Since I arrived on the shores of New Zealand, a little under a year ago, I have wondered about the word Pakeha. It is the Maori term for those of European descent, and I have been trying to work out through its usage what tones and shades, what gentle weights of baggage, it comes with.
So I was delighted to come across an essay entitled "Being Pakeha", published posthumously, by Michael King. Of Celtic ancestry himself, he's my favorite Kiwi historian, author of the masterful "The Penguin History of New Zealand". That work was much praised for King's undertanding and celebration of Maori history and custom. He'd written a book by the title of "Being Pakeha" from which this essay draws heavily.
It's a highly sensitive, erudite exploration of what it means to be a non-Maori New Zealander and describes beautifully the tightly interwoven relationship between the cultures in modern-day New Zealand. There was a time, a couple of decades ago during the rise of Maori activism, when the word was considered a perjorative. King gathered a group of Maori kaumatua to discuss the many claimed derivations of the word.
In his mind he decided it came from pakepakeha, the mythological fairy people of pale skins - as opposed to, for example, from sounding similar to "Bugger ya," said to be an expression oft-uttered by the first whites encountered by the Maori.
From there King's essay examines what it means to be Pakeha in New Zealand now and whether there is a distinct Pakeha culture. What follows is a heartfelt tribute to and defense of his native land, maintaining that, yes, there is a Pakeha culture, but that it is not separate to, nor does it displace, the indigenous Maori culture: "it is a second indigenous New Zealand culture." The two now are symbiotic. The Maori have learned from the Pakeha newcomers as much as they have taught and "the use of the word Pakeha is part of the process by which the descendants of European colonists achieve a New Zealand identity."
I found a particularly beautiful passage about how New Zealanders see themselves. King was living abroad at the time and pining for his homeland. "All this contributed to a conviction that New Zealanders, for all their faults, had virtues that were precious: an unwillingness to be intimidated by the new, the formidable, or class systems; trust in situations where there would otherwise be none; compassion for the underdog; a sense of responsibility for people in difficulty; not undertaking to do something without seeing it through - what Dan Davin called 'a kind of power behind the scrum that one felt was lacking in one's sometimes more fastidious English colleagues'; a lesser degree of racial prejudice (though not an absence) than that apparent in many other parts of the world."
King is an elegant writer and a wonderful guide to the intricacies and splendors of New Zealand's psychic, historic and cultural past.