More than a name: the stories behind Marlborough's rivers and mountains

Kupe's struggle with Te Wheke o Muturangi is recognised in many official place names around Marlborough.
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Kupe's struggle with Te Wheke o Muturangi is recognised in many official place names around Marlborough.

Tangata whenua have always used them, but it was not until the Te Tau Ihu Treaty of Waitangi settlements of 2014 that many te reo Maori place names in Marlborough were officially recognised. The Marlborough Express is now following suit. Oliver Lewis reports.

On an isolated point of land overlooking the Marlborough Sounds stands Kupe: the mythical tupuna, or ancestor figure, locked in battle with the giant octopus Te Wheke o Muturangi.

The carved wooden pouwhenua at Karaka Point, near Picton, looks out towards features named after the famed explorer and his exploits, names that were officially recognised following Treaty of Waitangi settlements with the eight Te Tau Ihu iwi in 2014.

Tangata whenua have always known and used the names - links to the stories and people associated with the land - but it took the settlement process for them to get official recognition.

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Marlborough's rivers, mountains, bays change to Maori names

More than 30 landmarks had their te reo Maori names recognised as a result, from rivers and mountains to popular swimming spots like Whites Bay, known as Pukatea.

Massey University Maori history lecturer Peter Meihana says the changes were an important step that could open a door to more people learning te reo.

"Many of the traditional names were already being used by tangata whenua, despite others persisting with the incorrect names or corrupted versions," he says.

"Having the names officially recognised is definitely important. Being able to whakapapa to the land is vital in terms of identity."

The pouwhenua at Karaka Point, near Picton, showing Kupe grappling with Te Wheke o Muturangi.
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

The pouwhenua at Karaka Point, near Picton, showing Kupe grappling with Te Wheke o Muturangi.

The names also pin down history; they connect the stories told in the region for hundreds of years to concrete, indelible features ensuring they are preserved for generations to come.

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Arapaoa Island on the eastern boundary of Queen Charlotte Sound, or Totaranui, translates to downward blow - the killing blow Kupe delivered to Te Wheke o Muturangi to end their struggle.

The epic battle is carved in wood on the pouwhenua. Now their names are writ large on the landscape, testament to the great founding tradition of Aotearoa.

Legend has it Kupe pursued Te Wheke o Muturangi from his homeland of Hawaiki all the way to Aotearoa, where he finally killed the octopus, before setting out to explore the area.

"The Kupe place names in and around Cook Strait are a record of exploration," Meihana says.

"The names are a kind of a mnemonic device that recalls the reasons why Kupe came, who he brought with him, the people he encountered, and the hazards he came across."

One of the creatures Kupe brought was a pet shag, Te Kawau a Toru, which broke its wing and drowned in the swirling waters of Te Aumiti, or French Pass - the narrow channel off d'Urville Island, or Rangitoto ki te Tonga.

"Te Kawau's descendants, however, would continue to live in the French Pass area, they of course being the endangered king shag," Meihana says.

Many of the places that had their te reo names officially recognised in 2014 had existing Pakeha names, creating a bilingual tapestry that recognised the intertwining cultures in the region.

Others had their te reo names spelt incorrectly, leading to generations of people mispronouncing features like the Opawa River, which had its spelling rectified in the settlement to Opaoa.

Ngati Apa ki te Ra To chief executive Butch Bradley says having the te reo names on signs and maps is a natural progression that will help people engage with the language and stories.

"It's about people understanding that there were people living here before our modern times, and that actually where you're sitting probably had another name," he says.

The Wairau Bar, or Te Pokohiwi o Kupe, is widely recognised as a cultural and archaeological taonga that was probably the first place in the country people settled.

Because of that history, on that long, low strip of land near the mouth of the Wairau River, Bradley thinks everyone in Marlborough has a responsibility to recognise and preserve what has gone before.

"It's got nothing to with whether you're Maori or Pakeha, we live in a region that was the first settled area of Aotearoa New Zealand and that's a big responsibility," he says.

This responsibility includes knowing the names - the original ones bestowed on the land in a language Bradley thinks is becoming ever more respected and used, not just by Maori but Pakeha as well.

"Hand on heart, the amount of people I meet who don't have any Maori blood in them who realise as a Kiwi they have a right to use the Maori language, and they're just so excited," he says.

A wider conversation about te reo Maori and whether it should be a compulsory subject in schools is predicted to be an election debate this year, with the Green Party pushing for compulsory learning from years 1 to 10.

But Bradley thinks there is already a generational sea change underway in respect to the language. He says his children, and grandchildren, speak both English and te reo Maori.

"As far as they're concerned they're speaking Kiwi," he says.

 - The Marlborough Express

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