Pākehā is a Māori language term for New Zealanders who are “of European descent”. Recently, the word has been used to refer inclusively either tofair-skinned persons or any non-Māori New Zealander. Papa’a has a similar meaning in Cook Islands Māori.
Its etymology is unclear, but the term was in use by the late 18th century, and in December 1814, the Māori children at Rangihoua in the Bay Of Islands were “no less eager to see the packaha than the grown folks”. In the Māori language, plural nouns of Pākehā may include Ngā Pākehā (definite article) and He Pākehā (indefinite article). When the word was first adopted, the usual plural in English was Pakehas. However New Zealand English speakers are increasingly removing the terminal s and treating Pākehā as a collective noun.
Opinions of the term vary amongst New Zealanders. Some find it highly offensive, others are indifferent, some find it inaccurate and archaic, while some happily use the term and find the main alternatives such as “New Zealand European” inappropriate. In 2013, the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study carried out by The University of Auckland found no evidence that the word was derogatory, although only 14% of the overall respondents chose the term Pākehā with the remainder preferring New Zealander, New Zealand European or simply Kiwi.
Māori in the Bay of Islands and surrounding districts had no doubts about the meaning of the word pākehā in the 19th century. In 1831, thirteen rangatirafrom the far north of the country met at Kerikeri to compose a letter to King William IV, seeking protection from the French, “the tribe of Marion”. Written inMāori, the letter used the word pākehā to mean “British European”, and the words tau iwi to mean “strangers (non-British)” — as shown in the translation that year of the letter from Māori to English by the missionary William Yate. Māori also used other terms such as tupua (“supernatural”, “object of fear, strange being”), kehua (“ghosts”), and maitai (“metal” or referring to persons “foreign”) to refer to some of the earliest visitors.
However, The Concise Māori Dictionary (Kāretu, 1990) defines the word pākehā as “foreign, foreigner (usually applied to white person)”, while theEnglish–Māori, Māori–English Dictionary (Biggs, 1990) defines Pākehā as “white (person)”. Sometimes the term applies more widely to include all non-Māori. No Māori dictionary cites pākehā as derogatory. Some early European settlers who lived among Māori became known as Pākehā Māori.
The etymology of Pākehā is unknown, although the most likely sources are the words pākehakeha or pakepakehā, which refer to mythical human-like creatures, with fair skin and hair, sometimes described as having come from the sea. When Europeans first arrived they rowed to shore in longboats, facing backwards while rowing the boats to shore. In traditional Māori canoes or “waka”, paddlers face the direction of travel. This is supposed to have led to the belief that the sailors were supernatural beings.
In her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Encounters in the South Seas, anthropologist Anne Salmond wrote that tribal traditions held that Toiroa, a tohunga from Mahia, had predicted the coming of the Europeans. He said “ko te pakerewha”, meaning “it is the pakerewha”, red and white strangers.
There have been several dubious interpretations given to the word Pākehā by people aiming to discredit it as a term. One claims that it derives from poaka the Māori word for (pig), and keha, one of the Māori words for (flea), and therefore expresses derogatory implications. There is no etymological or linguistic support for this notion — like all Polynesian languages, Māori is generally very conservative in terms of vowels; it would be extremely unusual for ‘pā-‘ to derive from ‘poaka’. The more common Māori word for flea is puruhi. It is also sometimes claimed that ‘Pakeha’ means white pig or unwelcome white stranger. However, no part of the word signifies “pig”, “white”, “unwelcome”, or “stranger”.
Attitudes to the term
New Zealanders of European ancestry vary in their attitude toward the word “Pākehā” as applied to themselves. Some embrace it wholeheartedly as a sign of their connection to New Zealand, in contrast to the European identity of their forebears. Still others find the term as being predominantly a relational term, and as archaic as calling Māori “natives”, while also lacking any meaningful description of cultural roots. It is commonly used by a range of journalists and columnists from the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand’s largest-circulation daily newspaper. Others object to the word, some strongly, claiming it to be derogatory or to carry implications of being an outsider, this is often based on false information about the meaning of the term. Some believe being labelled as Pākehā compromises their status and their birthright links to New Zealand. A joint response code of “NZ European or Pakeha” was tried in the 1996 census, but was replaced by “New Zealand European” in later censuses because it drew what Statistics New Zealand described as a “significant adverse reaction from some respondents”. Sociologist Paul Spoonley criticised the new version, however, saying that many Pākehā would not identify as European.
The term Pākehā is also sometimes used among New Zealanders of European ancestry in distinction to the Māori term Tauiwi (foreigner), as an act of emphasising their claims of belonging to the space of New Zealand in contrast to more recent arrivals. Those who prefer to emphasise nationality rather than ethnicity in relating to others living in New Zealand may refer to all New Zealand citizens only as New Zealanders or Kiwis.
Historian Judith Binney called herself a Pākehā and said, “I think it is the most simple and practical term. It is a name given to us by Māori. It has no pejorative associations like people think it does — it’s a descriptive term. I think it’s nice to have a name the people who live here gave you, because that’s what I am.”
A survey in 2013 found no evidence that the word was used in a derogatory sense.
The point at which European settlers in New Zealand became Pākehā – or indeed New Zealanders – is subjective.
The first European settlers arrived in New Zealand in the early nineteenth century, but most were missionaries, traders and adventurers who did not intend to stay permanently. From the 1840s, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the assumption of British sovereignty, large numbers of Europeans began to settle permanently in New Zealand. Most of these settlers were from Britain, with a disproportionate number coming from Scotland. There were also numerous settlers from Ireland and Northern and Central Europe.
In the late nineteenth century there were some moves towards cultural nationalism, and many Pākehā began to see themselves as different from people living in Britain. However, there were still strong ties to the ‘mother country’ (the United Kingdom, particularly England), which were maintained well into the twentieth century. Until some point in the mid twentieth century most Pākehā considered themselves to be both British and New Zealanders. Many Pākehā intellectuals migrated to Britain in order to pursue their careers as this was not possible in New Zealand. Notable expatriate Pākehā from this period include writer Katherine Mansfield and physicist Ernest Rutherford.
Pākehā ties with Britain were drastically weakened in the decades after World War II. Quicker, cheaper international travel allowed more Pākehā to visit and live in other countries, where they saw that they were different from the British and felt the need for a stronger national identity. In 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community, cutting New Zealand off from free trade with its biggest market and leaving Pākehā feeling betrayed by the people they had thought of as their own. Meanwhile, Māori were becoming more assertive, especially about the value of their culture and their ownership over it. The Māori cultural renaissance made many Pākehā feel that they lacked a culture of their own, and from the 1970s numerous Pākehā writers and artists began to explore issues of Pākehā identity and culture. It was at this point that the word ‘Pākehā’ grew in popularity, although it remained controversial.
In general, Pākehā continue to develop identities distinct from and complementary to those of their (often) British origins and those of the other Anglosphere nation-states such as Australia, the United States, Canada and Ireland, as well as Māori. As with most other settler societies, it can be said descriptively that Pākehā contemporary culture is an amalgam of cultural practices, tensions, and accommodations: British/European with some Māori and Polynesian influences and more recently wider cultural inputs, particularly from Chinese and other Far Eastern cultures. Some have also argued that especially modern Pākehā culture is defined by “shock entry” of Britain into the European Economic Community in 1975, which “[left] the descendants of the colonisers, the Anglo-Celtic majorities, seemingly abandoned and marooned in Australia and New Zealand”.
Christianity in New Zealand, despite its foreign origins, has also been shaped by Māori through movements such as the Ratana Church and Destiny Church, as well as their involvements in churches of European origin such as the Anglican Church. Where Pākehā identity is identified, commonly NZ kitsch and symbols from marketing such as the Chesdale Cheese men are used as signifiers, and might more appropriately be called “Kiwiana”.
Michael King, a leading writer on Pākehā identity, discussed the concept of distinct Pākehā practices and imaginations in his books: Being Pākehā (1985) and Being Pākehā Now (1999), and the edited collection, Pakeha: The Quest for Identity in New Zealand (1991), conceptualising Pākehā as New Zealand’s “second indigenous” culture.
In contrast, Maori art historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki described Pākehā as “…the people who define themselves by what they are not. Who want to forget their origins, their history, their cultural inheritance — who want Maori, likewise, to deny their origins so that we can all start off afresh”