Maori Identity Construction

Simon During

Identity construction begins to work at the level of the proper name: 'Maori' is a metonymy -- it was an adjective meaning something like 'usual' before the Pakeha arrived -- the locals having no identity as a group at all. The signifier 'Pakeha' -- by which New Zealand whites now know themselves -- is quite likely a transliteration into Maori of the English 'Bugger you' as used by early whalers and sealers. So, too, 'Aotearoa', to which great pathos new attaches (it being regarded as the 'original Maori' name for New Zealand), may once have referred only to the North Island. Furthermore, the myths which today underpin Maori identity (above and against that of individual whakapapa) were articulated in complex interrelations with Pakehas that will never be unfolded in a scholarly true story. One of the most powerful such mythemes runs like this: the Maori first arrived in Aotearoa in a fleet of seven canoes from a place called 'Hawaiki'; they displaced an earlier race of inhabitants, each living tribe being descended from one of their crews. This little narrative, whose central propositions are unhistorical but to whose elaborations Maori identity remains bound (it informs the discourse of the central character in Witi Ihimaera's novel The Matriarch, for instance), belongs neither to the Maori nor to the Pakeha. The story -- which doubles that of European arrival -- has been produced, unconsciously and over time, in exchanges and conflicts between both. To use a Derridean concept: it is counter-signed." [From "What Was the West?: Some Relations Between Modernity, Colonisation and Writing," in Sport (4: 1990): 72-73.]

Postcolonial Overview New Zealand Australia

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002