Colonial Myths: ‘He iwi kotahi tātou’

On 6th February 1840, Governor Hobson is reported to have first proclaimed the famous words “he iwi kotahi tātou” to Māori rangatira as they signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi. These words have often been translated to mean ‘we are one people’ and have had an enduring impact on our colonial relationships.


 As I understand it, when Te Tiriti was being signed, William Hobson wanted something suitable to say in Te Reo Māori to each rangatira as they signed. Somebody, probably Henry Williams, coached him to say ‘He iwi kotahi tātou’ which was quite appropriate under the circumstances. It has an idiom meaning ‘we have reached an agreement’; ‘we are of one mind’ BUT ‘on this occasion, at this time, in this place’.

If you try to translate the phrase with a dictionary, you are likely to come up with its literal meaning: we (all) are one people. The ‘ONE’ in the literal meaning has become a justification for assimilation policies, a proxy to refer to settler dominance and a requirement for uniformity. I think this translation misses the complexity of the phase and its contextual significance.

I have heard the phrase used in modern times, on the marae, after a day’s discussion. In summing up, the kaumātua (elder) asked ‘He iwi tahi tātou?” Nods and body language of assent. “He iwi tahi tātou.” It is time to reclaim the original meaning of these words.

Mitzi Nairn

Mitzi Nairn was the Director of the Combined Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Programme on Racism and has been actively involved in anti-racism initiatives since the 1960s, including the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination. She describes herself as a traditionally built Pākehā woman with a background in community education, especially addressing Te Tiriti o Waitangi. She is a founding and active member of Tāmaki Tiriti Workers. She lives near Eden Park with her partner of nearly 50 years, Raymond, and spends most of her time cooking, gardening and ‘wondering about stuff’.

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