top of page
  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

New Zealand - respect, heart, & willingness to tackle the hard questions raised by multiculturalism

Updated: May 27, 2023

A Maori woman dancing with poi balls
Unedited photo by Honet at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

We just completed our fourth trip to Aotearoa New Zealand, and every time we visit we learn more about this vibrant island nation. Everyone we speak to seems to recognize that all over the world, people are trying to figure out how to fashion a life where no one culture dominates the others. Even as Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations are crowning their first new monarch in 70 years, it is clearer than ever that the only way forward for Britain, and the world, is through respect and recognition of the multiple cultures that make up this planet. In the United States, where we are from, our culture is trying to reckon with its own history of slavery, racism, and ethnic discrimination - but in my opinion, we're not very good at having that conversation. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the indigenous Māori residents suffered from overt discrimination for much of the 20th century. We admire the forthright manner in which Aotearoa New Zealand, as a country, has chosen to acknowledge its past and forge a future multicultural society encompassing respect for the multiple cultures that make up its modern-day society. But even in a society where by and large its citizens have big hearts, operate in good faith, and exhibit a willingness to make multicultural society equal and respectful, it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. If the 1960s were characterized by a fight for equality across many parts of the world, our current time can be characterized as a conversation about what true equal, respectful multiculturalism looks like. It turns out to be harder than some of us thought.

Western European sailors began exploring Aotearoa New Zealand in the 17th century, but it wasn't until 1840 that Great Britain, under the rule of Queen Victoria, signed a treaty with more than 500 Māori rangatira (chiefs). The actual terms of the treaty were fairly simple, but their meaning was incredibly complex. (You can read the English terms of the treaty here). What the British understood the English words to mean, and various Māori iwi (tribes) understood the te reo ( Māori language) words to mean were not necessarily the same thing (the treaty was hand-written multiple times with one English version and other te reo Māori versions that were slightly different from each other). In the 1960s the courts began enforcing the treaty, and Māori iwi began making claims for land based on breaches of the treaty by the Crown (the government). Although many of those claims have been settled, some are still ongoing. In some locations, there are complicated relationships between different Māori iwi over land and custom. It is widely understood that many Māori iwi got back valuable land and resources from these settlements, but not as many of those resources as were taken from them. Because the land was developed by non-Māori (arguably making the land more valuable, but also encroaching on how the Māori people might have wanted the land in a more natural state), it becomes difficult to parse the justice of these circumstances. From what I can tell, some Kiwis (a general term for all residents of Aotearoa New Zealand) we have spoken to think the Māori people have become greatly enriched, in material terms, from these settlements, while others think the settlements are quite insufficient. Remedying undeniable wrongs is not easy.

Almost immediately from 1840, immigrants from England, Ireland and Western Europe began to settle in Aotearoa New Zealand, bringing a language (English, primarily) and customs of their own. These descendants of European settlers are generally referred to as Pākehā (European, or "white" in the te reo Māori) by everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand. Māori were often punished if they spoke te reo and practiced their customs, and the language almost disappeared. However, the late 1970s saw a resurgence of the language and a renewed display of ti kanga Māori (the way Māori customs are conducted). In 1987, te reo Māori became one of 3 official languages of Aotearoa New Zealand (the other 2 being English and New Zealand sign language). Since then, people in Aotearoa New Zealand have increasingly used Māori place names, including the Māori designation of the country (Aotearoa) alongside the English names. So when we visited in 2023, government signs, public transit, newscasters and others routinely referred to places with both Māori and English names. Even though the official name of the country is "New Zealand", we more often heard it referred to as "Aotearoa New Zealand." Likewise, city names (e.g., Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland), city landmarks and streets were referenced in both languages. Many Māori words have made their way into ordinary parlance. The most common greeting, for example, is "kia ora" which is a Māori phrase that means "be well", "hello", "goodbye" and other, positive meanings, much like the word "Aloha" in Hawaii or "Bula" in Fiji. In addition to the two main cultures, many immigrants from Pacific Islands have also come to Aotearoa New Zealand, and an increasing number of Asians have immigrated there. (Chinese, Thai, Indian, and others).

People who live in Aotearoa New Zealand are proud of their multicultural heritage. When the Pātea Māori Club released its hit single, "Poi E", in 1984, the song shot to number 1 almost overnight. It also became well known overseas, especially in England. I just met someone in Suva, Fiji, who told me she knew the song and learned how to spin the poi balls in school. A Kiwi friend also learned to spin the poi balls in school. Written by Māori linguist Ngoi Pewhairangi and scored by Māori musician Dalvanius Prime, the song was performed by Prime's iwi in Pātea. The song became an emblem of Aotearoa New Zealand, and was described to me by both Māori and Pākehā as "the unofficial national anthem." The song is a source of pride for all Kiwis, but especially Māori. If you watch the music video, you cannot help but be caught up in the joy, pride and exuberance of the performers - from small children to older adults and everyone in between. The song meshed hip-hop (new at the time) with tradition, and was performed entirely in te reo Māori, according to traditional costumes and customs. It featured women doing the poi dance, which is as much a female expression of love as the haka is a male expression of war. The video was a breakout moment of culture and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand, and representative of a more equal presence of Māori culture in the mainstream. The famous director, Taika Waititi, who included the song in his movie "Boy", said about the song:

I probably heard about it long before I heard it. But when I did I was hooked. Seeing Māori on TV was pretty rare so it wasn't until I saw the music video that I realised how huge and amazing it was. It's the quintessential New Zealand song. ...

– Boy director Taika Waititi on seeing Poi E while growing up,

Since then, Kiwis have worked toward developing true multicultural respect. When we visited in early 2023, a lot of people were talking about a concept called "co-governance." While the concept means slightly different things to different people, the basic idea seems to be that because Māori and Pākehā people were equal signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi, the management of certain national and regional issues should be conducted with equal input from Māori and Pākehā people. Many of the Treaty of Waitangi land settlements have come with provisions for such co-management of resources such as water, forests, and the like. At least in the realm of natural resource management, there is a claim that international law requires such input by indigenous cultures. In addition to natural resources, which hold a special place in both the treaty and in Māori culture, this concept has been applied to the management of other national concerns such as Māori health services. The idea is controversial, and some people see it as an erosion of democratic principles of one person, one vote, because Māori people make up 16.5% of the population (compared to 71.8% Pākehā). Defenders of the idea say it is about administrative management, not legislative representation. But opponents believe it gives some Māori people more weight in policy. It is a vigorous debate and one that will not be easily resolved. Another, similar, issue is whether te reo Māori should be taught in schools to all Aotearoa New Zealand children. Proponents see it as an opportunity to truly claim a full national identity that is bi-cultural. Others see it as having numerous practical problems, such as a shortage of teachers and lack of use of the language outside Aotearoa New Zealand. That debate reminds me of another place we visited last year - Finland - where everyone there speaks Finnish (which is primarliy spoken in Finland), and Swedish, and almost everybody also learns English plus an additional foreign language. Flexible language speaking is an important skill in the modern era.

As an outsider, I have no firm opinion about these issues. They are complex and require a deeper understanding of the culture than I have. But I do have admiration for a society that actively engages in their debate. Coming to terms with the effects of colonial rule is not an easy task. Many societies shy away from discussing them. Australia is engaging in a similar debate about a Constitutional amendment which would give a "voice" to indigenous Australians guaranteed by the Constitution. They will be voting on that idea later this year. I've even recently seen the idea of co-governance used in the United States as a proposed reform in community policing (management of police co-governed by community governments and the populations they are most heavily policing). This is an idea we should all become familiar with.

So, hat's off to the small country with the big heart. We look to you for leadership on how to talk civilly with each other on important issues. If you want to see this big hearted spirit for yourself, watch the iconic Pātea Māori Club perform "Poi E". To learn more about what the song meant, you can watch a movie made about making the song. You can see the trailer here.

I have recorded a ukelele version singing "Poi E" as a tribute to the warmth, joy, and spirit of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Poi E

by Ngoi Pewhairangi and Dalvanius Prime


Te poi patua , Taku poi patua, kia rite pa para patua. Taku poi e!

Swing out rhythmically my feelings lean out beside me, so deceptively. Swing round and down, spin towards me just like a fantail.


E rere ra e taku poi poro-titi

Swing to the side: swing to and fro

Ti-taha-taha ra whaka-raru-raru e, poro-taka taka ra poro hurihuri mai

zoom down, wriggle, climb up above, swarm around me

Rite tonu ki te ti-wai-waka e

my whirling emotions, my poi, Yeah!

Ka pare pare ra pī-o-o-i-o-i a

Oh my feelings, draw near, Oh my poi, don't go astray

Whaka-heke-heke e ki a kori kori e

Oh my affections, stick to me

Piki whaka-runga ra ma mui-nga mai a

Oh my instincts, take care of me

Taku poi poro-titi taku poi e.

Oh my emotions, be entwined around me.


Poi E whaka-tata mai

Oh my emotion, draw near...

Poi E kaua he rerekē

Oh my affections don't go astray.

Poi E kia-piri mai ki au

Oh my feelings, stay close to me

Poi E awhi mai-ra

Oh my instincts, take care of me

Poi E tāpeka tia mai

Oh my emotions, twirl yourselves around me

Poi E o taua aroha

Oh emotions, love...

Poi E pai here tia ra

Oh affections...binds.

POI...TAKU POI E! affections!


Rere atu taku poi, ti taha taha ra!

Let my ball fly, side by side!

Whakarunga whakararo, taku Poi E!!

Up and down, my ball!


May 23, 2023

Nice one Kim! As a child, I grew up very near to Patea (in New Plymouth) and spent a lot of time in Patea with both friends and sports games out there (rugby, mostly, it was big out there). I stubbed my toe in Patea, fell off my bike in Patea, and got stung by a bee playing on my friends lawn in Patea! Maori culture is a big part of life for many kids growing up in the smaller cities and towns, many like me attend Maori schools in childhood and only join the regular education system later on. One of the things I treasure most is the music, the words and meaning inspire togetherness which does not come native…

Kimberly OLeary
Kimberly OLeary
May 23, 2023
Replying to

So great to hear from you! We're enjoying Fiji. Glad you enjoyed the post!


May 20, 2023

Loved listening to Poi E. I would not have guessed those were the lyrics! Thank you as ever for the history lesson and your insightful perspective. ❤️

Kimberly OLeary
Kimberly OLeary
May 21, 2023
Replying to

I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

bottom of page