Year 170: Whanganui/Wanganui and the importance of place names

For the next part of my assessment of the current state of the Treaty relationship, I thought I’d touch on a couple of issues relating to the Minister of Land Information’s decision that the official geographic name for the city of Wanganui will be the alternatives ‘Whanganui’ or ‘Wanganui’.  As with the tino rangatiratanga flag issue, this issue has bubbled along for a good part of the year until the Minister’s announcement last week.  Andrew Geddis, has blogged on the way that this has been sold as simply allowing an alternative spelling, when of course, in practice, if central government is using ‘Whanganui’, that will quickly become the recognised and accepted spelling.  Personally, I agree with the New Zealand Geographic Board that ‘Whanganui’, as the correct spelling of the name used by the original inhabitants, ought to be the official name.  But, I’d like to take a step back for a moment to consider the importance of naming places within colonial and Māori legal cultures.

In both legal cultures, naming places is part of an assertion of rights and authority.  The traditional Māori system of rights in relation to land and natural resources recognised a number of different bases upon which those rights could be based.  But it seems clear that the strongest evidence of these rights came from continuous occupation, use, and maintenance of connection with the land.  The naming of particular sites was one way in which connections with the land were demonstrated.  Indeed, if a group of people were forced off the land for some reason, then stories associated with the land, previously established waahi tapu (sacred sites), and place names became even more important as indicators of links with the land that had been maintained over generations.  

The naming, or probably more accurately, the ‘re-naming’ of places is also a central part of the colonization process, not only in Aotearoa, but in many countries throughout the world.  Giselle Byrnes’ book, Boundary Markers, illustrates this point by examining the role that surveyors played in the colonization of New Zealand and how giving British names to local places was part of the process of marking, transforming, and settling the land.  As Byrnes notes in Boundary Markers, British place names were deployed as ‘deliberate and provocative statements of power’.  Although ‘Wanganui’ isn’t exactly a British place name, it certainly isn’t the name Māori gave that place.  Historically, the assertion of the settler name in preference to the Māori name can, I think, be viewed in the same way – that is, as a deliberate statement of power.

So, perhaps it is little wonder that the spelling of Whanganui has been so hotly debated.  And little wonder too, that the Government has tried to have a bob each way by opting for the recognition of two alternative spellings.  Acknowledging the correct spelling of Whanganui is a step in the right direction.  Though one might have hoped that, in the 170th year of the Treaty relationship, we, as a country, would be able to confront more confidently the colonial mindset that demands an incorrect spelling also be used.

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