Pākehā: The real meaning behind a beautiful word

Pākehā: The real meaning behind a beautiful word

Sometimes, the origins behind reo words can get lost in translation, their meanings altered to mean something derogatory or unpleasant. Kaiako (teacher) Joan Costello shares a kōrero (story) behind the word Pākehā, and helps us understand the beauty of the word.

What does Pākehā mean?

Growing up, I just knew that the word Pākehā meant the early ancestors that came from abroad – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, etc.

I first heard its deeper meaning when it was shared by an elder in a documentary. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember which one – but its teachings stayed with me all these years.

Within the word ‘Pākehā’ there’s reference to three words:

– means to come in to contact, to make contact.

Ke – is related to the word ‘rerekē’ which means different, or unique.

– is to share and exchange the breath. I understand that’s the whole reason we do a hongi – to share and acknowledge the breath, the hā, that connects us all.

So putting those three words together we have:

‘To come in to contact with a unique essence of the hā ’

A Pākehā child does a hongi with a Māori lady
Hongi, 2007. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa (85729)

From the heavens

It was thought that the people who came on the ships with their fair skin had come from ngā rangi tūhāhā – from the skies, realms, heavens, dimensions above.

In Sāmoa, the equivalent to ‘Pākehā’ is ‘Palagi’. When talking to a colleague from Sāmoa, she told me that ‘pa’ means the same – to come into contact, and ‘Palagi’ is the skies, or the heavens. So there’s a very close similarity.

It was a wonderful day when I learnt the meaning behind the word Pākehā – it makes you stop and want to take a big breath!

Pronouncing Pākehā

Pā  (p+are)

Kē (say the English word ‘Keg’ then drop the ‘g’)

Hā (hā)

Note: the macrons elongate the vowel therefore enjoy and take your time!


This is just one interpretation of the kupu (word) Pākehā and others may have different understandings, we’d love to hear what yours are in the comments.


  1. I read a piece of information where the word Pakeha refered to people who do not lool Maori, do not speak the Maori language, do not dress like Maori & do not share the Maori culture.
    Is that suggesting Chinese, Japanese & Indian people etc are Pakeha?

  2. Sorry to ruin it for you Pakeha but someone wise told me it means flea but later changed to suit Pakeha, to save them from shame for calling them selves Pakeha. So now everyone these days define Pakeha as White People. But I dont fucking know Āe I’m A Child in the Te Reo Māori and far from fluency.

  3. A few years back when I was studying I came across a journal article on the origins of the words “Maori” and “Pakeha” that said Pakeha is the short form of ‘Pakehakeha’ meaning “imaginary beings with fair skin” (or something to that effect), and Maori meaning ‘ordinary’. If you think about it, it would have been completely new and fascinating for tangata whenua to see Pakeha for the first time, hence the word “imaginary”.

  4. I remember someone describing as
    Pā- referring to any Māori village or defensive settlemen
    Kehā-ulcer/sore or flea/bloodsucking insect
    Village pests or somthing like..
    They way you’ve put it sounds more like it

  5. That etymology sounds suspiciously convenient.

    Further, I don’t believe anyone thinks about the word in that way.

    Therefore the etymology may as well be made up.

  6. Thank you this was what I understood Pākehā to mean and I do remember going through all the stages of astonishment, resentment, understanding and not only acceptance but also desire, when it came to using Pākehā to describe myself. Understanding the definition above: “It was thought that the people who came on the ships with their fair skin had come from ngā rangi tūhāhā – from the skies, realms, heavens, dimensions above.” It was in fact a pretty accurate perception and recognition at the time. I am happy to be described as a Pākehā and have happily done so for a long time. Have a great day.

  7. Thank you for this explanation. I think there are a range of words in te reo Māori that give us tauiwi, or non-Māori, space to be who we are and yet have a connection to this place.

    1. This word does not apply to recent people that have arrived to New Zealand.
      It is specific to the people that fought side by side with the New Zealanders between 1800 to 1865 to build a lawful country that is safe and properous to all that would later come.
      We are not non anything .We exist in New Zealand , as our ancestors did.
      Our Anglo German Maori history is deeply intertwined with Hobson, Nene, Patuone, German settlers of the Saint Paulie and Queen Victoria holding us altogether as she does to this day.
      If you are new to new Zealand then please study our correct history before making false statements that may damage our NZ MaoriPakeha eco system.

  8. Pākehā is also a word used in he whakaputanga and te Tiriti for those that arrived.

    “4. Ka mea matou kia tuhituhia he pukapuka ki te ritenga o tenei o to matou wakaputanga nei ki te Kingi o Ingarani hei kawe atu i to matou aroha. nana hoki i wakaae ki te Kara mo matou. a no te mea ka atawai matou, ka tiaki i nga pakeha e noho nei i uta e rere mai ana ki te hokohoko, koia ka mea ai matou ki te Kingi kia waiho hei matua ki a matou i to matou Tamarikitanga kei wakakahoretia to matou Rangatiratanga.”
    – He Wakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni

    “Na ko te Kuini e hiahia ana kia wakaritea te Kawanatanga kia kaua ai nga kino e puta mai ki te tangata maori ki te Pakeha e noho ture kore ana.”
    – Te Tiriti o Waitangi preamble

  9. So does that mean Pakeha is also Samoan people, Asian people and India people? And dosen’t strictly mean white European people?

    1. This is just one interpretation of the word. If you primarily focus on the semantics, then you could supposedly refer it to anyone migrated to Aotearoa. Since it’s social usage often means “white person,” you might have to clarify how you decide to use it.

    2. Probably not. Is quite specific at the beginning of the article that pakeha refers to fair-skinned people, primarily those who came on the ships with their fair skin.

  10. Kia ora Whaea Joan. I love this definition. Thanks for sharing your story. Nancy Thompson

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