How to tell if you’re Māori

There’s a lot of confusion from media and commentators this week about the cultural identity of newly minted National Party leader Simon Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett. Here’s a handy guide to tell if you, or some you know, might have a touch of the Māori. 

Do you have a Māori ancestor?

Yes? Congratulations, you’re Māori. Kia ora cuz.

Actually no, I don’t have any Māori ancestors.

Ne’er mind. You’re still welcome on any marae and can learn about our history, culture and language if you want to. Nau mai, welcome!

Say I have Māori ancestors. Does it matter what percentage I am?

Absolutely not. Blood quantum is a measure the New Zealand government once used to decide what electoral roll you could enrol on, but they ended that nonsense in 1975. It has only ever been used by colonial governments to categorise and control indigenous populations. From a Māori worldview, your ancestors are part of you, and you are linked to the mountains, rivers, seas and lands of Aotearoa through them. You can’t have a fraction of that connection, it exists no matter what.

But I’m white.

Some of te ao Māori’s greatest leaders, thinkers, artists and advocates have pale skin. How you self-identify is entirely up to you. Everyone else – Māori and Pākehā – should respect that. ‘Colourism’ is an issue that goes hand in hand with racism, and you may have to acknowledge your privilege in some respects, but be proud of who you are and try to use your privilege for good!

If you have whakapapa Māori and choose not to identify as Māori, that’s also fine.

I’m not in touch with the Māori side of my family.

You can still claim Māori idenity if you don’t have regualr contact with Māori whānau. Urban Māori authorities were created to represent the 70% of Māori who live away from their historical tribal roots. Contact your local UMA to see if there are community events you can be involved in or support services you can access. Te reo classes are another good way to start to explore your roots without committing to a full family reunion, as well as activites like waka ama or mau rākau.

Even if I did want to explore my Māori whakapapa, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Making the decision to search for your whakapapa is a big one. Not only is it a lot of research, but there is often shame attached, not feeling “Māori enough” or guilt that those connections were lost in the first place. Make sure you talk with friends and family about it before you start, so you have a support network in place.

If you know the name of your iwi or hapū, you can start by contacting your iwi rūnanga/the mandated iwi organisation and asking for information on those that share your family name. Google is your friend. The kūmara vine works fast – you might be in touch with someone quicker than you think.

Many extended Māori whānau use Facebook as a family notice board and have groups that help them stay up to date. Try searching for the family names that you know on Facebook and see if there are any that fit into what you know about your whānau.

The Alexander Turnbull Library and the National Library also have some resources to help you search for tūpuna within their archives.

There’s no right way to be Māori, or rather, there are many ways to be Māori. It’s up to you if you take that journey, and where it takes you.

Tell ’em Kanoa…


The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.