Changing Notions of Urban Māori Identity

By the mid-1970s, many Māori youths left their traditional communities for the city to “establish themselves economically and socially among Pākehā [white, usually European/Western]” (Houkamau 189) in part because of a greater economic recession New Zealand endured at the time (Henderson 77). This led to greater visibility of Māori in the urban “Pākehā world,” causing some tension that ultimately lead to a Māori cultural renaissance— revival of tikanga (Māori customs, traditions) and a re-assertion of land rights. In 1972, the iwi (tribe) Ngā Tamato submitted the Māori Language Petition to Parliament to support the teaching of Te Reo (Māori language) and tikanga in schools (Hayward). In 1975, the New Zealand Parliament formed the Waitangi Tribunal for Māori to address grievances and claims against the Crown for violations of the Māori language version of the Treaty of Waitangi, a key document that established relations between Pākehā (non-Māori, usually European) and Māori on February 6, 1840 (Allen 115). The Treaty, thereafter, became recognized by the government as New Zealand’s founding document, developing greater respect for a bicultural New Zealand (Hayward). The Springbok Tour of 1981, the first anti-nuclear protest of 1983, and the monumentally important song, “Poi E” of 1984 (heavily used in the film Boy, see below) followed these major steps towards a fairer treatment of Māori, and ushered in a “time of exciting and sometimes bewildering ferment” (Henderson 77). But, the Māori Language Act of 1987 proved especially important for Māori, conferring official language status to Te Reo (Angelo 1085). These historical happenings grew to shape the identity of New Zealand and the multiple identities, especially the Māori identity, within the nation-state.

boy_3Capitalizing on this period of cultural renaissance, Māori-Jewish director, Taika Waititi set his 2010 film, Boy, in 1984; the film has become the highest-grossing film in New Zealand in part for its accurate portrayal of struggling Māori (Henderson 92). The film captures a boyish charm in all of its characters while constructing a kind of spirituality and beauty around being a traditional Māori versus being assimilated into Pākehā culture—here, the question of identity comes center stage.

Boy, begins with a hastily written question on a faded green chalkboard, “Who am I?” only to have the titular boy (who goes by the same name: Boy) answer. He lives in rural Waihau Bay, goes to school on his marae (courtyard, traditional Māori gathering place) with his brother, Rocky, learns Te Reo, and respects Māori tikanaga. Boy objectively characterizes his absent father, Alamein, as a successful man in the “Western” or Pākehā sense, but when Alamein first enters the narrative, he subjectively characterizes himself as a lost boy. After his wife dies, Alamein separates from his children, moves to the city, forms a gang (The Crazy Horses), and serves a prison sentence. He has returned to his sons to “spend quality time” with them, and yet he has an ulterior motive to dig up a field in attempt to find a bag of money he buried before being imprisoned.After playing with their father by the beach, Boy and Rocky hold a noteworthy conversation: Boy explains that if they find the money, then they could move to the city, wear fancy clothes, swim in swimming pools, and ride around in nice cars. Rocky, unconvinced, flatly says he does not wish to go to the city and he does not need swimming pools because he can swim in the ocean.

After playing with their father by the beach, Boy and Rocky hold a noteworthy conversation: Boy explains that if they find the money, then they could move to the city, wear fancy clothes, swim in swimming pools, and ride around in nice cars. Rocky, unconvinced, flatly says he does not wish to go to the city and he does not need swimming pools because he can swim in the ocean.


The bulk of the narrative centers around the distinct dynamic between Māori father and son, especially within the socio-historical context of 1980s New Zealand, a time, as aforementioned, of ongoing resurgence of Māori identity—Alamein has made bad decisions, but he does not shield his children from them. With the return of their father, Boy and Rocky, must choose whether to dismantle and rebuild their conception of him or to dismiss their father as a role model of how to be Māori.

Towards the end of the movie, Boy goes to his mother’s grave. After smoking a cigarette and drinking a can of beer, he falls backwards from a bridge into a body of water (apparently his river, see pepeha below). His cousin wakes him into consciousness shouting, “Boy! Boy! You’ve got to come home!” Boy then confronts his father with the remnants of the $800NZD his goat ate, immediately distancing himself from his father. The film ends with Boy and his cousins cleaning up the house. Boy finds the Crazy Horse logo once sewn to his father’s jacket laying on the floor and discovers his wood carving, newly finished by Alamein waiting for him on a chair in the garage. Boy then goes to the cemetery with Rocky, and the final scene features the two of them reuniting with a mourning Alamein. Boy supplies viewers with a life-story, narrative model of identity, giving viewers a snapshot into one of Boy’s most formative experiences: his coming to grips with being Māori; his deadbeat father nags at his whakapapa (genealogy), grinding a chink in his Māori identity.

Māori whakapapa does not start with people in their lineage. Whakapapa begins with the land, the mountain their particular iwi bows to and the body of water they value; all of these natural features form the basis of the linguistic structure called pepeha. Lying within the greater mihimihi (introductory speech) framework, a pepeha translates as an aspect of self-introduction. Pepeha must be delivered with “both humility and respect” because it grounds individual identity in their ancestral land, defining them as tangata whenua (people of the land) (Potiki). The normal structure of pepeha includes an individual’s mountain, river, clan/sub-tribe, tribe, canoe, ancestor, family, marae, and parents which makes pepeha linguistically interesting: establishing identity with physical landmarks ensures a type of stability, but it also isolates those who identify as urban Māori. Being reared apart, estranged from “their” mountain, river, clan, etc. disjoints the mind from any spirituality or ownership of the land, especially when city life becomes the replacement.

Using pepeha as a Māori framework of identity excludes many individuals whose parents may have neglected or undermined their ability to learn of or appreciate their connection to the land and their whakapapa. Able to mature within a marae environment, Boy seemingly knew the many facets of his pepeha and appreciated his identity as tangata whenua even though he, like his father, aspired to the Western/Pākehā idea of success. Alamein’s experience mirrored Boy’s, but Alamein failed to grow up and embrace his identity as Māori or tangata whenua. The characters of Boy and Alamein respectfully occupy two approaches to reconcile being or identifying as Māori in the modern state of New Zealand. In a sense, his adolescent perception of self-conflicted with his aspirations to be a “brown Pākehā.” Alamein abandoned his traditional carvings and hometown for the city, joining a gang to drink and smoke marijuana in the process. Though his actions must be qualified by the death of his wife in childbirth, Alamein’s plight and urban, Western lifestyle reflects actions of Māori in the 1980s.

Prevailing concepts of what it means to be Māori depend on “strong associations with whanau (family) hapu (extended family) and iwi (tribe)” as well as “mutual responsibilities” within their kin group (Houkamau and Sibley 10). Despite this, in his two-year (1987-1988) ethnographic study of Māori adolescents around Boy’s age, Dr. Toon van Meijl discovered that for most of his informants, “tribal affiliations were eclipsed by an attachment to the town or city in which they grew up” (924). Adding to their conflicting sense of identity, van Meijl also observed male Māori preferring to skip culture classes (considering Māori culture and language archaic) or sitting in the back to talk “about topics that interested them more, such as the pub, smoking marijuana, rugby union, or TV programmes” (922). To these individuals, ascribing to the “archaic” Māori culture and language implied only a greater likelihood of being unemployed and imprisoned (van Meijl 924). “Māoriness,” then, did not equate with spirituality, a sense of their position as tangata whenua. Perhaps knowing, visiting, or living near natural structures of an individual’s pepeha safeguards them from the woes of Western society.

Boy himself, by his nickname and demeanor, symbolizes every young, pre-adolescent and adolescent Māori boy like the ones in van Meijl’s study who struggle to fashion a narrative of identity “among the social groupings and racial-ethnic categories that exist in [his] society” (Webber 17). Not many of these youths, only about a third of them, feel positive about their culture or feel a deep pride in being, “traditional tangata whenua” (Webber 22). Boy’s experiences epitomize this struggle—he understands and speaks Te Reo, follows tikanga by washing his hands with water after visiting the dead and praying before eating (Higgins), yet he wants for his father, an urban Māori, only to be disappointed. Many Māori depend on family and friendships to validate and inform the formation of their identity (Webber 26, Houkamau 193), so Boy rightly becomes disillusioned with tikanga when he sees his dad deny his own “Māoriness”:

Alamein: Hey, whose is this mean-as carving?
Boy: Oh, mine.
Alamein: Yeah. Looks just like E.T.
Boy: It’s based on one of yours, but it ain’t finished yet.
Alamein: Yeah, I know, ‘cause you ain’t done the eyes. That’s the last thing you do…them eyes.
Boy: Do you still carve?
Alamein: Nup. I ain’t got time for that. (Sighs) I’m a busy man. (Smokes) Mmm. [sic] (Waititi)

Rather than a homogenous identity, “Māoriness” emerges from a “myriad of sometimes conflicting ideas and images around what it means to be Māori” (Houkamau 184). Socio-historical processes shaped New Zealand’s topography, but as Boy came to realize about his father, personal enculturation matters just as much (Houkamau 184). Alamein equates a taonga (treasure) Māori tiki figure with a completely Western/Pākehā creation, E.T., but his son had no intention of mimicking a Pākehā alien. Boy based his own carving on one his father did when he still had his wife to ground him in his traditional Māori identity. Returning to van Meijl’s study, his informants did not mentally identify as Māori and simply regurgitated what their elders told them, initially abandoning any self-conception of identity (928). For some Māori, the process of “coming home” meaning, returning to their marae or ancestral lands, reinvigorates identity, but for others, like Alamein, this action reinforces a negative or unappealing aspect of identity.

These individuals possess a dialogical identity, and they experience negativity about their identity because of in-group hostility between “good Māori” and “bad Māori” (van Meijl 924, 926, 931), socio-economic injustice from the remnants of colonization (924), and improper portrayals of Māori in various mediums (922). Being dialogical in nature, however, makes the formation of their identity “involved in internal and external interchanges” which never reach a “final destination” (Hermans 35). Essentially, these individuals rely on conversations within themselves, but often external Western influences intervene with the internal root of being tangata whenua. In this fluid identity, meaningful connections with the land as the root of identity do prove to be insufficient markers considering that 84% of Māori live in cities (George 438), and yet a spirituality of the land prevails in the minds of their elders. If Boy has anything to say about this, then the youth, like Boy and Rocky, have the ability to resurrect and inherit the teachings of their grandmother—indeed, their father even begins to realize what he gave up in the end. When his money got eaten by a goat and his Pākehā friends abandoned him, he finished Boy’s carving and visited his wife’s grave. His whanau pulled him back up; Boy and Rocky together changed their father but also set a precedent to change the future of Māori.

Pākehā society wrote Alamein into the margins as a “lazy, irresponsible, wasteful, and childlike” subject in need of “Europeanization” (George 441). Alamein saw Pākehā material wealth and partially because of his economic situation, he left for the city for a chance to become the model of an assimilated urban Māori. He did not re-invent his identity; he merely tried to be a “brown Pākehā” because he had been raised within a “socio-historical climate that failed to endorse Māori rights and culture” (Houkamau 193). Alamein had already been far too entrenched in Pākehā culture before the cultural renaissance could reclaim his interest in Māori tikanga. Though, a hint of changing times comes out when Alamein replaced Pākehā material culture (money, marijuana) with his traditional Māori material culture (Boy’s carving). Alamein did not adhere to the prevailing notions of “authentic” indigenous identity. He did not follow his expectations to maintain connections to tikanga and ancestral lands (authentic) and instead went to live in the city and abandon his identity (inauthentic) (George 443).

Pākehā expect Māori to fit into their mold of being indigenous, “oppressively authentic” Māori expect those within their tribal structures to fit into a different mold of being, but individual identity cannot be patterned and shaped by external forces alone. Forming a better understanding of Māori identity and how individuals negotiate identity by having a dialogue within themselves and with society marks the changing notion of urban Māori. Many Māori want to keep their identity alive to prove their strength as an indigenous tangata whenua, and yet they become urbanized because Pākehā culture permeates their own and provides a near unavoidable alternative. Alamein’s “inauthentic” Māori self contrasts with Boy’s marae-grown seemingly “authentic” Māori self, but neither of their identities should be considered correct or incorrect, especially by Pākehā judgment. Pākehā thrust Māori into this situation of having to balance the obtrusive force of Pākehā material culture with their traditional Māori spirituality and associated material culture, but they do not and should not feel compelled to justify their existence to Pākehā or assimilate. Māori, as a group, form a sovereign body, and they, whether urban or not or somewhere in-between, alone possess the power to define themselves.


Identity returns to the question behind Boy at the start of the film, “Who am I?” A multiplicity of identity exists, but Māori and Pākehā alike tend to refuse or undermine the urbanization of Māori. Those urbanized Alameins need acceptance, need a Boy who straddles both the Māori and Pākehā identities to reawaken the “authentic” Māori in them, but they need not be obligated to return to the marae to reclaim their identity. Boy, indeed the current populous of young Māori boys and girls, know both Pākehā and Māori worlds, but they still need guidance from their elders to inherit the tikanga that once set their people distinctly apart from their colonizers: whether they choose to maintain the spirituality behind tangata whenua or not, they inherit all that their ancestors left. Acknowledgement of the crisis within these individuals of their reconciling Māoriness with an interest in Pākehā culture will build a more inclusive and broader notion of Māori identity.

image from Taika Waititi’s Boy

Works Cited

 Allen, Chadwick. Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Māori Literary and Activist Texts. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Angelo, Tony, and Elisabeth Perham. “Let Te Reo Speak: Granting Legal Personality To Te Reo Māori.” Victoria University Of Wellington Law Review 46.4 (2015): 1081-1109. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Boy. Dir. Taika Waititi. Prod. Ainsley Gardiner. Perf. James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, and Taika Waititi. Whenua Films, Unison Films, 2010. DVD.

George, Lily. “Expressions Of Māori Multiplicity In (Re)Connection To Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho.” Social Identities 18.4 (2012): 435-450. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Henderson, April K. “Maori Boys, Michael Jackson Dance Moves, and That 1984 Structure of Feeling.” MEDIANZ MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand 13.1 (2012): 77-96. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

Hermans, Hubert J. M., and Giancarlo Dimaggio. “Self, Identity, and Globalization in times of Uncertainty: A Dialogical Analysis.” Review of General Psychology 11.1 (2007): 31-61. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Higgins, Rawinia. “Tangihanga – Death Customs – Understanding Tangihanga.” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. New Zealand Government, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

Houkamau, Carla Anne. “Identity Construction And Reconstruction: The Role Of Socio-Historical Contexts In Shaping Maori Women’s Identity.” Social Identities 16.2 (2010): 179-196. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Potiki, Tuari, dir. “Mihimihi/Pepeha.” Māori at Otago. University of Otago, 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Van Meijl, Toon. “Multiple Identifications And The Dialogical Self: Urban Maori Youngsters And The Cultural Renaissance.” Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute 12.4 (2006): 917-933. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Webber, Melinda, Elizabeth McKinley, and John Hattie. “The Importance Of Race And Ethnicity: An Exploration Of New Zealand Pākehā, Māori, Samoan And Chinese Adolescent Identity.” New Zealand Journal Of Psychology 42.2 (2013): 17-28. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Images: Grace, Matt, and Darryl Ward. Digital image. Boy. Whenua Films, Unison Films, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.


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