The Stories behind our Official and Unofficial National symbols of NZ

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Here is our blog explaining the objects, symbols or things that represent New Zealand and its people. These items have all come to be recognised both internationally and at home as representations of Aotearoa and its people. Some of these are recognised officially as symbols of NZ and some are unrecognised representations of this country.


The Koru is one of the most significant shapes in NZ and is instantly recognisable, whether it be part of jewellery, tattoos, as decorations, in art, on our Air NZ plane’s wings/tails or at home growing in the forest. The symbol was taken from the shape of an unfurling fern frond, with Māori taking spiritual meaning from the way that the fern is shaped in a circular pattern. To Māori the shape suggests perpetual movement and the cyclical nature of life that changes in some ways, but also remains the same in so many others, from birth to death.

Kiwi bird
The Kiwi bird, a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand has become the unofficial national representative of the people who live in this country. A unique and interesting bird, the Kiwi is a perfect representative for the truly exceptional people who inhabit the islands that it has made its home. A flightless, tailless, brown-feathered, long-beaked and nocturnal creature, the Kiwi is a rarely seen and highly protected animal. There are five species of Kiwi that are formally recognised, these are; Little Spotted Kiwi/Kiwi Pukupuku, Great Spotted Kiwi/Roroa, Brown Kiwi, Rowi and Tokoeka. Each of these Kiwi species are found in different areas around the country, with the spotted Kiwis, Rowi and Tokoeka mainly found in certain areas of the South Island and the Brown Kiwi in the North. Honourary mammals, these birds are truly national/cultural icons. To see what these birds looks like and to learn more about their varied lifestyles and habitats, we recommend looking at this video.

Fun facts about Kiwi:

  • Female Kiwis are bigger than males and have a longer beak
  • Kiwis are omnivores, meaning they eat insects as well as plants and fruit
  • When bonded, Kiwis usually pair for life
  • Adult Kiwi birds will attempt to defend themselves from predators with razor sharp claws
  • Kiwis have cat-like whiskers on their beak to help them feel their way through the dark
  • Only 10% of Kiwi chicks make it past six months and 5% of Kiwi chicks make it to adulthood due to pests, bacteria and other causes upsetting their development
  • Adult Kiwis are quite strong, territorial and extremely aggressive if provoked
  • As of 2018 there are around 68,000 Kiwis left


In Spring this evergreen tree becomes a symphony of yellow that stands out in all environments as its flowers bloom. A key source of nectar for the large range of native birds New Zealand is home to, these trees are endemic to Aotearoa. They can grow up to 25m high. The New Zealand Department of Conservation notes that it is our unofficial national flower.

Coat of Arms

Originally created for NZ in 1911, a re-design in 1965 was approved by Queen Elizabeth II. The coat of arms depicts the four stars of the national flag in the upper-left quadrant, the upper-right quadrant represents the golden fleece (farming), the middle white section shows three ships, these represent trade and the immigrant nature of all New Zealander’s (who came to the islands on ships and waka), the bottom-let quadrant displays wheat (agriculture) and the bottom-right quadrant depicts crossed hammers (mining). The woman on the left is Zealandia, holding the NZ flag and the man on the right is a Māori rangatira (chief), he is holding a taiha (spear-like weapon) and wearing a kaitaka (traditional cloak). New Zealand is displayed in blue on a scroll with two ferns, native to NZ, displayed behind it. The crown on the top of the shield is a rendition of St. Edward’s Crown, which represents New Zealand’s ties to the monarch of England and reiterates its position as a colonial country.


The personification of New Zealand and the woman on the left side of New Zealand’s coat of arms, Zealandia is said to be the daughter of Britannia (the personification of Britain). This picture of Zealandia is from ‘The Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial’ statue in the South Island town of Palmerston, which honours Kiwi soldiers that died in the Boer War. Zealandia was a key figure during World War I and served as a key motivational figure and moral booster for the troops, she also reinforced the ties of NZ and the UK. Zealandia is hardly seen or used in modern days, as she is seen as a throwback to the times of Queen Victoria. Her creation was in the 1860’s, and her ‘golden age’ was in the early 1900’s with her inclusion on postage stamps and the New Zealand coat of arms. For a period in the late 19th century, Zealandia received support from the labour movement. Due to her position on the coat of arms, she is recognised as an official figurehead, but her use in popular culture has faded since her sporadic use in World War II.

NZ Flag
Adopted in 1902, this flag remains the same today, even after a 2016 vote to change the flag was proposed by then Prime Minister John Key. 57% of voters opted to keep the current flag and the vote failed. The Union Jack in the top-left corner represents the old flag that flew for six decades from 1840. Before that, between 1834-1840 the Flag of The United Tribes of New Zealand was flown. The four red stars are arranged in the shape of the Southern Cross constellation, which emphasise NZ’s position in the South Pacific Ocean. The royal blue background of the flag represents the flags history and reason for being created in the first place. The United Kingdom’s Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1965 ruled that all ships owned by a colonial government would need to fly the Blue Ensign with the badge of the colony on it.

National Anthem

Before 1977 New Zealand’s national anthem, like England’s, was God save the Queen. In 1977 God Defend New Zealand became New Zealand’s national anthem after a petition passed in Parliament in 1976. The words to God Defend New Zealand were originally a poem by journalist Thomas Bracken, an Irishman who emigrated to Dunedin in 1869. He published God Defend New Zealand in the newspaper, Advertiser in 1876, which he was the editor of. A competition to compose the best tune for the words was won by John Joseph Woods. The song was translated into te reo Māori in 1878 by Thomas H Smith and was called ‘Aotearoa’.1 Today most recognise this as Ihowā Atua, for the first line of the verse. It was first sung on the big stage by Hinewehi Mohi at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, and since then it has become the norm to sing the Māori version first. The first verse is sung before international sports matches and at prestigious events in both te reo and then English, but the entire song itself is five verses long. Ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, journalist David Farrier fronted a full-length television documentary special about the anthem, which even shows the piano the anthem was written on.

Note: If you think something is missing on this list we recommend viewing our blog on Kiwiana here, as this will might have the thing that you want to see here already listed.


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