SAYit Blog
Is it insulting to be called a 'pakeha'?

We asked SAYit panel members whether or not they thought that 'pakeha' was originally used by Maori as an insulting term for European settlers.  A clear majority believe that it was, including a substantial proportion of Maori.

  • 66% of New Zealanders believe that 'pakeha' was originally an insulting term, including 44% of Maori
  • Under 30 year olds (70%), Aucklanders (70%) and Cantabrians (68%) are relatively likely to believe that this was the case, while Wellingtonians (56%) and other people living in the lower half of the North Island (56%) were less likely to.

I asked this question in late 2011, not long after I'd had a heated discussion with someone who was adamant that 'pakeha' originally meant 'white pig'.  I argued that this was exceptionally unlikely, particularly as (as far as I can tell) there were no pigs in New Zealand before Europeans arrived (e.g. http://www.kunekune.info/en/history/history.php suggests that Kune Kune pigs were introduced by European whalers and sealers while the origin of 'Captain Cookers' is implied in the name).

After I asked this question, I thought it'd be useful to consult an expert in the Maori language.  I spoke to Associate Professor Rawinia Higgins, from Victoria University's School of Maori Studies.  Her response was:

“There is no evidence that ‘pakeha’ was originally used by Maori as an insulting term.  The word originates from Pakehakeha, which means 'Imaginary beings resembling men, with fair skins' (Williams Dictionary pg: 252).  At the point of contact with Maori it would make sense that these strangers could be described in such a manner. However, what people take issue with is that there are multiple meanings of the base words of pakeha and of course it is easier to sensationalize the more derogatory meanings rather than the original intention.”

This article supports Associate Professor Higgins' view:  http://maorinews.com/writings/papers/other/pakeha.htm, while other articles (e.g. http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/maori-pakeha-pakeha-maori/2 and http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-SmiMaor-ti-body-d1.html) indicate that 'Pakehakeha' was a name for a type of pale-skinned sea god.
 
I suspect part of the reason people have come to the conclusion that 'pakeha' was insulting is the nature of the Maori language.  From my limited understanding it seems to be something of a 'portmanteau' language - meaning that smaller words are often combined to become longer words.  Just as in English the words 'goal' and 'keeper' have been combined to become 'goalkeeper', in Maori we see words like 'wai' and 'tangi' combined to become 'Waitangi'.  That's compounded by the fact that some simple Maori words have multiple meanings - http://www.maoridictionary.co.nz, for example, shows that 'pa' can mean to touch or hit, to obstruct, a village and a group.   It does not mean 'white' or 'pale' (as many of us will remember the song from school - 'ma is white').
 
The same dictionary gives three meanings for the word 'keha' - 'flea', 'turnip' and 'ulcer'.
 
The fact that 'pakeha' is shorter than 'pakehakeha' is of limited importance - plenty of other words have been shortened in regular usage (e.g. 'bike' and 'pram').
 
So basically we're left with a choice - we can either believe that Maori first referred to Europeans as 'fair skinned beings resembling men' (with a possible connection with the sea) or as 'a group of turnips'.  Given that Europeans arrived by sea, were comparatively pale skinned, and possessed technology which must have seemed magical to the first Maori to encounter them, I tend to think that the former is more likely.
 
Of course, none of that matters if people FEEL insulted to be called pakeha.  I'm fine with it, but know that many are not.  Feel free to comment below, or there's a Facebook poll running at http://www.facebook.com/sayitnz asking people whether they feel comfortable with the term.