Kia Ora – The Essence of Nationhood

Written by: Tanya Paul/ Edited by: Jake Dickson

‘Kia Ora’—a traditional Māori phrase of welcome—symbolises more than a simple hello. Meaning the essence of life, ‘Kia Ora’ also epitomises New Zealand’s national identity struggle. Greeting telephone callers with ‘Kia Ora’, Rangimarie Naida Glavish had not intended revolution. And yet, the mere use of this traditional greeting was met with antagonism, resulting in her demotion. 

“I was being told that I was to disregard my language, my upbringing, my heart and soul,” she said at a time in New Zealand where the only official language was English—not Te Reo Māori

The ‘Kia Ora’ Controversy in 1984 sparked outrage, as Māori protests erupted across the country—forcing the then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to personally reinstate Glavish’s position. Three years later, Te Reo Māori was finally acknowledged as part of New Zealand’s national heritage and identity. Today, ‘Kia Ora’ is the first greeting any passenger stepping aboard Air New Zealand will hear—a tangible representation of just how far New Zealand has come. 

Playing out against the backdrop of a much larger scene, the fight for ‘Kia Ora’ and for the Māori language, Te Reo Māori, has charted the evolution of New Zealand’s national identity and nationhood. Marred by tension, the journey towards a unified New Zealand identity has been hindered by the complex Māori-European relations that has coloured New Zealand life following the annexation of the island in 1840. With the settlement of white British citizens, or Pakeha as they are known, came the establishment of a state—one where the Māori identity was increasingly displaced by a white-settler nationalist core. 

Emerging as a modern state, New Zealand has since shed its white-settler colonial roots and has been able to nurture biculturalism by reconciling its Pakeha and Māori identities. Providing a historical context within which to regard Māori-Pakeha race relations, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi has undoubtedly shaped New Zealand’s path to nationhood. This Treaty has loomed large over New Zealand’s mythos—a seminal event that has laid the foundation for the state of New Zealand. Today, Waitangi Day symbolises New Zealand’s progressive steps towards a unified national identity. 

Honouring the Treaty of Waitangi

Celebrating the 179th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi  - Waitangi

February the 6th 1840 marked the founding of the New Zealand state as around 540 Māori Chiefs, or rangatira, and a representative of the Crown, Governor William Hobson, signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Affirming Māori authority over land, peoples, and possessions, the Treaty conferred on the Māori “all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects” (Treaty of Waitangi 1840, 3). Granting the Māori full British citizenship, the Treaty thus extended the protection of the British Empire. The influx of white-settlers necessitated the institution of state policies that focused on protecting Māori land rights. This rapid settlement of New Zealand in addition to the ensuing foreign diseases ensured that within 30 years the Māori communities had been decimated to less than one tenth of the national population. 

As the desire for a white-settler nation grew and a pressing need for land arose, New Zealand’s engagement with the Māori communities became undeniably complex. Laws such as the Native Land Purchase Ordinance Act of 1846 and the Native Lands Act of 1862 confiscated Māori land and forced the detribalisation of the Māori by integrating them into the British “social and political system” (Taonui 2012). In spite of these attempts to invalidate Māori rights, the Treaty stood as a challenge to white-settler supremacy—creating, within the state, a constitutional obligation towards the protection of Māori rights. The dual political pressures of balancing the Pakeha national identity and the promises made in the Treaty gave birth to conflicting state policies. On one hand, laws such as the 1865 Native Land Act worked to dispossess Māori of their land ownership while on the other, the 1867 Māori Representation Act was instituted to increase Māori political representation. However, for more than a century after signing the Treaty, Māori culture was disenfranchised as the New Zealand national identity meant Pakeha. 

Emboldened by the wave of global indigenous and liberation movements, a Māori renaissance emerged in the 1970s. The Treaty of Waitangi once more became the focal point. Re-examining the Pakeha-Māori race-relations, the renaissance movement called for a shift to biculturalism. In 1975, the establishment of the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal was a radical step in that direction. 

The longest surviving truth and reconciliation project in the world, the Tribunal has worked to honour the principles of the Treaty by legitimising Māori ownership of land, language, and authority. Processing both historical and contemporary claims, the Tribunal sits at the epicentre of a framework of biculturalism in New Zealand—an integral institution in the path towards Māori-Pakeha unity. By viewing the Māori language as a “treasure”, the Tribunal was able to protect Te Reo Māori and as such, on the 20th of July 1987, Te Reo Māori was given official status as a language of New Zealand. 

The Treaty of Waitangi, thus, paved the way for the creation of a bicultural national identity by providing a legal, historical precedent for race relations between Māori and Pakeha. Immortalised as a foundational moment in the national mythos, the Treaty of Waitangi is honoured every year by the Waitangi Day—holding symbolic force in the national imagination. 

The Road Ahead

‘Kia Ora’ once more swept onto the political scene—as Monet-Mei Clark, a seventeen year old who worked at a yogurt shop in 2014, quit. Banned from greeting KiwiYo customers with ‘Kia Ora’, Monet-Mei Clarke became the face of the modern Māori protest movement. 

Protesters came from as far away as Auckland to support Monet-Mei Clarke (front). Photo / Michael Cunningham

In the midst of this political turmoil, the Tribunal’s landmark inquiry overturned New Zealand’s national space—leading to one of the greatest debates in the history of New Zealand. Once more, the Treaty of Waitangi was at the heart of it. The inquiry highlighted a gap in understanding between the English version of the Treaty and the Māori version, Te Tiriti o Waitangi—painting the Treaty instead as an agreement borne of a colonialist mindset of control. 

“It is clear that at no stage, however, did the rangatira who signed te Tiriti in February 1840 surrender ultimate authority to the British” (Waitangi Tribunal Report 2014, xxii). 

This one statement shook the foundations upon which New Zealand’s bicultural national identity was built. Since its agreement, the Treaty provided New Zealand one truth—the equal partnership between the Māori and Pakeha communities. But the Tribunal’s inquiry uncovered serious differences between the Treaty and Te Tiriti, concluding that the intentions of Britain were misrepresented to the 500 rangatira who signed Te Tiriti. The Tribunal determined that the Māori Chiefs agreed to a relationship whereby “Britain would protect their independence, not that they would relinquish their sovereignty” (ibid). 

For the Māori movement, both the ‘Kia Ora’ incident and the Tribunal inquiry were evidence that the promises of the Treaty were incomplete. Instead of a New Zealand identity constituted on the basis of two equal Treaty partners, many in the Māori communities argued that a “nominal biculturalism” had pervaded New Zealand’s nationhood (Kukutai and Rata 2017, 31). For them, the New Zealand national identity was still fundamentally geared towards a Pakeha one. 


The Treaty of Waitangi has stood as a living document—a Treaty that has shaped the direction of New Zealand and its citizens. From its inception, the Treaty has been the source of rights for all New Zealanders—granting the rangatira and the Crown the right to a partnership based on equal status and identity. While the Treaty bound the state in constitutional obligations for the protection of Māori rights, as settlement increased New Zealand rooted itself in a white-settler nationalist core.

Much has changed since then. Gone are the repressive laws that furthered the belief in European racial supremacy. For the last 60 years, New Zealand has worked to overturn the predominance of Pakeha on the New Zealand national identity. Yet, something has gone wrong. Just as Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish did in 1984, it took a seventeen year-old Monet-Mei Clark to once more bring the Māori-Pakeha tension at the heart of New Zealand’s national identity to light. 

The landmark Tribunal inquiry in 2014 revealed that while the Māori Te Tiriti was based on an agreement of shared authority, the English version stated that the Crown would obtain the sole legal right to all Māori and Pakeha citizens of New Zealand. The subsequent Māori movement unveiled a persistent issue—the Pakeha identity has governed the New Zealand national one, devaluing the role of Māori culture and peoples. 

To fulfil the spirit of the Treaty, “We are now one people”, New Zealand must look towards elevating Māori as an equal partner. It is imperative. It is essential. It is critical. The story of ‘Kia Ora’ is one of change—a symbol of how far New Zealand has come, but also how much further it has to go. 

Word Count: 1476


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  1. Kukutai, Tahu, and Arama Rata. 2017. “From Mainstream To Manaaki: Indigenising Our Approach To Immigration”. In Fair Borders? Migration Policy In The Twenty-First Century, 26–44. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.
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