Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Thin End of the Wedge?

Wanganui gains an 'h' - how long until Auckland is officially renamed Tamaki Makaurau?

The Background

In a compromise that seems to have been welcomed by leaders of both sides of the debate (although deplored by the increasingly liberal NZ Herald editor), the Wanganui / Whanganui debate has apparently been settled by a declaration by Land Transport Minister Maurice Williamson that people can spell the city name however they wish. although Crown entities will move over time to adopt the 'h' in their official spelling. This comes after a long and sometimes heated public debate which, on the surface, seemed rather silly really - why all the fuss about a lousy letter? Of course, the actual issue is much more than that.

The Situation

Just as we now have Aorangi/Mt Cook and Taranaki/Mt Egmont, we now also have Wanganui/Whanganui. This issue pitted a small group of local Maori, a larger group of local liberals, and an even larger group of people from all over the country against the majority of Wanganui's residents, their Mayor, and an equally large group of mainly conservative NZers elsewhere in the country.

At its heart is the problem with the word 'Wanganui', which doesn't actually mean anything at all but is a bastardisation of the word 'Whanganui' or 'big harbour' - a name already present in several other places around NZ. Local Maori began arguing against the incorrect spelling of the name in the 1970s and 80s, and were eventually successful in getting the Wanganui River's spelling changed to Whanganui in the early 1990s. To me, this was the perfect compromise - this was, of course, a natural feature with which local Maori had long historical links. The city, which was established in 1840 as one of Wakefield's NZ Company settlements and originally named Petre until 1854, could have maintained its bastardised spelling as a point of difference and interest, a historical novelty showing the difficulties of transcribing words from a non-literary culture into those recognisable by others who do not speak the language. For over 150 years the city's name has been spelt this way, establishing its own historical legacy.

The issue was brought to the people of Wanganui in two referenda, as such things should, and twice over 80% of residents chose to keep the incorrect spelling. The NZ Geographic Board, however, composed of 7 appointed members of whom two must be Maori, proposed that the 'h' be inserted despite the wishes of the city's inhabitants, and all of a sudden the dispute gained national prominence. The Board, founded in 1947, is guided by the Designation of Districts Act 1894 which specifies that any future naming or name alterations must give preference to the original Maori names, and is explicitly required to encourage the use of original Māori place names on official maps.

Why would it overrule the wishes of the majority?

My Opinion

As I see it, this is yet another example of the growing rift between Maori and non-Maori in contemporary NZ. In the past few months race relations have taken a major hit, with the animated discussion over Hone Harawira's 'white motherf@^*er' comments (interestingly enough he seems to have been slapped with a wet bus ticket and told to be a little more circumspect next time in his choice of words) and, just last week, the announcement that the Maori separatist movement's Tino Rangatiratanga flag would be flown alongside NZ's national flag from public buildings on Waitangi Day. Maori have been threatened for many years by the growing diversity of New Zealand's population. Similarly, many caucasian New Zealanders have been threatened by their diminising majority within the population. Both sides fear for the future, and Maori groups, since the 1980s, have been relentless in their attempts to secure protection and legal recognition for their tangata whenua status.

In this light, the Waitangi Tribunal process can be seen as important in seeking to rectify the illegal land confiscations of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is rapidly approaching its use-by date. The current prevailing world view that colonialism was 'bad' has coloured historical thinking and teaching to such an extent where some Maori actually believe that ALL the social ills of their current society can be blamed on the European 'invaders'. Meanwhile, non-Maori are increasingly being put off studying NZ History because of the current historiography glorifying Maori and condemning everyone else. While there are many things which we as NZers should feel ashamed of in our past, there are many more things which we should be proud of and celebrating, but a lot of these have now been 'tainted' with the brush of 'colonialism' (as if it were a bad thing).

So the 'h' debate is more than JUST a letter, it is about who we are as a country, what we believe about our past and which direction we want our future to take. We have a shared history which is being threatened. I recall a history lecture I was attending at the University of Waikato (which was soon to be given to Tainui) in 1996 being interupted by several 'protesters' demanding that Hamilton be renamed Kirikiriroa and that Von Tempsky drive be renamed because it was an insult to Maori to have a road named after a 'murderous mercenary'. Over recent years the number of people referring to New Zealand by the modern Maori fabrication 'Aotearoa' has also increased, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this to be a future target.

I imagine this, too, will be resolved by adopting a combined name - in 2100 AD (sorry, CE - don't want to upset those non-Christians out there!) will we officially be Aotearoa-New Zealand? (The NZ Geographic Board is actually prohibited at the moment from changing the name of our country, but will this continue?) Will our largest city be Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau? Will our capital be Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington? And, some would ask, will it really matter?

I say it does. Te Whanganui-a-Tara is a local name for Wellington harbour, but not for the entire city, which did not exist as a metropolitan entity prior to the establishment of Port Nicholson. Tamaki Makaurau is a broad area encompassing even more than the Auckland supercity. Neither area had anywhere near the significance that they do now; a significance that contributes to the historical legacy of the names 'Auckland' and 'Wellington'. The significance of 'Dunedin' as a name is a significant historical recognition of the migration of the Scots to this part of the South Island (which may not be as imaginitive as Te Ika o Te Maui but at least it's more accurate). To lose these names is to lose the past 150 years of NZ history and heritage, and it is for this reason that the 'h' debate was so heated. The government's compromise on this has slightly dampened the discussion, but it will flare up elsewhere, soon, in a town, city or island near you. Of that, I have no doubt.

And that's my two cents to sense.

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