Goodbye Hamilton, hello Kirikiriroa: The growing push for Māori place names

by The Listener / 15 March, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Hamilton Kirikiriroa maori place names

Photo/NZWJ/Listener illustration

The adoption of Māori place names may take some effort, but it's worth it.

“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet rhetorically in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If her point was valid, then that which we call Hamilton by any other name, including the suggested Kirikiriroa, would still have the Waikato River running through it and cheaper house prices than Auckland. But if the name change became official, the one thing it would no longer be is “Hamilton”, the name by which the city and the town before it have been known for more than 150 years.

Love-struck Juliet, wooed by a guy with a surname unacceptable to her family, understood the significance of names. Names of people and places, and even of brands, carry with them history, legend, culture, identity and other associations both good and bad. Committing an act that dishonours the name of a family, school or company is viewed with disapprobation. Place names associated with a high-profile tragedy can take a long time to live it down, and a suburb’s having a better reputation than an adjoining suburb may significantly affect house prices and school enrolments.

For all these reasons and others, the decision to change a place name is rarely simple. Adopting a new name is one hurdle; letting go of the old name can be an even higher obstacle.

Māori culture is one important strand in New Zealand’s uniqueness. Although not all Pakeha New Zealanders are ready to celebrate that diversity, the number of those who are seems to be increasing.

Nowhere has that been better illustrated than in the singing of the national anthem. On most major occasions last century, it was sung only in English. But with no regulation or legislation requiring a change, since the late 1990s it has usually been sung in te reo and English. It seems that once New Zealanders were introduced to the dual-language version, they could see no good reason not to continue it.

Generally, people resist change and, through habit and heritage, are most comfortable with names that are familiar. Spark, which has spent a fortune rebranding from Telecom only to have people still refer to the company as Telecom, would know about that. The protracted squabble over the h in Whanganui is another illustration of how staunchly people will cling to what they know and reject being pushed to adopt a change, especially where they see political correctness as the motivator.

Some name changes have been more successful than others. The New Zealand Geographic Board, which has the task of determining the official names of geographic features and places, gave dual names to Mt Egmont/Mt Taranaki. Once the local newspaper and other media dropped “Egmont”, the mountain became known only as Mt Taranaki. Aoraki/Mt Cook has generally kept both names. Other places with official dual names, in particular Te Ika-a-Maui/North Island and Te Waipounamu/South Island, rarely have their Māori names heard. That is a shame. The more that te reo becomes familiar usage, the greater the chance of the language surviving.

Poverty Bay and Hamilton are the latest significant places to attract public attention as candidates for name changes. Arguably, Captain James Cook has had more influence on New Zealand than any other single foreigner. A skilled sailor and accomplished cartographer, even he occasionally got things wrong.

One example was his naming of Poverty Bay, because he failed to find supplies there. Gisborne District Council recently voted to ask the Geographic Board to recognise the dual name Turanganui a Kiwa/Poverty Bay. Hamilton, it seems, is nowhere near ready for change. However, even the discussion to reject the idea has sown the seed. Its time will come.

Decisions on official name changes will be made on a case-by-case basis, but common usage will play the biggest role in deciding whether English or Māori names prevail. Because New Zealand has an ethnic European majority, people’s familiarity and comfort with names they know and can easily pronounce give English names a significant advantage. But for those Māori, Pakeha and others who make the effort, the adoption of Māori names would be not a step back but a real step forward.

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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