Dennis Ngawhare: Maori place names sing and recall mighty tūpuna and fascinating events

Oakura (the river and the town) takes its name from the kuia (elder) Akura-Matapū.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

Oakura (the river and the town) takes its name from the kuia (elder) Akura-Matapū.

Māori place names in Taranaki evoke the past.

Place names can tell a story, recall a tūpuna (ancestor) and mark the land.

These wāhi whenua are situated spaces demarking boundaries and classifying the landscape in human terms. Many of these names still surround us, albeit codified on a map now.

Traditionally there were always a reason for place names, and nearly everything had a name. If a place was named after a person, it was because that person possessed mana (power, prestige). 

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Oakura (the river and the town) takes its name from the kuia (elder) Akura-Matapū.

Akura was a woman of some distinction who appears to have come from the Cook Islands on the Kurahaupō waka unua (ocean canoe) before transhipping to the Mataatua waka when the Kurahaupō was damaged at Rangitāhua (Raoul Island) in the Kermadecs.

After travelling through the North Island, Akura settled in Taranaki and married Okorotua. The full name of the river is Oakura-matapū and honours Akura. The prefix of 'O' makes Oakura literally mean 'belonging to Akura'. 

Other place names in Taranaki remind us of an event. Waitara is a prime example because the full name of the river is a story.

Te-whai-tara-nui-a-Wharematangi-ki-te-kimi-tana-matua-a-Ngarue: The-pursuit-of-the-magic-dart-of-Wharematangi-when-searching-for-his-father-Ngarue.

Ngarue was the son of Te Moungaroa, the tohunga (navigator) of Kurahaupō, and after growing up in Taranaki he moved to Kawhia where he married Uru-te-kakara. While gardening in his in-laws fields one day, Ngarue overheard people mocking him for being like a landless man having to cultivate another man's garden. As Ngarue was of a high rank this offended him and he chose to leave Kawhia. Uru-te-kakara was pregnant with their first child and she refused to go. Ngarue asked her to name their child Whare-matangi (if it was a boy) or Kaimatangi (if a girl) because of the open sided and drafty house they lived in at the time. Whare-matangi was born a boy and grew up in Kawhia where he excelled at most things, especially games.

One day when he won a game of darts, another child called him a bastard and mocked his single parent home. Whare-matangi asked his mum where Ngarue had gone and she showed him a distant snow-capped (mountain) in the distance. 

When he was old enough, Whare-matangi left to search for his father, throwing a magic dart when lost to find his way. His last throw landed at the finely carved door of his father, Ngarue, who lived next to a great river. Ngarue was overjoyed to be united with his son, and there was a great celebration. Because of the mana both men possessed, the river was renamed to commemorate their story.

The first person to discover a place earned the right to name it under the Tikanga Take Taunaha (Rights of Discovery) and there are many place names around Aotearoa New Zealand named like this. Kupe was one the great explorers, but it was his wife Hine-te-Aparangi who named our island Aotearoa.

When they were travelling here in the Matahourua waka, Hine-te-aparangi was the first to sight land and she called out, "He ao, he ao tea roa!": "A cloud, a long white cloud!". A stationary cloud on the ocean was a tohu (sign) of land beneath it. Kupe went on to name many other places they found.

Of course, naming a place and then people using that name is the challenge. Then it was a case of the mana (prestige and power) of the person who named it, and successive generations living there who carved it onto the landscape before the written word and maps were brought to Aotearoa New Zealand. This was one of the perks of Take Ahi Kāroa (Rights of Long Term Occupation).

Ancient names were also transplanted from the island homelands to Aotearoa. Apirana Ngata termed these as reminiscent names. For example maunga named Hikurangi and Aoraki are also found in Rarotonga and other islands. 

There are also many names that simply describe the landscape, like Whanganui (meaning Great Bay - it makes sense when you look at a map of the lower west coast of the North Island).

Although the river and district spelling was corrected by government and the Geographic Board, opposition meant that there are many who still use Wanganui. Regrettably Wanganui has no meaning in Māori. I can't help but notice that Whanganui is still spelt incorrectly on Taranaki road signs. Crown agencies must use the correct spelling, so come on Land Transport, fix your spelling mistakes!

While colonisation saw many place names overlaid with English names, there are still thousands of Māori names throughout the country. But mispronounced place names literally hurt my ears, like fingernails dragged down a chalkboard.

When spoken correctly, place names sing and recall mighty tūpuna and fascinating events, because Māori place names have a purpose to remind us where we come from.

 - Stuff

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