To anybody who is reasonably observant, the rapid increase in appearance of the word “Aotearoa” in print and the spoken word will appear very striking, even sinister. Thus, even the recently appointed Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, has used it and it has appeared on postage stamps in larger print than our country’s real name. What is going on? Is our country’s name being changed by stealth? We are New Zealanders – surely we are proud of that! By what right can anybody alter it?
As always, we can get some perspective by looking at our history which tells us that “Aotearoa” is a quite recent upstart with scant justification, if any at all, to be used as our country’s name.
Just as they had no sense of a Maori nation, “in the pre-European era, Maori had no name for the country as a whole”.[i] This need be no surprise as the same was true for most Pacific Island Groups – the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands – Tonga being an exception. It was left to European explorers to appreciate the wider picture and give them names.
The first to do so for us was Abel Tasman in 1642 who imagined that what he saw here was part of the conjectured Great Southern Continent of which it was supposed that another land mass off the tip of South America was also a part. This had been named “Staten Land” or, in Dutch, “Staten Landt”. So Tasman duly named our country “Staten Landt”. When it was discovered at almost the same time that South America’s neighbour was only another island, its name was changed accordingly and the Dutch States General renamed Tasman’s discovery “Nieuw Zeelandt”, in the next year. That has been, anglicised to “New Zealand”, our country’s name for the 370 years ever since.
When the Treaty of Waitangi was written in 1840, our name was, appropriately, transliterated to Maori as “Nu Tirani” and it appears solely as that in the Treaty (Tiriti).
Moreover, when documents were to be written in Maori, this continued to be the practice and when a document in Maori was posted on the wall of the Karitane Post Office about a hundred years later it had been modified only slightly to the somewhat more accurate rendering of “Niu Tireni”. “Aotearoa” just did not appear.
So where did “Aotearoa” come from and where was it used? Pre-Treaty Maoris had many names for the main islands of New Zealand and “Aotearoa” was just one of them. Moreover, it was sometimes used for the North Island (according to Michael King) and sometimes for the South (as stated by Barry Brailsford).[ii]
As King continues, “Polynesian ancestors came from … islands, and it was to islands that they gave names” For the North Island, King nominates “Te Ika a Maui”, “Aotea” (also used for Great Barrier Island) and “Aotearoa”, the preferred name for the North Island of Tawhiao, the second Maori king. To this list, Brailsford adds “Whai Repo”and Ngai Tahu researcher, Jean Jackson, “Orokeroke”[iii]. Jean says also that “Aotearoa” was also used to refer only to the three central mountains whose volcanic ash discharges could sometimes form a long pencil shape.
For the South Island, apart from Brailsford’s “Aotearoa”, King says it “was known variously as ‘Te-Waka-a-Aoraki’, … ‘Te Wahi Pounamu’ and ‘Te Wai Pounamu’”. Jean Jackson adds “Kaikaldu” which Stewart Island historian Sheila Natusch said meant “eat pigeons” and says there is documentary evidence of this. She says too that an unpublished work by Keith Darroch, available in the National Library, gives yet more information.
As King says, “In the Maori world all these names would persist in simultaneous usage until around the middle of the nineteenth century” after which Maoris “began to favour Nu Tirani and its variants … few Maori opted for ‘Aotearoa’”.