Junk Explained: What You Need To Know About The Push To Reinstate New Zealand’s Traditional Name

Political party Te Pāti Māori say it is past time to make Aotearoa the official name - and to make Te Reo Māori the official language.

aotearoa new zealand photo

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Last week, the political party Te Pāti Māori launched a petition to reinstate the traditional name of New Zealand.

In a statement released alongside the petition, the party said that reverting to the traditional name Aotearoa would unify the nation — and that it also was well past time that Te Reo Māori was installed as the official language of the country.

“Name changes over our whenua (land) and the imposition of a colonial agenda in the education system in the early 1900s meant that Te Reo Māori fluency among our tupuna (ancestors) went from 90 percent in 1910 to 26 percent in 1950,” the statement read. “In only 40 years, the Crown managed to successfully strip us of our language, and we are still feeling the impacts of this today.

“It’s totally unacceptable that 20 percent of the Māori population and three percent of people living in Aotearoa can speak te reo Māori.”

The petition, launched by co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, is calling for parliament to restore “ancestral names [that are] being mangled, bastardised, and ignored”. In less than 24 hours of being published, it received 25,000 signatures in support of the move.

It’s been almost 200 years since the Treaty of Waitangi — a crucial document in the nation’s history — was signed, which was an agreement between the British crown and Māori chiefs. So why are Māori people still fighting to reinstate traditional places names of cities and towns?

The Erasure Of Traditional Names

The renaming of countries, cities, and significant geographical sites usually starts with explorers. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who ‘discovered’ and renamed New Zealand is one of many who used this tactic to mark their ‘discovery’ and claim the land.

Names were usually born out of a misinterpretation of the original name used by Indigenous people or interactions with that place (like Murdering Beach in Dunedin); some were to commemorate government officials, and other places were named after the explorer or settler themselves.

When it comes to looking at the origins of why traditional names were replaced in New Zealand, we have to look at the Treaty of Waitangi signed between the Crown and Maori Chiefs, which has created challenges still being felt today. When the treaty was drawn up in 1840, there were two versions with slightly different wording — one in English and one in te reo Māori.

“It’s totally unacceptable that 20 percent of the Māori population and three percent of people living in Aotearoa can speak te reo Māori.”

For many Māori people, signing the treaty did not mean sovereignty was ceded to the Crown, but rather it was an agreement to ensure Māori land, people, and affairs would remain with Māori people. And that’s mostly due to the specific language used in the treaty.

In an interview with Stuff NZ, Professor Khyla Russell from the University of Otago said when the treaty was being translated by missionaries who Māori chiefs knew, words to describe sovereignty weren’t used.

“Words to express that did exist in the Māori language,” said Russell. “It’s a personal opinion, but I’ll always wonder why those words weren’t used.”

In the English version of the treaty, it stated Māori Chiefs gave the Queen ‘all the rights and powers of sovereignty over their land’ but did state that Māori people are the original landowners of New Zealand (unless they wished to sell).

As the European population grew, so did the demand for land. The misunderstanding between the two versions of the treaty led to wars and the British stealing land. Dodgy deals were made by settlers and the Crown and a Native Land court was introduced to manage the purchase and sale of land, but it didn’t recognise the traditional structure of Māori land ownership.

As settlers stole or purchased land, the traditional names began to disappear.

Why Reinstating Aotearoa Is Important

Twenty years after the treaty was signed, English became the dominant language spoken in New Zealand and, similar to Australia, traditional language was banned from schools and workplaces. Often, people caught speaking their mother tongue were punished.

Being bilingual became essential to survive in the Eurocentric world, and by the 1980s it was reported that less than 20 percent of fluent Māori speakers were left.

Fighting the ongoing colonisation on culture and language, Māori leaders put forward a petition to protect te reo under the treaty — similar to the one being proposed by the Maori Political party today. The petition gathered 30,000 signatures and after a peaceful rally, te reo Maori became an official language in 1987 under the Maori Language Act. Since then, the New Zealand government has committed to ensuring one million New Zealanders can speak basic te reo by 2040.

But in a study released by the Royal Society Journal, New Zealand academics found that the current rate of teaching and reviving te reo is on a ‘downward trajectory’ and that’s why Maori Political Party leaders, Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer are calling for change — starting with place names.

“A year ago today Te Pāti Māori launched our te reo Māori policy which addresses the dire fact that current estimates show that only 20 percent of the Māori population and three percent of people living in Aotearoa can speak te reo Māori,” said Ngarewa-Packer. “It is the duty of the Crown to do all that it can to restore the status of our language to where it was the moment they arrived and interrupted our natural development.

“That means it needs to be accessible in the most obvious of places; on our televisions, on our radio stations, on road signs and maps and in our education system.”

Petitions have been put to the New Zealand parliament in the past to consider Aotearoa as the official name for New Zealand, but have been declined. When Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern was asked what she thought about the issue last year, she said it’s “not something we’ve explored”.

“I hear more and more often the use of Aotearoa interchangeably with New Zealand and that is a positive thing,” said the prime minister. “Whether or not we change it in law I don’t think changes the fact New Zealanders do increasingly refer to Aotearoa, and I think that’s a transition that has been welcomed.”

While it’s hard to tell if Aotearoa will become official with some New Zealand politicians opposing the move, there are talks of putting forward a referendum for the people of New Zealand to decide.

Australia Is Some Way Behind

Like New Zealand, traditional place names in Australia exist and some are more common than we think but not often known, like the Sydney suburb Parramatta, which means ‘place of the eels’ in the language of the Burramattagal people.

Prior to colonisation, there were over 500 different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and according to the last census, only 160 of these languages are still being spoken.

Unlike New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still not recognised in Australia’s founding document, and that’s partly why place names are so significant today. Traditional place names are a reminder that Indigenous people were here before European explorers arrived and tell the stories of life before colonisation — the Indigenous version that wasn’t taught at school.

Shifts are happening slowly: local councils and media organisations are starting to use traditional names in Australia —  just this week, the Queensland government reinstated Fraser Island to its traditional name, K’gari (a Butchulla word for paradise) which came after years of advocating by traditional owners.

While the conversation around recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia’s constitution is a much bigger one, learning about the traditional place name of the suburb you live in, and the history of that area is one way you can help keep Indigenous languages from becoming ‘endangered’. It also removes some of the offensive names given to places by government officials in the past.

Don’t forget, next time you send something off in the post, to also include the traditional country name on the envelope.

Tahnee Jash is an Aboriginal/Fijian-Indian journalist based in Sydney who enjoys writing about health and wellbeing, among other things. You can find her on Twitter @tahneejash.

Photo Credit: Te Pāti Māori