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  • Mason Tangatatai

Stop Misnaming our Whenua

Mason Tangatatai weighs in on the Aotearoa vs New Zealand name debate, and has a kōrero with Wellington City councillor Tamatha Paul on the importance of recognising Māori place names.

Art by Sara Moana

The recent uproar and rejection of the name Aotearoa has caused a divide between parts of our country. Select groups are choosing to ignore the reo name and its importance, instead sticking to the outdated “this is New Zealand and New Zealand only” mentality.


This damaging mindset is wilful ignorance, not accidental disrespect. For this reason, we must encourage change around our country’s correct use of te reo Māori.


But what isn’t always wilful ignorance and is usually a lack of knowledge, is the misuse of place names. Over our country’s history, our city and suburb names have been changed, transliterated and bastardised to please the tongues of our successors. This isn’t by mistake, it’s by design.


To shed light on the importance of learning and using our correct place names, I spoke with Te Whānaganui a Tara City Council representative and champion for Te Ao Māori, Tamatha Paul.


Tamariki of Aotearoa have grown up listening to versions of our country’s origin story. One version reads that the first traveller to sight the whenua we now call New Zealand was the wife of the great navigator Kupe. While leaning forward into the waka, urging it forward across the moana she shouted, “He ao, He ao!” or “cloud, cloud!” While approaching the clouds the voyagers yelled in happiness: “Aotea! Aotea!” The white cloud. And thus, the whenua was named Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.


For Tamatha Paul, these stories that provide context to our place names are irreplaceable.


“Māori names are so intuitive, they often give us clues about the natural environments, the species that flourished, and lessons learned over hundreds and thousands of years.”


“Names like Ngaio give us information on the trees that once inhabited the area. This knowledge can be used to contribute towards preserving our natural ecosystems.”


“There’s a multitude of examples across Aotearoa where these names are being bastardised. When this happens our names quickly lose their meaning, but when said correctly they tell their own unique and rich story.”


The Pākehā renaming of places has been common practice since Dutch explorer Abel Tasman “first sighted” our country in 1642. English names were handed out to many places on his voyage around Aotearoa decades later, while early surveyors took an axe to further scores of place names after Te Tiriti’s signing in 1840.


Most of these new names honoured early settlers, explorers, church leaders and government officials, stripping the whenua of its history. Ironically, many of these Pākehā were celebrated for their roles in subjugating Māori and their culture.


Places like Kaharore (Karori) and Pito One (Petone) are all place names that were (and still are) corrupted. What once meant ‘the ridge for snaring birds’ and ‘end of the sand beach’ now are skewed to have no meaning whatsoever.


Boulcott Street was once a stream trickling down from the dense bush hills; the place it joined Manners and Willis Streets was called Waikoukou, or the pool where forest birds bathed.


Mount Victoria, the famous lookout, held a pair of names which related to its windswept nature; Matairangi, or “gazing towards heaven” and Tangi Te Keo, “cry of the wind”.


“We are stripping these places of their meaning and their mana when we wilfully shorten or mispronounce these names,” Paul continues. “Do we pat ourselves on the back for saying Petone and Karori when they aren’t the real Māori names?”


“It’s especially painful when it’s other Māori who are doing this. If we can’t respect our place names it will be tough to convince the Pākehā who are holding onto their white defensiveness.”


But rather than just telling people how to say Māori words, Paul voiced the importance of providing the story behind them.


“No one listens when you tell them what to do, so rather than just proclaiming, ‘say it like this’, we can give the whakapapa behind [these words] so people understand why it is important to get it right.”


“Once they know the stories of the land they stand upon, they will be more likely to use the correct name. “


“That’s on them if they want to keep calling their city the name of some old white British man who’s never stepped foot on our shores!”


She says many Kiwis of European heritage don’t often grasp the huge impact that the misnaming of indigenous places has on Māori.


“To those who are purposefully ignoring our names - they are a mixture of ignorant and afraid of change.”


The ignorant and afraid seem to be deeply uncomfortable with our colonial past.

“These people realise wrong was done on this land. I guess by moving towards the true meaning of our places, they feel as if they will have to address the wrongdoings.”


“It’s an accumulation of theft, and that should be confronting.”


As a country we continue to delight in historical cleansing by denying Māori their own history on their own whenua. This speaks volumes about a country still married to colonisation, still married to its own wrongdoings and ironically, still married to poor grammar and poor pronunciation.


Paul encourages everyone to make a change by simply learning the correct place names and pronunciation.


“Do research on where you’re from, learn the stories of the land’s past, and then you will understand why it’s important to say our place names correctly.”


We name places to recount history, identity, and a sense of belonging. Māori place names deserve to be respected as pinpoints that ground us to our whenua, whakapapa, and history - or our common identity.


For all Massey students out there, who don’t know much about the land our campuses lie on, I’ve created a reference so we use the correct names of the places we call home.


Wellington / Te Whānganui a Tara

Wellingtonians, you progressive bunch. Our people, businesses, and council (sorry Tamatha) have adopted Pōneke as the idolised Māori name of this city.


Pōneke, while a Māori word, is a phonetic transliteration of Port Nicholson. John Nicholson was a Sydney Harbour master, so literally nothing to do with Wellington.

Te Whānganui a Tara mihis to Tara, the rangatira who first ventured down to the whenua where our city now lies, settling on the shorefront.


Although Pōneke is a Māori word, it doesn’t hold any Māori relevance or meaning. While many people use it because they want to seem supportive, it’s obvious that they just can’t be bothered spelling out the longer and harder to pronounce Te Whānganui a Tara :--)


Palmerston North / Te Papaioea

“How beautiful it is” or “Te Papaioea”, were the words first spoken when the picturesque forest was discovered in Manawatū-Whanganui. This became the name of the city.


While I wouldn’t exactly describe Palmy as beautiful (by any stretch of the imagination), this is a much better representation than the current namesake.


Lord Palmerston, whom P Norty is named after, ruled Great Britain to the height of its imperial power. So rich and white he had two towns named after him, and that’s just in New Zealand!


Albany / Ōkahukura

This one doesn’t take too much explaining. Albany just sounds shit.

Ōkahukura on the other hand - what a breath of fresh air! This means the place of rainbows or butterflies.


But no, someone decided Albany, referring to a fruit growing district in Australia, was a better fit.


That’s your loss, Albany.


What we can do as students is continue to educate those around us to use the correct place names out of respect and acknowledgement. Be the difference - people will soon follow!

“Whaiwhia te kete mātauranga.”

Fill the basket of knowledge.


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Te Pararē is the national magazine for Māori tertiary students. We are here to uplift Māori voices and promote more content by Māori for Māori. We want to share your writing or art, in any form, in any reo.


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