, however, all iwi were fused into an ambiguous ‘Māori’ Self, whilst the Other became the Pākehā (populace of European descent). The evolution of Māori nationalism over time suggests that this shift in identity was not simply an instinctive reaction in which those who are different unite in opposition to those who are even more different, but rather was a movement deemed necessary for indigenous peoples to preserve their lands and livelihoods.

The earliest manifestations of a broader Māori nationalism in the modern sense of the term emerged in reaction to the dispossession of Māori land following Pākehā settlement. These were inter-tribal efforts, not as a single group but as multiple groups working together. First came the establishment of the Kīngitanga (Māori King Movement) and the instatement of the Māori King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, in 1858. This was followed by the creation of the Kotahitanga (Māori Parliament) in 1892.

These institutions were not natural nor inevitable, in fact they were fundamentally antithetical to the tribal dynamics of Aotearoa New Zealand. Indeed, they soon collapsed, largely due to inter-tribal rivalry and dissent. Rather than intuitive manifestations of nationalist sentiment as Eurocentrically conceived, they appear more to have been pragmatic attempts to appeal to themes familiar to European settlers, such as monarchy and national-level democracy, in order to legitimise their sovereignty and prevent further oppression and violence.

Different forces of Māori nationalism would come and go over the following decades, as the state consistently attempted to impose Western notions of citizenship upon Māori peoples within Aotearoa New Zealand that were incompatible with their own feelings of belonging. The 1967 Maori Affairs Amendment Act, for example, was an attack on Māori attachment to land. It would not be until the 1960s onwards that any significant changes would take place, as the state began to truly acknowledge Māori self-determination as a force that predates European settlement, and new trends emerged within Māori (and, to a certain extent, Pākehā) nationalisms.

The prevailing force within Māori nationalism from the 1960s to the 1980s was Māoritanga. This was a new, modern group identity built upon the idea of a pan-tribal nation-state. The idea of pan-tribalism was distinct from the inter-tribalism that had failed to create unity in the Kīngitanga and the Kotahitanga. Yet it too could not avoid the conflicting identity dynamics that had existed ever since notions of Self and Other were first reconfigurated in the 19th century. Whilst unity amongst Māori peoples does exist, often quite strongly so, the issue raised by many indigenous peoples when rejecting Māoritanga was the homogenisation of identity in an inherently heterogeneous grouping. As put by Tūhoe leader John Rangihau:

“My being Māori is absolutely dependent on my history as a Tūhoe person as against being a Māori person. It seems to me there is no such thing as Māoritanga because Māoritanga is an all-inclusive term which embraces all Māori.”[1]

Rangihau’s rejection of being identified simply as ‘Māori’ suggests that the issue inherent in Māoritanga was its erasure of identity within, and points to the incompatibility of Western-modelled nationalist movements being transposed onto non-Western peoples. This is not to dispute that people may have multiple identity alliances, nor can the identity of every indigenous person of Aotearoa New Zealand be assumed and generalised. There does appear to be, however, as reinforced by the demise of Māoritanga and the revival of tribal dynamics within Māori nationalism in the 1980s, a pattern that has emerged. One may identify most strongly with their iwi or hapū, but feel secondary belonging to a broader pan-Māori grouping – specifically when positioned within a Pākehā-dominated social-political setting, where the campaign for Indigenous self-governance would most likely be understood best by the Other in Māori rather than specific iwi terms. Amongst other Māori, however, an indigenous person may be more likely to accentuate their iwi distinctions. The notion of such identity dynamics is supported by the fact that, by and large, Māori nationalism has not campaigned for secession. Instead, it has attempted to create a nation which is separate to the Pākehā nation-state but exists within it. The concept of a nation within a nation is a seemingly paradoxical one, but so would a state-centred secessionist movement be contradictory to fundamental elements of Indigenous culture, identity, and traditions of group organisation, and would lack a united Māori identity.

Following the revival of tribal dynamics and increased calls for self-determination in the 1980s, the second direction in which nationalism headed was biculturalism. This political ideology came into full force with the Treaty of Waitangi land settlement claim process of the 1980s, intended to make amends for violations of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Māori and Pākehā, and has framed state policies until this day. In a bicultural state, Māori and Pākehā were to be equal, both theoretically and practically. Yet in reality, Pākehā seem to have continued to benefit most on both levels. Like in most other post-colonial white-majority states, indigenous peoples of New Zealand are disproportionately affected by socio-economic problems such as poverty, crime, infant mortality, substance abuse, and more – a principal reason for this being the dispossession of Māori land and destruction of Māori livelihood. In more symbolic terms, biculturalism places Pākehā on equal footing to Māori as one of the two ‘founding peoples’ of the state, for which the Treaty of Waitangi may serve as a form of social contract.[2] This functions to cover up the fragility of Pākehā identity that has been reinforced by Māori nationalism itself and the politicisation of indigeneity.

Aotearoa New Zealand is an inherently insecure nation-state as the Pākehā majority cannot make a normative claim of sedentarism or territoriality, which are core tenets of most modern nationalisms. The development of biculturalism thus further emphasises the role of appealing to Pākehā interests in Māori nationalist initiatives if they wish to be legitimated by the state. The co-existence of biculturalism, that defined Māori as one of two peoples, and the renewed tribal dynamics within 1980s Māori nationalism, may be seen to epitomise the distinct identity alliances of personhood versus political purpose.

Conceptions of identity within Māori nationalism have often shifted over time. Tribal nations formed inter-tribal movements after European settlement, became pan-tribal in search of unity, and joined a bicultural settlement in the hope for equality. All these efforts combined, and the tensions that have accompanied them, reinforce one central idea. Māori nationalism, in the form it has taken over the past centuries, does not represent a primordial desire for a nation-state in the way that many European nations have claimed for themselves. Rather, it has been a pragmatic effort to achieve sovereignty and self-governance through the Eurocentric sphere of nationalism most likely to be deemed legitimate and accepted by the West.


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Bell, Avil. “Bifurcation or Entanglement? Settler Identity and Biculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand.” Continuum 20, no. 2 (2006): 253-268.

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Rangihau, John. “Being Maori.” In Te Ao Hurihuri: Aspects of Maoritanga¸ edited by Michael King, 193-190. Auckland: Reed Publishing Group, 1992.

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[1] John Rangihau, “Being Maori,” in Te Ao Hurihuri: Aspects of Maoritanga¸ ed. Michael King (Auckland: Reed Publishing Group, 1992): 190.

[2] Avil Bell, “Bifurcation or Entanglement? Settler Identity and Biculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand,” Continuum 20, no. 2 (2006): 257.


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