Appropriation (?) of the Month: ‘Flagging’ Maori Intellectual Property

New Zealand Flag

By Maddy Fowler

Between Waitangi Day on February 6th, commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and Anzac Day on April 25th, remembering the first major military action fought by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the First World War in 1915, there is a great sense of patriotism in New Zealand, which is often expressed through the display of the national flag.


The national flag is the subject of a debate currently unfolding in New Zealand, where the Prime Minister recently announced a referendum that could change the design of New Zealand’s flag. As I watched this debate unfold, several questions came to mind: Are Maori cultural symbols being suggested for the new flag design? If so, who is suggesting these symbols and for what reasons? What is the opinion of the Maori community on this matter? And what of the existing Maori flag?

In this blog, I share what I found while investigating these questions and complex issues through recent news articles.

(Current flag of New Zealand)

By announcing the referendum, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key reignited a debate which has arisen at regular intervals since the 1970s. Key argues that the present flag of New Zealand, chosen in 1902, is dated to a colonial era that has now passed (Davison, New Zealand Herald, 2014). He suggests that the legacy of colonialism persists in New Zealand’s current flag through the United Kingdom’s Union Jack, which is featured in the top left corner. The Prime Minister favours the silver fern as the central motif on a new flag, a New Zealand sports symbol that some argue is reminiscent of a logo and not appropriate for a national icon. 

A number of media outlets, including Maori Television, Radio New Zealand, Scoop Independent News, and the Otago Daily Times, have raised the question of whether the flag should feature Maori culture. The principle Maori symbol proposed is the koru (“loop”), a well-known spiral shape representing an unfurling fern frond, new life, growth, strength and peace. No one seems to be explicitly advocating for the inclusion of Maori designs, however many news pieces suggest that it should be considered.

The Prime Minister has noted that according to the Treaty of Waitangi, the Government is not bound to include Maori symbols on a new flag, although it is required to fly both the New Zealand flag and the Maori flag (Tino Rangatiratanga) side-by-side. The Tino Rangatiratanga originated as a Maori activism flag in 1990 and was officially recognised as the national Maori flag on Waitangi Day 2010.

Opinions of Maori peoples on the flag issue are varied.

In a letter to The Gisborne Herald, O. Ripia argues that the current flag represents the “two independent countries and their respective people who arranged and agreed to the terms of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.” Ripia suggests that while the Union Jack signifies Great Britain, Maori are symbolized in the star cluster, known as the Southern Cross. The Prime Minister’s call for a referendum on the flag and his suggestion that the colonial era has passed could be seen as undermining Maori sovereign rights based on the Treaty of Waitangi. 

(The Maori flag, Tino Rangatiratanga)

Hone Harawira, leader of the Mana Party, a political party formed in 2011, says the cost of such a referendum, estimated at $10 million, is of more concern than the design of a new flag. He does, however, think it appropriate for New Zealand to simply adopt the Maori flag, suggesting it is reflective of “our history…our world…we are our own people, an independent nation” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2014). 

Meanwhile, Te Ata Tino Toa, a Maori rights advocacy group, does not present any opinion on what flag should be chosen, but does encourage the re-emphasis of New Zealand’s South Pacific location on any new flag designs. “Maori have decided on our flag. The vision of Te Ata Tino Toa is that the new New Zealand flag will fly alongside the Maori flag for ake tonu atu [forever],” says Te Ao Pritchard, Te Ata Tino Toa’s spokesperson, in Scoop Independent News. Pritchard states, “if people from other cultures want to incorporate Maori designs or symbols that represent their link with tangata whenua [Indigenous peoples] in Aotearoa [New Zealand], then they should not be put off by anything the Government is recommending" (Radio New Zealand, 2014).

The use of Maori symbols in a new flag design is not necessarily an act of cultural appropriation. However, it is important to consider whether using Maori symbols would be a genuine attempt at decolonisation by non-Maori New Zealanders. If the incorporation of Maori motifs is viewed simply as a token gesture, or is not widely desired by Maori peoples, then it could be considered a misappropriation.

(A proposed Koru flag, designed in 1983

The 2013 New Zealand census found that while almost 15% of the population were Maori, almost 12% were Asian and over 7% Pacific Islander. Furthermore, Auckland, the nation’s biggest city, is now considered more culturally diverse than London or Sydney. Perhaps then the design of the new flag design should be relevant to all those who identify as New Zealanders. As Lizzie Shaw, a reader, states, “that means no silver fern on a black background and no Maori flag.”

During Canada’s flag debate in 1964, historian George Stanley stated that the new flag “must avoid the use of national or racial symbols that are of a divisive nature.” Another example is the flag of the Republic of South Africa, adopted in 1994, which uses colours, rather than symbols, to represent unity.

With the referendum set for the next parliamentary term (within three years of September 2014), there is still some time before any decisions about the flag will be made. The primary debate centres on whether the flag should be changed and, if so, to what. However, if Maori cultural heritage is to be used, we should also consider who wants to use it and for what reasons, as well as who will be consulted. As a columnist for The Globe and Mail asked, “would the Maoris want their symbols mixed up with a broader national one?”

A new flag design needs to accurately represent national identity. This does not necessarily mean that Maori symbols or motifs should appear in a new flag design; rather what is needed is a unifying symbol that resonates with all New Zealanders.

References Cited

(in order referenced)

I. Davison, NZ flag vote to be held after electionThe New Zealand Herald, March 11 2014.

O. Ripia, Flag is Treaty SymbolGisbourne Herald, March 25 2014.   

New Zealand looks to ditch the Union Jack from flagThe Sydney Morning Herald, January 30 2014.

Te Ata Toa position on new NZ flagScoop Independent News, March 12 2014.

Hungry kids can’t eat a flag, says HarawiraRadio New Zealand, March 12 2014.

Reader Report: Unity before a new, March 30 2014.

Jeffrey Simpson, Why a flag has New Zealand in a flapThe Globe and Mail, April 11 2014.


Further reading

PM reignites national flag debate - Maori Television (video). Trust (established to promote debate about New Zealand's national identity and, in particular, about New Zealand's flag).

The History of New Zealand flags 

Maddy Fowler is a PhD Candidate at Flinders University and an IPinCH Associate. 

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.