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Taranaki Maunga (Photo: Getty, design: Archi Banal)
Taranaki Maunga (Photo: Getty, design: Archi Banal)

ĀteaJanuary 17, 2022

The naming of Taranaki Mounga

Taranaki Maunga (Photo: Getty, design: Archi Banal)
Taranaki Maunga (Photo: Getty, design: Archi Banal)

Taranaki Mounga or Mount Egmont? Your preference depends on which history you most align with, writes Airana Ngarewa.

This article uses Taranaki mita (dialect).

Whakaari or White Island, Gate Pā or Greerton, Wanganui or Whanganui. The conversation around place names has oscillated in and out of public discourse for a long time and will do so for a long while yet. In Taranaki this has centred most passionately around our mounga, one rōpū insisting upon the name granted by Captain Cook and the other upon the name granted by an ancient rite. The latter, Taranaki: named for Rua Taranaki who, through karakia, anchored the mounga high up the source of the Hangatahua River; dug a cave into and lived inside the composite volcano; and sent his son to scale that towering thing to light a ceremonial fire atop its peak. No single nor small feat.

The former is Egmont: named for the second earl of Egmont, John Perceval. A supporter of Cook’s voyage but a man with no real connection to this mountain or motu. This division in meaning is not uncommon when comparing more contemporary vs more traditional names in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I’ve come to think the fervour that motivates these conversations is a disparity in stories founded in two largely separate histories. The oldest on this land near a millennium – though a good number of pūrākau tell a much lengthier tale – and the younger a couple of centuries. These distinct biographies persisted even beyond the treaty, with most Māori living among Māori until the second half of the twentieth century, and Pākehā doing the same. And so two seldom connected and even more seldom communicated histories have created a country built upon two unique sets of narratives. One Māori. One Pākehā.

In the case of Taranaki Mounga, this meant Captain Cook’s designation of Egmont carried among Pākehā populations and Rua’s rite among Māori.

Now, of course, times have changed. The years have carried these once separate people into the same spaces, same communities, and a far-reaching reappraisal has begun to take place. The Big Sorting Out. In some cases a marrying of stories, as in Aotearoa New Zealand or Aoraki Mount Cook, and in other instances a prioritising of one story over another. Too often, until very recently, this has meant Māori place names being absent from official records, these taonga surviving only through esoteric texts and wānanga.

The politics of it all is complicated and without any obvious precedent, although the tide appears to be moving towards a greater recognition of the names confirmed by mana whenua. This is largely a consequence of a rising consciousness, more and more people of all creeds and colours gaining a greater appreciation of the enormous history of these names and the people who have fought so hard to keep them alive. It is by this process, a mutual sharing of stories, that I’ve come to think the Big Sorting Out will be sorted out. Because of course Taranaki is Taranaki.

Let Cook and the earl be honestly acknowledged for their contributions, altruistic and otherwise, but let it also be known that neither ever stepped foot in this rohe or laid down their heads in the shadow of our mounga. Certainly, neither story is as compelling or as connected as Rua’s is to the west coast.

And so, in the spirit of story, let me share another about Taranaki Mounga, his former names being Pukeonaki and Pukehaupapa. Before the time of man on this motu, mounga were the original chiefs. They were incredibly powerful and could move, think and feel. At this time, Pukeonaki stood in the heart of Te-ika-a-Māui with Tongariro and the Lady Pihama – a graceful wooded mountain. He and Tongariro both longed after Pihama and as it happened, warred for her affection. Some say they threw fire and lava, others say they fought with their hands and feet. Tongariro won out, striking Pukeonaki so hard the scar can be seen today in a hollow below Fanthom’s Peak.

Struck down and having lost the fight for Pihama, Pukeonaki retreated underground and down the Whanganui River. Led by the guide stone Rauhoto, he happened upon Pouakai, a mountain range in the west. Pukeonaki took his place beside her, the place he remains now, eventually fathering the trees, plants, birds, rocks and rivers that run down their slopes. Rauhoto now rests at Puniho Pā near Warea.

This pūrākau is remembered in the following waiata tawhito:

Tū kē Tongariro. Tongariro stands apart. Motu kē Taranaki. Separated off is Taranaki. He riri ki a Pihanga. By the strife over Pihanga. Waiho i muri nei. Hiding in later times.

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