Aotearoa, Nu Tīreni, New Zealand — it's a complicated issue
Growing up in the Far North, Sam Napia never thought Pākehā would embrace te reo Māori.
The nation coming together to sing the Māori version of the national anthem was beyond his imagination. A stadium of Kiwis performing haka in the stands alongside the All Blacks on the international stage was unthinkable.
But in 2021, Napia, now the chief executive of Te Rūnanga ā Iwi ō Ngāpuhi, sees a break in the clouds.
The indigenous culture of the nation is being pushed to the forefront of our identity. It’s in our presentation to the world, but not in our name, he says.
* Historian's fancy, or widely used name? The battle over Aotearoa
* Kupe's voyage of discovery through Aotearoa still makes for an epic adventure
* Is it time to restore all of New Zealand's Māori place names?
The land was branded by colonising forces who, after a bit of trial and error, settled on naming the new area they had found New Zealand, but it was discovered long before Dutch explorer Abel Tasman arrived in 1642, or Englishman Captain James Cook set foot on the whenua in 1769.
In homes across the motu, discussions are being held between whānau as the nation edges closer to a Māori name than ever before.
Some iwi are thrilled, but others are concerned.
The tribal histories of the name, Aotearoa, differ between iwi, and while signatures continue to bolster Te Pāti Māori’s petition calling for the reinstatement of Aotearoa as the true Māori name of New Zealand, it’s important to demystify the perspectives of mana whenua and ask: Is Aotearoa the most appropriate name for this land?
To answer this requires look back to the name’s origins.
There are many versions of this story, differing among iwi, but the general consensus is that it was a wahine who fired the first shot.
Aboard his waka, Kupe and his ope (travelling party) set out from Tahiti to find new land in about 950 AD.
But on their quest of discovery, they became disheartened.
No land had been seen in days, the food was running out, the water drying up, and starvation was a shadow that hung over them, ready to engulf the waka.
As the desperation for land weighed down on them, a wife of Kupe scanned the horizon for their escape from death.
It was then that she spotted their salvation.
“He ao! He ao!” she shouted from the waka. A cloud! A cloud!
Clouds were an indication that land was nearby, and heartened by his wife’s call, Kupe reached for his steering paddle and made his course for the cloud.
As they drew nearer, the clouds rose higher, and Kupe and his whānau were elated they had reached their goal.
‘”Aotea! Aotea!” or the white cloud, the white cloud, they shouted.
“Then beneath the fleecy whiteness appeared a dark streak of bush-clad hill and valley, and they knew that before them lay the land they had seen in their dreams, and for which they had braved tempests and faced even death itself,” Michael King wrote in his book The Penguin History of New Zealand.
The story of Kupe as the rangatira to discover the motu is well known among iwi, but it’s what follows that leads to difference in perspectives of the validity of Aotearoa as the name of all the land.
The land in this case meaning the North Island, South Island, Stewart Island and Chatham Islands.
Was the name Aotearoa referring to all of these islands as a whole, or was it just the North Island that Kupe's wife was trying to indicate?
It’s complicated, says Dr Ruakere Hond, key supporter of Parihaka, longstanding advocate of te reo Māori revitalisation and Waitangi Tribunal member.
Hond (Taranaki, Te Ati Awa) is confident Aotearoa refers to the cloud that covers the cluster of islands that became the home of his tīpuna, he’s aware there are other names out there for the motu.
Take his Taranaki iwi, for example. To them, this country is Hawaiki Tautau, indicating where their tīpuna came from and to burn or burning, following the volcanic nature of the whenua.
Hond’s whānau are engaged in kōrero about the petition and other restorations of names across his rohe.
Name changing is not foreign to him, he says. Everyone used to call it Mt Egmont, but now Taranaki Maunga is the popular name for their mountain.
Hond sees it like this – the significance of New Zealand is that it is an area that is together.
“There isn’t really any other name that represents the land, and I don’t think that Aotearoa was ever meant to represent just the North Island.
“I don’t think they were ever describing the land, they were referring to the area. It was to represent the land mass that interrupted the weather pattern.”
This view connects well with the story of Kupe. That the cloud covering was an indication of land, and Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, was linked to the natural elements of the voyage rather than an intention to name a particular area.
And while the intention may not have been there to name the nation at that moment from the waka, it has become a force within Māori and Pākehā to take on this kupu as a word with whakapapa connecting to the origins of the nation’s settlement.
This kōrero has been bubbling for years, Hond says, and with the political climate of embracing Māori history in schools and celebrations such as Matariki, the catalyst for change has arrived.
“That discussion was always there, and even though people have always used the name New Zealand. I think what’s happened is the concept of localised identity has given us a place in the world, and Māori can now be recognised properly.”
For Napia too, restoration or not, Aotearoa has always referred to all islands.
Ngāphui has a strong connection to Kupe and his story, and have always called all the whenua that falls under the New Zealand banner Aotearoa, he says.
He is proud of the strides the nation has taken to embrace te reo Māori, but it’s taken the strength of many people to get the motu to where it is today.
The first that comes to mind is the wahine who brought te reo Māori to the world in a sweeping refusal to keep her language hidden.
Hinewehi Mohi’s performance of the national anthem in te reo at the 1999 Rugby World Cup All Blacks match in Twickenham was brave, and paved the way for others to celebrate their histories without fear, Napia says.
“Aotearoa New Zealand society is slowly coming into itself. We are a nation that is starting to embrace its history.
“She blew everyone away, singing it in te reo. Now you see it exhibited all around the country with pride and unity.”
In a September Colmar Brunton poll, 58 per cent of the respondents voted to keep the name New Zealand, however, 41 per cent voted for a mix of Aotearoa and New Zealand.
Of those, 31 per cent wanted a double-barrelled name, and 9 per cent wanted to see just Aotearoa representing the nation.
Napia is careful not to speak on behalf of all Ngāpuhi, as he’s aware Māori, regardless of iwi, are as diverse as the trees that cover the globe. But he sees the restoration of Aotearoa as an opportunity to further embrace the histories of the nation’s indigenous people.
“There are different views, and we are into respecting different versions, I’m not saying we have to agree.
“But Ngāpuhi will say ‘Aotearoa’ as we please.”
Concerns other iwi may have about the name should be heard between iwi, he says, adding that hui should be held for all to come together to discuss differing views to further enhance the local histories of our indigenous people.
“It’s a name that’s becoming accepted as a name in Māori origin. Different iwi have different views, but it’s the name for which this land is called.”
But Ngāi Tahu, the largest iwi in the South Island, see it differently and staunchly hold the view that their whenua is called Te Waipounamu, or Te Waka ā Māui.
“There is nothing to argue on this,” says historian and director of the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre at Canterbury University Dr Te Maire Tau. “Nu Tireni is the name for our tribe.”
Nu Tireni is a transliteration of New Zealand, which is the preferred Māori name for Tau, the ūpoko (head) of Ngāi Tūāhuriri.
In 1835, 34 rangatira signed He Whakaputanga o te Rangatira o Nu Tireni, the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand.
It’s these early documents, and transcripts prior, that form part of his argument.
Aotearoa has been popularised by Pākehā, he says. As one of Ngāi Tahu’s historians, the transcripts are clear, the south was never referred to as Aotearoa, and it never will be.
“The North Island has always been Te Ika ā Māui, the fish of Māui, and we were Te Waka ā Māui, the waka of Māui.
“Aotearoa has been popularised by Pākehā. There’s no way we will be taking the name.”
In an interview in 2003, the late Michael King detailed the issues with the name Aotearoa as a popularisation by Europeans who enjoyed the Kupe narrative.
Journals from Stephen St Percy-Smith and William Pember-Reeves enhanced this story to the point where it was inescapable, King said.
The Department of Education introduced the story into the school system – public and indigenous – in the early 20th century, he said, which laid the foundations for the petition.
“They used Percy-Smith’s material and the story about Kupe and Aotearoa said, ‘This is a wonderful name and it’s a wonderful story, wouldn’t it be great if everybody called New Zealand Aotearoa.’
“They learnt at school that the Māori name of New Zealand was Aotearoa and that’s how it became the Māori name.”
While Tau acknowledges the story of Kupe, he says Ngāi Tahu doesn’t identify with that narrative, and therefore the name, Aotearoa, was irrelevant to the iwi.
“New Zealand has had a lot of names over the years,” Tau says.
“We do have a say on the matter, but it’s wider than a Māori debate, it’s a national debate and the tribe just won’t support Aotearoa.
“There’s no interest in being identified by North Island imagination.”
The base story of Kupe and his voyage is generally accepted, but it’s the nuances that cause the strength of Aotearoa to fray.
Speaking on behalf of the Kīngitanga and Waikato Tainui, Rahui Papa says all views are respected.
Kupe was prolific in different parts and not in others, he says, so these histories have different weightings in those tribal traditions.
“Everyone has their own identity, but Aotearoa essentially means the cloud that covers the whenua.
“The clouds are seen by all parts of the country, and they are a cover for all parts of the country.”
This includes Te Ika ā Māui, Te Waipounamu, Rakiura, and Rēkohu – the North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands.
Papa says the concerns held by Ngāi Tahu shouldn’t strike fear that their histories will be rewritten or taken over by another narrative. They all co-exist together and are kept alive by the mokopuna who tell these stories.
But Aotearoa is a way Māori can be represented at the highest level in the nation as an identifying word for our motu.
He compared the application of Aotearoa to Matariki.
All iwi celebrate Matariki differently, such as Taranaki celebrating Paunga as that star is visible from the rohe, not the wider Matariki cluster.
But that doesn’t mean Matariki shouldn't go ahead. It’s a springboard for iwi to tell their narratives and express their histories which are enhanced alongside the national celebration, Papa says.
“Every iwi, every marae, every hapū will have their own narrative and they need to be true to their histories.
“We have to take on all histories, all accounts, but a natural part are the calls to a coming together of ideas.
“The Kīngitanga encourages a meeting of minds, but also for people to be true to the tribal narrative of their areas, which will be different. Each will have their own mana.”
While there are differences in histories, everyone agrees it’s a national discussion.
Kōrero and whakaaro (discussion and thought) are a big part of the petition, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says.
Co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, Ngarewa- Packer, alongside co-leader Rawiri Waititi, launched a petition in September to officially change the nation’s name to Aotearoa and restore all te reo Māori names to towns, cities and wāhi across the motu.
The petition states that “tangata whenua are sick to death of our ancestral names being mangled, bastardised, and ignored. It’s the 21st Century, this must change.
“It’s well past time that te reo Māori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country. We are a Polynesian country – we are Aotearoa.”
Within six days, the petition had received more than 60,000 signatures.
Ngarewa-Packer said she expected only 5000 signatures, but the outpouring of support has been inspiring.
Their goal was to have the names restored by 2026, with iwi, hapū and whānau engaging in the process to ensure the rohe they connect with was represented correctly in the future.
She is aware of the differing views some have in taking on the name Aotearoa, however, she says her job isn’t to implement decisions for Māori but create the opportunities for discussion.
“We never went into this thinking we should have no kōrero, that’s what we wanted.
“We have our views and our voices, and that’s what New Zealand was blocking.
“There are different kōrero that we hold on to because of whakapapa, but no one’s saying they support New Zealand. They’re saying they respect their own whakapapa.”
Histories are enhanced when discussions are held, she says, and the name New Zealand doesn’t hold any whakapapa for the indigenous population of this motu.
The typical path these conversations take is when iwi disagree, colonisation says they must go on with the status quo, but Ngarewa-Packer rejects this.
“Aotearoa is a tangata whenua name. Nu Tireni is just a transliteration.
“Aotearoa brings rise to the bigger issues. It’s not for Pākehā to tell Māori what our kupu is.”
However, that’s what it could come down to.
The Māori population is 16.5 per cent compared to 70.2 per cent European.
If the petition came to a referendum, it wouldn't be Māori getting it across the line, it would be Pākehā choosing to take on Aotearoa.
That’s why this conversation, while close to the hearts of Māori, needs to be held by everyone, Napia says.
Bringing the kōrero to the political stage broadens the discussions he’s been having in his whare for years: Who are we? Who do we want to be?
“This is an opportunity for Aotearoa New Zealand society to come to that themselves. We are a nation that is starting to embrace its history.
“Māori being clear about who we are and what we stand up for is important and that will help to shape our society.
“And if Aotearoa doesn’t come to be in my generation or the next, Ngāpuhi will always call this land Aotearoa.”