Engagement stories – the New Zealand Army

The New Zealand Army provides an inspiring example of a journey of engagement, and how the engagement ethos supports their effectiveness in the field.

New Zealand is a young nation with a compressed history. 150 years ago, British and Colonial forces were engaged in a series of wars with indigenous Mäori tribes, leaving the inevitable sense of disengagement and division between the combatants. In the following century, the young nation responded to the call of “mother England” and sent young men to fight and die in the killing fields of the world wars.

New Zealanders see our tragic cathartic involvement in the Gallipoli campaign as a crucible for forging our national identity and accelerating the process of cutting the umbilical chord to the mother country. In the Second World War, many young Mäori volunteered and fought with distinction as the Mäori Battalion.

Ngati Tumatauenga

A few years later, in 1949, the NZ Army badge was adapted from the British Army design. The British Army asked for the letters “NZ” to be added to provide differentiation from their badge. Fifty years later, in 1999 the New Zealand Army adopted a new badge incorporating the words Ngati Tumatauenga (God of War)  and replacing one crossed sword with a taiaha.

These outwardly subtle artifactual changes reveal a story of the integration of the army’s twin heritages of the British soldier and the Mäori warrior. The taiaha is a traditional Mäori weapon. Ngati Tumatauenga is a tribal name – the New Zealand Army reconceptualised with a tribal identity.

Ngati Tumatauenga acknowledges what the Army is one family of people bound together by the ethic of service to our country, military professionalism, common values, and mutual respect, mutual trust and camaraderie. As one people we are one tribe. Ngati Tumatauenga reflects our oneness and our unity; it has seen us develop our own New Zealand military cultural practices and ceremonial guided by Tikanga Maori on the one hand and British and European custom on the other. (from the New Zealand Army website)

We can assume that these badges represent a five-decade journey from an ethos of assimilation of Mäori culture in the army, to a more engaging ethos of integration with the consequent forging of a new identity.

It is significant that Mäori serve across the ranks of the Army, and New Zealand’s Governor General designate, Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae, has been head of New Zealand’s Defence Force from 2006 after a distinguished career in the army.


The New Zealand military is small by international standards, but over the last 100 years has punched well above its weight. The army has served in several war zones as peacekeepers. As Ngati Tumatauenga, it has achieved stunning success. Watch the YouTube video on this page or here for the inspiring story of the New Zealand led coalition bringing peace to Bougainville with “guitars, not guns”.

I believe the Army’s success in engaging local populations and rebuilding trust can be attributed to the evolution of the shared identity of Ngati Tumatauenga. Over time underlying assumptions of the supremacy of European modes of operation were eroded and the voice of a minority culture emerged. This process could only be achieved through effective internal engagement, creating a culture that is a platform for external engagement.

Note from the video, that the inclusion of women in peacekeeping was a major asset.

Mäori have achieved much in the army, but in wider New Zealand society, they are over-represented in statistics about poverty, ill-health, unemployment and crime. It appears that wider society could learn much from the army. I would like to hear about private or public sector businesses, in New Zealand and elsewhere that have achieve impressive results through effective internal engagement.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Bob Whiu for his help with this article.

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