I was at a funeral the other day. At the afternoon tea following the service, a woman came up to me and said, “Do you remember who I am?” I felt the clench of incipient panic. I thought I knew her name, but what if I was mistaking her for someone else? I frantically searched my memory. “Raewyn?” I ventured, without much conviction. She beamed—a generous response, I thought, given my hesitation. To be forgotten is tragic, to be remembered is bliss.
Names enshrine identity, and are cherished— or changed—for that reason. I know several people who have taken new names in order to distance themselves from one perceived identity, and its negative associations, in order to construct another.
Identity is a central human concern. Jesus asked his disciples; “Who do people say that I am?” Confucius observed that “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names”. When I was a student of taxonomy, I understood that the value of my research (and the conferral of a degree) rested on the quality of my naming of the creatures I studied.
Names were on my mind when I visited kaumatua Nuki Aldridge as I roamed Whangaroa Harbour in the Far North earlier this year. I had been wondering if there was a name that could be used fairly, accurately and without prejudice for all the people who identify as belonging to this country—to Aotearoa, to New Zealand. Was there a word that could overcome the limitations of existing names?
“New Zealander”, while practical, feels inadequate. A name bestowed through happenstance, it doesn’t give adequate recognition to the indigenous people. “Aotearoan?” Too hard to say, with its six syllables; I can’t see it catching on.
“How about Kiwi?” I asked Aldridge. He said that, especially for people his age, using that word for people was offensive. “The biggest insult you can put on a tangata Māori is to call him something you can eat,” he said. “It’s a hell of an insult. It means you can eat me.”
Aldridge has given a lot of thought to names and identity—including the naming of his own people. “We’ve been led down the path of being called Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, New Zealanders, Māori and now Kiwi,” he said. “We’re not any of those, if you come down to a real identity.”
Even Māori? Even Māori, a word traditionally applied to objects (denoting common, normal, ordinary, local), repurposed in the term “tangata Māori” to distinguish locals from foreign visitors. (The “tangata” part was eventually dropped, leaving “Māori” as the default term for the indigenous people.)
“Who are you then, if not Māori?” I asked.
“What word do you always hear in our korero going back to the beginnings of time?” Aldridge replied. “Let me give you a hint: Hawaiki nui, Hawaiki roa, Hawaiki pamamao. [Great Hawaiki, long Hawaiki, far-distant Hawaiki.] We’re Hawaikians.”
This made sense. Where do the souls of the tangata whenua go on death? Home to Hawaiki, as if completing a migratory circle—one that began in ancient times and is completed by each individual, if they care to believe it.
Waitangi Wood joined the conversation, adding that for tangata whenua it is hapu that is the primary marker of identity, not a pan-iwi term like “Māori”.
“In the first instance, I’m not Māori,” she said. “I can choose from my whakapapa who I want to be. In most instances I’m Ngāti Rua. That’s who I am.”
“And who am I,” I asked, “if I choose the path of wanting to become native to this land?”
“If you want to state a connection to the land—ko au ko te whenua, ko te whenua ko au [I am the land and the land is me]—then you should be proud to call yourself Pākehā, because the only place where Pākehā exist is in this country,” Aldridge said.
I suspect that, like many people, I’ve inherited a vague distaste for “Pākehā”, based on hearsay comments about its being derogatory. Aldridge’s remarks caused me to reconsider. By calling myself Pākehā—a word from indigenous tradition—I affirm a relationship with that tradition. And this, Wood said, is the crux of the matter: “The real question is: who are you in relation to us? If you’re going to acknowledge who you are, then first acknowledge who we are.”
The upshot? Perhaps it’s a mistake to try to find a name for both Māori and Pākehā—all of us lumped together. Perhaps the very impulse to do that subtly denigrates the indigenous people, undermining their status as first-comers. It has often seemed to me that Hobson’s famous remark to chiefs at the initial signing of the Treaty of Waitangi—”We are now one people”—gave a foretaste of the colonial intent to amalgamate and subsume tangata whenua into a new national entity, premised on Britishness.
I recognise a desire to backtrack from that homogenising agenda and to seek a more appropriate relationship. Getting the names right is part of that process. Embracing “Pākehā” connects us later arrivals to the people who bestowed that name, and to the land that connects us all.
This post was first published under the headline “Don’t call me Kiwi” as the “On Reflection” column in the just-released September–October 2015 issue of New Zealand Geographic.