by Jodie Ranford


"Families, like trees, grow and develop with their surroundings. Seeds are blown by the wind and new trees are born elsewhere. Roots sink into the ground from which the new tree draws life. Children, like branches, stretch out. Families and trees have similar destinies" (Mirella Ricciardi African Saga, cited in King, 1985, p8)

This paper discusses the origins and range of meanings attributed to the term ‘Pakeha’, and outlines my own perspective on the term. There are no definitive oral or written records about the exact origins of the term ‘Pakeha’ and despite some beliefs about it meaning ‘White Pig’ or ‘Bugger Ya’, the term Pakeha is probably not the insult that some believe is the case. Many New Zealanders appear to dislike the term which refers to a New Zealander of caucasian descent, believing it to have negative connotations. However, there are also many who are not entirely sure of its exact meaning or origins. The purpose of this paper is to explore the various definitions and discuss deeper issues concerning ethnic identity that are involved in the concept of ‘Pakeha’ in today’s society.

Before exploring the term ‘Pakeha’ it is important to define the term ‘Maori’. Defining ‘Maori’ allows for a reference point when discussing Pakeha, its origins and meaning in today’s society. In 1960, The Fern and the Tiki (Ausubel, 1960, glossary) defined Maori as "the indigenous Polynesian inhabitant of New Zealand". However, until about 1885 ‘Maori’ was still being defined as "usual or ordinary. The Maori used the word to describe themselves, as opposed to the ‘different’, European settlers, during the nineteenth century, and the Europeans in turn adopted it. Before the time of the arrival of Europeans, Maori had no name for themselves as a nation, only a number of tribal names" (Department of Labour, 1985). King (1985, p12) defines ‘Maori’ as a derivative "from ‘tangata maori’ meaning ordinary people" referring to the "descendants of the country’s first Polynesian immigrants". He writes that the term ‘Maori’ relates closely to "‘tangata whenua’: people of the land; but with connotations of ‘those who were here first’ and ‘host people" (King, 1985, p109).

Furthermore, the English – Maori: Maori English Dictionary (Briggs, 1990) defines ‘Maori’ as "native, indigenous, ordinary". Kiwi Words and Phrases (Campbell, 1999) defines ‘Maori’ as "indigenous people of New Zealand". According to a contemporary Maori kaumatua Ross Himona, ’Maori’ itself is not the primary term we (the Maori) use to describe ourselves (the Maori). We were, and are, a tribal peoples, we describe ourselves according to our tribal membership, rather than as a Maori. I am Maori only in relation to Pakeha. Maori means ‘normal’, i.e. in relation to Pakeha, I am Maori. These definitions indicate that ‘Maori’ was adopted initially to enable a linguistic differentiation between the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa and the early European settlers, the Maori and the other. The definition of ‘Maori’ does not appear to have changed over time. However, the definition of the other, or ‘Pakeha’ has altered to some extent.

Pakeha is "in common usage, but many have difficulty in defining its meaning. From early records it is clear that the term was used in New Zealand before 1815 to mean ‘white person’. Initially a Pakeha was that person who came from England, and settled or worked in New Zealand. With time, Pakeha was the fair-skinned person who was born in New Zealand. Later the term was even more general. It was applied to all fair-skinned people in New Zealand, no matter what their ancestry or place of birth" (Department of Labour, 1985). By 1960, Pakeha was defined as "a person in New Zealand of predominantly European Ancestry" (Ausubel, 1960). The English – Maori: Maori – English Dictionary (Briggs, 1990) defines Pakeha as "white (person)". Kiwi Words and Phrases (Campbell, 1999) defines Pakeha as a "non-Maori person". Mary-Ellen O’Connor (1990) defines Pakeha as "the dominant white race in New Zealand. This would cover anybody of Anglo-Celtic origin (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) and, as the integrated, Northern Europeans (Scandinavians, Germans, and Dutch), white Americans, Canadians and South Africans".

By 1985 a significant development occurs with the definition when King (1985, p12) defines Pakeha as "denoting non-Maori New Zealanders". There is nothing in the definition referring to colour. It is merely all those people who are of non-Maori descent. King’s definition of Pakeha is given weight when we define the term Maori as ‘normal’, that is to say that, in relation to Pakeha, I am Maori. It is merely a means by which the peoples of Aotearoa differentiate between the indigenous peoples and the early European Settlers, or the Maori and the other, irrelevant of race, colour, ethnicity, and culture.

There appears to be two emerging uses of the term. One approach continues the references to those with white skin colour while the more inclusive refers to all those who are non-Maori appears to be gaining currency. My own definition of ‘Pakeha’ is influenced by Ross Himona’s definition. Himona states that linguistically it just means a New Zealander of non-Maori and non-Polynesian heritage without any connotations". He considers that ‘Pakeha’ "is most used to describe white non-Maori, as they were the original colonists, but it can apply equally to Asian, etc. This definition of ‘Pakeha’ is the most expansive that I have found. It gives the term Pakeha a more inclusive and less pejorative tone.

The term ‘Pakeha’ is sometimes understood to mean ‘long pig’ and ‘white pig’. However this is not the case. Many early missionaries and government officials spoke Maori reasonably well using ‘Pakeha’ to describe themselves. Given the politics of the 1860s it is unlikely that such Pakeha would have used the word themselves in a derogatory sense (George, 1999).

It has also been argued that the term ‘Pakeha’ is derived from ‘Pa –Kea’, a long nosed bird that was often found in the pa. If this is compounded from indigenous Maori words then any attempt to analyse it must take into account Maori grammar and phonology. Pa-Kea fails on both criteria. Pa-Kea, pronounced Paa-Kea, has only one of the long vowels found in Pakeha, pronounced Paakehaa. (Biggs, 1988).

In 1894 Hoani Nahe suggested that ‘Pakeha’ could be an abbreviation of ‘Paakehakeha’, gods of the ocean who had the forms of fish and man (Biggs, 1988). It is said that Nahe’s version was in response to Bishop W.L. Williams’ comment that ‘Pakeha’ seemed to be an abbreviation of Pakepakeha. This theory is supported firstly by the idea that white people, like the Paakehakeha, came from the sea, and secondly because the word ‘Paakehakeha’ contains a reduplication of the maori word ‘keha’ meaning ‘pale’ (The word ‘pakeha’: where it comes from, what it means, 1988). However, Paakehakeha, like Pa-Kea, has only one of the long vowels that can be found in ‘Pakeha’, pronounced Paakehaa. The most likely derivation seems to be from ‘Pakepakeha’ (George, 1999) mythical creatures who are mischievous, human-like beings, with fair skin and hair who lived deep in the forest, coming out only at night. (Biggs, 1988). The derivation of ‘Pakeha’ from ‘Pakepakeha’ is given added weight when we consider that the first term used to describe Cook and his crew was ‘tipua’ or ‘tupua’, a goblin or a supernatural object of terror (George, 1999).

The ‘Pakepakeha’ are also linked to ‘Patupaiarehe’ by their fair skin and hair. The ‘Patupaiarehe’ had fair skin and beautiful voices, and gave people the secret of fishing with nets. These creatures’ possess canoes made of reeds, which can change magically into sailing vessels. The ‘Patupaiarehe’ can also be linked to Nahe’s version of Pakeha as an abbreviation of ‘Paakehakeha’, gods of the ocean who had the forms of fish and man (Biggs, 1988).

The origins of the term ‘Pakeha’ are as unclear as its meaning. I have been unable to find records, either written or oral, that can tell us. This places the responsibility on individuals to draw conclusions and discover their own beliefs about the origins of the word ‘Pakeha’.

I accept the derivation of ‘Pakeha’ from ‘Pakepakeha’ because it establishes a clear whakapapa, or genealogy of the term ‘Pakeha’.


Gods of the ocean who had the forms of fish and man


Beings with fair skin and hair who gave people the secret of fishing with nets


Mythical, human like being, with fair skin and hair who possessed canoes made of reeds which changed magically into sailing vessels


Originally referring to the early European settlers of New Zealand

These clear linkages give a poetic truth to the term ‘Pakeha’, each version associating ‘Pakeha’ with the ocean, which is how immigrants have arrived in Aotearoa from Cook’s first voyage to present day.

The term ‘Pakeha’ and its changes through time enables us to form an opinion about whether or not the Pakeha people are an ethnicity. Is any non-Maori person currently in New Zealand a Pakeha? If ethnic identification rests with the individual, it is a fluid concept and means that an individual can identify him or herself with an ethnic group of his or her own choosing. This involves self-classification. An example of this might be that I am really Pakeha but choose to be identified as a Maori, or Maori but decide to present myself as Pakeha. I alone decide what I am (George, 1999). However, if ethnicity is self-classifying then can Pakeha really be an ethnic label? If you are born a Pakeha do you not remain a Pakeha regardless of what you would like to be called?

What is ethnicity? The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Sykes, 1982) defines ethnicity as ‘n.; of a specified racial, linguistic, etc., group’. An ethnic group is described in broad terms in Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities (Department of Labour, 1985) as ‘people who are aware that they share a common ancestry, culture and history and who maintain their cultural identity’. This definition complicates the notion that ethnicity is self-attributable. Can Pakeha, that is any person of non-Maori or non-Polynesian heritage, really be called an ethnicity? The term would then include a person of Asian heritage, and a person of Greek heritage, and so on. These two people do not share a common ancestry, nor culture, nor history. They are separate and unique and have different ethnicities.

It is therefore my belief that the term ‘Pakeha’ does not identify an ethnic group. Both ‘Pakeha’ and ‘Maori’ terms instead offer us a way to differentiate between the historical origins of our settlers, the Polynesian and European. "In the beginning we were all immigrants to these islands, our ancestors boat people who arrived by waka, ship or aeroplane. The ingredients of our indigenous cultures too were imported: the East Polynesian language that became Maori, and English; Papatuanuku, and the Bible; Maui and Tane Mahuta, Robin Hood and Horatio Nelson; the kumara and the kiwifruit . . . An understanding of our respective origins is the beginning of our present selves" (King, 1999, p11). Is it not true that we "become indigenous to New Zealand at the point where our focus of identity and commitment shifts to New Zealand, and away from our countries and cultures of origin" (King, 1999, p235). It is certainly true that in a country that has been inhabited for little more than one thousand years everyone is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.


In conclusion, this paper has examined the meaning of ‘Pakeha’ in today’s society. Through this research and discussion I have been able to come to my own understanding and perspective on the term ‘Pakeha’. The term itself is derived from ‘Pakepakeha’, a mythical human-like being with fair skin and hair. Originally the Pakeha were the early European settlers, however, today ‘Pakeha’ is used to describe any peoples of non-Maori or non-Polynesian heritage. Pakeha is not an ethnicity but rather a way to differentiate between the historical origins of our settlers, the Polynesians and the Europeans, the Maori and the other.

"We have to remember that we are all citizens of Aotearoa, we have no other home, no other turangawaewae" (King, 1985, p177).



Ausubel, D. (1960). The Fern and the Tiki – An American View of New Zealand National Character, Social Attitudes, and Race Relations. London:Angus & Robertson (Publishers) Ltd.

Bohan, E. (1997). New Zealand – The story so far : A short history. Auckland:Harper Collins Publishers New Zealand Ltd.

Briggs, B. (1990). English – Maori : Maori – English Dictionary. Auckland :University Press.

Professor Biggs. (1988). The word ‘pakeha’ : where it comes from, what it means. Te Iwi O Aotearoa.

King, M. (1985). Being Pakeha. Auckland:Hoder & Stoughton Ltd.

King, M. (1999). Being Pakeha Now. Auckland:Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd.

O’Connor, M. (1990). An Immigrant Nation. Heinman Education [Social Studies].

Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities – What words should I use?, (IM6/P231/6000/1985), Immigration Division Department of Labour, Prepared by the Resettlement Unit for the Interdepartmental Committee on Resettlement.

Sykes, J. (Ed). (1982). The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Great Britain: University Press.

Himona, R. (24 September 1999), The Journey to Aotearoa, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/rhimona/maoriara.html

Campbell, LA &HA. (24 September 1999), Kiwi Words and Phrases, http://www.chemistry.co.nz/kiwi.htm

George, (25 September 199),What does "Pakeha" mean?, http://www.jgeorge.com/pakeha.html

The Maori – Lonely Planet – Maori, (24 September 1999), http://www.lonelyplanet.com.au/dest/aust/maori.htm

Himona, R. (1999), Personal communication.


I would like to acknowledge the help and information received from Ross Himona while researching this topic area.



Jodie Ranford is a primary graduate student at the Auckland College of Education. This topic gained her interest during a lecture at the College in which students appeared to be unsure as to who New Zealand’s Pakeha were and are today.