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Māori stereotypes and rugby in the formation of New Zealand national identity

April 14, 2012

Nigel Murphy’s essay on the discourses of race and empire surrounding the construction of New Zealand’s national identity at the turn of the last century (and of the construction of Maori, Pakeha and Chinese within this) makes for interesting reading. Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver, and also Patricia Grace’s Tu and possibly Ned and Katina (in terms of a ‘different’ depiction of race/race relations at this nation forming time as well as the challenge of dominant – and persistent – racial stereotypes). But, on top of this, I wondered if what Murphy discusses might provide some insight into the use of rugby in literature for young adults…

Is rugby still connected to our national identity in terms of our conception of ourselves as having excellent race relations?

How is rugby used in local literature for young adults?

(As I read this, I was also put in mind here of Harry Ricketts chapter, ‘Sport’, in A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in literature for young adults. Ricketts’ focus seemed to be on how the use of sport in literature evidences sporting dispositions, representations of gender, appropriate topics for aestheticism, how codes are learned, the notion of the ‘Kiwi male’ or the ‘sporting figure’, etc.. He discusses the absence of sport in local YA lit – and its more common use as a ploy to move the plot along, rather than as an inherent part of the story but does not discuss its role in the representation of race relations (perhaps there is a gap here – I’m just wondering!) (Note  here: the book of poems, A Tingling Catch: A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems, 1864-2009, edited by Mark Pirie)

When discussing Elizabeth Knox’s The High Jump, for example, Ricketts celebrates “its sharing of the “satisfactions” of “competence, a momentary sense of completeness and control, the curious feeling of having crossed from here to there without ‘changing a thing’. Implicit too,” he writes, “is an aesthetic enjoyment in the activity and the ability to register this.” (172 A Made-Up Place) “This is worth commenting on,” he continues, “because this aestheticised response (like that of Bryony in Paula Boock’s Home Run (1995)) runs counter to the approved New Zealand sporting model. The approved model is still enshrined in Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous ‘We knocked the bastard off’ line on conquering Everest. Later encapsulations of the model include the following image assessment of the great New Zealand Test batsman Martin Crowe by his former teammate John Morrison: ‘The New Zealand sporting public admires and respects ruggedness, durability and humility … The public believes [Crowe] is a prima donna, spoilt and pampered, neurotic’” (172-173 A Made-Up Place)


It also strikes me that Geoff Watson’s chapter on the history of Indian sports in New Zealand in (Eds) Paola Voci and Jacqueline Leckie) Localizing Asia in Aotearoa (dunmore Publishing: Wellington, 2011) might also be relevant in this suggested course of inquiry. Introducing this chapter, Voci and Leckie write that: “Hockey and cricket were the pioneering sports that formed the New Zealand Indian Sports Association (NZISA). Watson uncovers NZISA’s history to reveal its impact in promoting sport among the Indian community and in shaping a proud and distinctive Indian identity. Indian sports also actively engaged with, and impacted on, New Zealand sports. This played a key part in the acceptance of Indians and Asians as Kiwis, within a society where success in sports is revered. Watson also discusses the different levels of transnational and transcultural connectivity brought by the presence of many Indian players, managers and administrators in New Zealand sports teams. The NZISA organized visits of Indian sports teams to New Zealand, reinforcing links with the motherland but also contributing to opening up national sports and New Zealand to transnational connections and exchanges. Watson’s chapter suggests that sport activities contribute to enabling ethnic identity to include other belongings that do not necessarily disregard the important link with the motherland, but add to it other equally strong associations and community loyalties.” (11-12, Voci and Leckie Introduction in Localizing Asia in Aotearoa).

Actually, it all echoes something Alison Wong said in a writer’s panel. She writes “I wrote one [poem] about arriving back in Geelong from being in NZ at the beginning of October last year and there was the World Road Championships in Geelong, cycling between Melbourne and Geelong and around Geelong. …I arrived in time to see the men’s road race. And there were all the big NZ names, so I was seeing Julian Dean, Hayden Roulston, Greg Henderson… and then there were the Australians too, like Kadell Evans. So I wrote a poem about that. It’s easier to deal with nationalism in sport.” [And is the poem called ‘Homecoming’ ???] p26 Alison Wong 23 Emily Perkins with Kate De Goldi, Alison Wong and Glenn Colquhoun () ‘Writers in conversation’ English in Aotearoa 21-28 [need to clarify the issue etc – bother]

Anyway, some of what Murphy has to say:

Like other white settler societies (Australia, Canada, the United States), New Zealand’s “national identity was based on both imperial loyalty and whiteness. The outcome of New Zealand’s quest for national identity was that to be a New Zealander you had to be white. However, unlike the other white settler societies, New Zealand’s national identity was tempered by its social utopianism, its idealism and its self-perceived role as a model to the world.”[1] The New Zealand myth of “the ‘best race relations in the world’”[2]tempered interactions between white settler and Māori, but Chinese were constructed as an Other, not capable of meeting the criteria for New Zealand identity, because of physical and cultural difference against which New Zealand’s whiteness could be seen (Murphy).


[1]81 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

[2]81 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

Having discussed several aspects of the sterotyping of Maori in the late 1800s, Murphy writes that the “stereotype of Māori as natural warriors and superior natives was even repeated by overseas publications. A 1916 history of Gallipoli stated that ‘the Maori is a born warrior as the five hundred braves who fought among the Anzacs proved…. No finer coloured race exists in the world …. They are fine athletes, fast runners and good footballers; and for hundreds of years war was their constant occupation.’ Natural athletic ability was another discourse that fed into the myth of racial equality. That Māori took to the national game of rugby, and the rugby field was a place where, it was argued, both races met without barriers, proving that race equality existed in New Zealand.”[2]

“One of the more unusual elements in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity was the Pākehā appropriation of Māori culture and history. This appropriation was part of an attempt to create a Pākehā mythology, history and sense of indigeneity. Initially it took the form of a literary appropriation, then broadened to encompass other symbols and signifiers of Māoridom.”[3] Murphy goes on to write that: “The Pākehā version of Māori effectively erased the real Māori, replacing them with an idealized and romanticized version that served to support the idea of an indigenized Pākehā. By this process, the Pākehā version of Māori culture became a palimpsest, where one text was erased and replaced by another.”[4]

“Jock Phillips notes that ‘Maori culture provided a perfect mythology for a ‘Britain of the South.’’. Yet this was not a wholesale adoption of Māori culture or an attempt to understand Māori. As Phillips points out, ‘only those elements of the culture which fitted existing Pākehā cultural forms were acceptable’. … It was also a means for Pākehā to create an additional point of difference between themselves and other white settler societies. By the 1890s Māori were no longer seen as threatening, and could be used as a decorative element to Pākehā national identity.”[5]

“Pākehā appropriated other symbols of Māori culture as a means of acquiring indigeneity. … The use of the haka by Pākehā as a symbol of ‘New Zealandness’ was commonplace at the time, the most famous example being a bastardised version performed by the All Blacks in 1905.”[6]

“A common belief of the time [late 1800s] was that Māori were a dying race. The so-called ‘passing of the Māori’ was a regrettable outcome of the ‘fatal impact’ of a lesser race meeting with a more superior one.”[7] 


[2] 66 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

[3] 67 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland  [NOTE: I don’t know why he sees this as unusual – I’m not sure which nations Murphy is thinking of to make this comparison: such appropriation was certainly common in ‘Latin’ America]

[4] 67 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

[5] 68 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

[6] 68 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

[7] 69 Nigel Murphy (2009) ‘Māoriland’ and ‘yellow peril’: discourses of Māori and Chinese in the formation of New Zealand’s national identity 1890-1914’ pp.56-88 in ed. Manying Ip The Dragon & the Taniwha: Māori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland University Press: Auckland

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