LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 1 | 2019

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Ahurea Tuakiri

IdentIty and the consequences of Pākehā monolIngualIsm on māorI student IdentIty

Article by   Dr. Peggy Burrows


This article examines the unhappy consequences of Pākehā monolingualism on Māori student identity. Placing the struggle Māori students face to assert their own ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity in a positive way in Aotearoa New Zealand state secondary schools at the centre of this discussion the author explores implications for Māori Student when their identity is subjugated by dominant Pākehā imperatives of culture. A major theme to emerge from waha kōrero rangatahi /Māori student voice in the 21st century is the alienation felt by Māori rangatahi/teenagers within the Aotearoa New Zealand education system. The challenge for Pākehā educationists, in hautūtanga/ leadership roles in Aotearoa New Zealand secondary schools it is argued here is to recognise and acknowledge the often-devastating consequences for Māori students when they choose to assert their unique ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity in the Pākehā classroom and find themselves marginalised. The cultural alienation Māori students experience in monocultural, monolingual settings exacerbate their struggle for the legitimisation of their indigenous cultural identity and compounds a sense of urgency for self-assertion and the freedom that being Māori and succeeding as Māori should provide. Succeeding as Māori at school it is argued can only be achieved through bicultural and bilingual approaches in education. A growing body of research highlights that adopting such hautūtanga/leadership practices and kaupapa Māori approaches results in high correlations between strong ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity and confident connected Māori rangatahi/teenagers.


The origins of this article lie in my 2018 PhD thesis. The thesis explored ways a Pākehā educationist, in hautūtanga/leadership role in an Aotearoa New Zealand state secondary school could improve their pedagogy best practice to ensure equity in educational outcomes for Māori students. This article builds on that mahi/work by exploring Pākehā monolingualism (Major, 2018) and the deeply debilitating effect it has on Māori student identity (Burrows, 2018). In the 1870s te reo Māori was the common language spoken in Aotearoa New Zealand by Government officials, missionaries and other prominent Pākehā. Early colonisers were dependent on Māori (indigenous peoples) as trade was established and recognised the importance of bilingualism to achieve positive economic outcomes. In contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand te reo Māori language is an official language, with rights and obligations to use it defined by the Maori Language Act 1987. Given its early adoption by Pākehā in the 19th century and legislative authority it has now it is remarkable that the majority of the Pākehā population do not speak te reo Māori in the 21st century. Given this lack it is not surprising that Pākehā in the main do not understand that the Māori language is an essential expression and envelope of Māori culture, and pivotal for Māori in maintaining their pride, identity and tino rangatiratanga/self-determination as Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous people.


Many Māori students located in mainstream state secondary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand suffer marginalisation and the consequential invisibility of self. With the subjugation of Māori culture by dominant westerncentric mores there is a constant tension for Māori students around who they are and who they are expected to be at school. Often, opportunities to assert their unique ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity in positive ways have been denied them within a system designed to promulgate Pākehā imperatives of culture. Māori rangatahi/teenagers who refuse to compromise their ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity often pay the ultimate price for such resistance. In asserting who they are, how they belong and their own personal aspirations many find themselves excluded from mainstream education. The legitimisation of indigenous cultural identity and the importance for Māori students of Māori identity is the focus of this article. It is imperative that educational leaders know and understand how important it is for Pākehā educationist to develop powerful relationships that underpin strong ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity for Māori students.

In my role as principal of Papatūānuku High School (the name is a pseudonym
to protect the identities of some of the study’s participants), a large state secondary school in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori students would often share anecdotes with me about the bullying (Foster, G., 2008) they experienced from Pākehā students who thought it was funny when Pākehā teachers continually mispronounced their names. Names hold deep cultural significance for many Māori students and so this unintentional consequence of Pākehā monolingualism resulted in many Māori students feeling disrespected by their Pākehā teachers and bullied by their peers.


Immediately a child is born into a family, two questions are asked of the new parents; “what did the baby weigh?” and “what have you called him/her?” Within most societies the naming of a child goes far beyond personal preference or serendipitous decisions. Names do more than identify or set siblings apart; they help to shape a child in relation to heredity, ritual, custom, tradition, behaviours, values, aspirations, and beliefs of their parents. Dion (1983) explores that idea further arguing “the parents’ choice of a name for their child can have an influence on the development of the personality of the child” (p. 247). Deluzain (1996) describes the naming of a child as a symbolic contract between the society and the individual, confirming “the child’s existence and formally acknowledges a collective 
M. H. Durie (1994) locates that sense of collective responsibility within the structure of whānau/family with its strong underpinning of kinship ties, shared common ancestry, and cohesive environment within which certain responsibilities and obligations are maintained. 
of Māori identity and culture is the collective responsibility of whānau/family to ensure the health and wellbeing of every individual, and that it is nurtured within the Māori context of kinship/whānaungatanga.

Within a Pākehā social framework names carry with them arbitrary connotations depending on social class, ethnicity or sociocultural background. Aotearoa New Zealand is not an egalitarian society (Nolan, 2007) and a dominant Pākehā world view often attributes value to a name which leads to implicit assumptions about the individual bearing that name (Keller & Franzak, 2016). Weeks (1990) illustrates the subtle difference in Māori and Pākehā world views with her emphasis on the personal and the individual. She argues that: 

“Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others. At its most basic it gives you a sense of personal location, the stable core to your individuality. But it is also about your relationships, your complex involvement with others and in the modern world (p. 88).”


Gecas (1982) asserts identity “focuses on the meanings comprising the self as an object, gives structure and content to self-concept, and anchors the self to social systems” (p. 4). Jahnke (2002) adds that:

“For the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand, a secure identity as Māori is inextricably bound to an intimate and interactive relationship with tribal kin and the flora and fauna, rivers and mountains of ancestral lands (p.503).”

Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others.


Māori theorists discuss identity in terms of whakapapa/genealogical linkages, and a sense of place and belonging (Borell, 2005). Ward (2006) argues that for many Māori children their sense of individual identity is secondary to the dominant social identity that is based on whānau/family, hapū/extended family, and iwi/tribe.
R. Walker (1989) refers to the concept of taha Māori to describe Māori identity, arguing it is a social concept based on lineage. He asserts that genealogical whakapapa/genealogical linkages through mythology, tradition, and history, where Gods, ancestors and living people are all intrinsically connected, is fundamental to Māori identity.

Moeke-Pickering’s (1996) definition is also helpful because she builds on the concepts captured above, arguing that:

“Identities develop and change over time, are multi-faceted and shape one’s perception and judgement of the self and others. People such as parents, family and peers play a major role in the shaping of identities. Identity formation and maintenance are influenced by one’s ethnicity, politics, location and environment. The concept of identity manifests itself not only at the level of the individual but also at the level of societies and interactions between groups (p.1).”

For Pākehā teachers searching for new understandings around the identities of their Māori students they could usefully begin by recognising it as a collaborative co-construction of an individual’s fundamental understanding of self that begins at birth as an intimate act between parents in the first instance and then with the wider whānau/family. As a result of that familial act of intimacy the individual develops a deep sense of self (Yeh & Hwang, 2000) an acute sense of belonging, and an enduring knowledge of whakapapa/genealogical linkages.

Identities develop and change over time, are multi-faceted and shape one’s perception and judgement of the self and others.

When a person is forced to fight continually to protect their ahurea tuakiri/ cultural identity and consistently strive to maintain a sense of themselves a form
of cultural friction results.


Rongo-a-whare, a fifteen-year-old Māori student at Papatūānuku High School, personifies the disconnect often evident in the relationships between Māori students and their Pākehā teachers. As a Year-10 student Rongo-a-whare communicated to her dean that she no longer wanted to be known by her birth-name. This was hugely significant given that from a Māori cultural perspective, a child’s name may construct or reify human bonds creating a sense of belonging. Rongo-a-whare made this decision based upon a genuine desire to protect her name and in doing so protect her whakapapa. From a Māori perspective her name had layered meanings and was laden with cultural nuances and historical explications and translated literally meant the house of peace. When Rongo-a-whare’s whānau/family named her after her taua/grandmother so began the process of familial enculturation. Rongo-a-whare was proud of her strong connections with her immediate whānau/family but clearly understood her connection to her iwi/tribe, whakapapa/genealogical linkages, and tikanga/social practices, as well.

Rongo-a-whare’s desire to change her name filled me with a profound sense of sadness. The disrespect she felt when she was teased and taunted and called ‘rongo- the-drongo’ by her class-mates was evident when she said, “Whaea, I’d rather be called something else, otherwise it’s sort of like I don’t care.” I did not interpret her personal resolve to assert her Māori identity, on her own terms (Bishop & Glynn, 2003; Bishop, O’Sullivan, & Berryman, 2010; Mackintosh, 2004; Stryker & Burke, 2000;) as passive ātetenga/resistance, instead I chose to explore her reaction in terms of mana wahine/female strength, and active ātetenga/resistance. I was surprised that her Pākehā teacher defined Rongo-a-whare’s refusal to answer to the bastardised version of her name and her steadfast resolve to change her name as negativism and her actions and behaviours as defiant and insubordinate. Such interpretations bely the constant claim by many Pākehā teachers that they ‘know’ their students. The Pākehā teacher had not considered that Rongo-a-whare’s reaction could also be attributed to the mōriroriro/cultural alienation she felt in class and her rejection of the colonisation of her name.


When a person is forced to fight continually to protect their ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity and consistently strive to maintain a sense of themselves a form of cultural friction results (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Rongo-a-whare personified cultural friction for me when she explained, “My nanny gave me my name, whaea. So, it’s not just mine,... it’s hers too,... and others before her. My name is part of my whakapapa so it’s a whānau taonga whaea”. The fact that she had to explain the significance of her name in relation to her whakapapa/lineage also highlighted for me my total lack of bicultural competency and cultural connection. The reality for her was fatigue, she was simply sick of fighting her corner and saw changing her name as a pragmatic solution. Rongo-a-whare was exhibiting what Smith, W. A., Hung, and Franklin (2011), describe as: racial microaggressive conditions which produce emotional, psychological, and physiological distress, or racial battle fatigue” (p.64).

This state of cultural friction can also occur when Pākehā teachers mistakenly define Māori as a homogenous group and assume that all Māori students see the world from the same vantage point. Pākehā assumptions that Māori are a homogeneous entity are predicated on the idea that all Māori share a common identity, and such misguided assertions can be traced back to Westerncentric ideology rooted in the classical colonial images of the noble savage (Redford, 1991). Such constructs define Māori as Other (Smith, G. H., 1997), and render their worth in terms of the political, social, and economic needs of the coloniser. As Other, Pākehā will always fail to comprehend the complexities of whakapapa/lineage, iwi/tribal identity, and the importance to Māori of their sense of tūrangawaewae/ a place to stand.

Māori students should be recognised as a richly diverse cultural group who have broad tribal affiliations. As monolingual, monocultural members of Aotearoa New Zealand society Pākehā demonstrate a significant lack of cultural competence, which in schools often leads to a lack of cultural safety for Māori students. Pākehā educationists need to rethink hegemonic imperatives of culture and engage meaningfully with the myriad of iwi/tribe, hapū/subtribe and whanau/family consubstantial with Aotearoa New Zealand indigenous population. Unlike many of their Māori students, who live in two worlds (Kelly-McHale & Abril, 2015), monolingual, monocultural Pākehā educationists face an intricate and difficult problem, a yet unsolved conundrum faces them of trying to educate without having the requisite experience and expertise to do so in a culturally safe manner.


Māori students often face punitive punishment at school when attempting to assert their own ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity. The strategies they employ may at times be interpreted by Pākehā teachers as oppositional, resistant or deviant. Without the cultivation of deep, abiding, and respectful relationships (Berryman, Eley, Ford, & Egan, 2015) between Māori students and their teachers there is a risk that only conformity and compliance will be held up as hall mark of the successful student.

For many rangatahi/teenagers their name gives them a link to a shared past, present, and future within their family network. A name connects and confirms their right to tūrangawaewae/a place to stand in their unique cultural world. It is not an overstatement to say that this social, cultural, and political complexity is often made invisible within the context of the school when an individual’s name is consistently mispronounced (Parham & Helms, 1985). There is an inextricable link between an individual’s name and their personal, social, and ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity. Māori students often comment that they feel school is a contrived environment that does not reflect how they see themselves.

Māori students often face punitive punishment at school when attempting to assert their own ahurea tuakiri/ acultural identity.

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As a culturally constructed edifice schools as heterotopic spaces serve the social structures of power and actively worked to subjugate and or exclude minorities. In his examination of the experiences of African-American students at high school, Fordham (1988) reinforces this observation when he argues “the message conveyed to black adolescents is that they cannot be culturally different and, at the same time, achieve success as defined by the dominant society” (p.81). To acquiesce was internalised as a betrayal of their ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity and to avoid that self-deprecating duplicity they chose resistance (Glynn, Berryman, Atvars, Harawira, Walker, and Kaiwai, 1997). The paradox Rongo-a-whare’s experiences personifies is seen in her refusal to “act white” (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986) while at the same time choosing to adopt a Pākehā name.

Kukutai, Snipp, Cunningham, and McDermott (2010) argue that Westerncentric imperatives of schooling covertly promote assimilationist policies that create a homogenous norm. Applied to an Aotearoa New Zealand context such conformity and compliance to that artificially prescribed norm destroys, rather than promotes positive relationships between Pākehā and Māori. Rongo-a-whare was just a normal fourteen-year-old girl, who had a positive relationship with her whānau/family, and her circle of friends, yet she found she could not establish those same relationships with some of her Pākehā peers and teachers at school. Her choice to resist arbitrarily prescribed homogenous norms inherent in the school environment she inhabited showed a depth of cultural character but was interpreted as resistance, defiance and disobedience.

Pākehā educationists might well consider their contribution to Māori students’ loss of ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity. Māori students who choose resist (Cook & Ludwig, 1998) as a strategy pay a personal toll not expected of their Pākehā peers. Choosing to be called a name other than your birth name is a strategy employed by those who wish to shield the name gifted to them at birth. Such a choice it is argued

Imperative to a growing conscientisation that Aotearoa New Zealand state schools are not bicultural environments no matter how many times Pākehā assure themselves they are, is one key to positive change.

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here is made necessary largely in part by a Pākehā failure to recognise the power
of te reo Māori in preserving Māori student ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity through whakapapa/genealogical linkages and whānau/family ties.

Imperative to a growing conscientisation that Aotearoa New Zealand state schools are not bicultural environments no matter how many times Pākehā assure themselves they are, is one key to positive change. Pākehā educationists, in hautūtanga/leadership roles in Aotearoa New Zealand schools in the 21st century, are offered here an insight into the dilemmas faced by many Māori students who continually encounter Pākehā teachers whose professional practice is immersed in a single Pākehā monolingual, monocultural framework (Walker, R., 1973). Without exception Māori students need to be supported to live their ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity and achieve success as Māori and not as wraiths of some hegemonic construct of that ahurea tuakiri/cultural identity.

It is imperative that Pākehā educationists have opportunities to observe and engage with confident, connected Māori rangatahi/teenagers, who have a deep sense of self and significant personal resilience. It is only through such deep learning that true change and growth will occur. The question remains, are contemporary Pākehā educational hautūtanga/leaders able to embrace the confronting nature of the interrogation of self and challenge themselves to confront their personal assumptions, deficit thinking models, and entrenched cultural perspectives and make the changes required? The leader laid bare is a recurring motif throughout this article underpinning the need for brave new interpretations of meaningful kākanorua hautūtanga/bicultural leadership in Aotearoa
New Zealand.


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