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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

ĀteaJuly 28, 2023

Correcting misspelt Māori place names and the problem with a ‘standardised approach’

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Reclaiming traditional place names is crucial for decolonisation, but some iwi believe enforcing standardised spelling of those ingoa diminishes their mana.

Before Pākehā renamed Aotearoa with foreign names, ancestral Māori bestowed special ingoa across the motu. The names were often locally relevant, referencing nearby natural features, events that happened there or tūpuna who lived there. Conversely, Pākehā names are often culturally and geographically disconnected from Aotearoa. Wellington, named after war hero the Duke of Wellington, commemorates the might of the British military – a poignant reminder of colonisation. One traditional ingoa Māori for the area is Te-Whanganui-a-Tara – the great harbour of Tara, a significant tupuna. Yet, alongside renaming places, colonisation also distorted many te reo Māori titles through incorrect spellings based on mispronunciations of local dialects, that disregard iwi-specific spelling conventions or that have totally mangled the original name over time. 

Part of revitalising te ao Māori is reclaiming traditional place names with their correct spellings and pronunciations, but it has not always gone smoothly. In January, Reuben Friend (Ngāti Maniapoto, Pākehā) wrote for The Spinoff about the 2017 furore around the spelling of Whanganui and Wanganui, “when the nation struggled to get our collective heads around the subtle dialectal variations of place names and pronunciation from region to region and iwi to iwi”. “In 2023 I’d like to think that we’re maturing as a nation, settling into our multicultural skin, more able and willing to accept cultural nuance as an important and definitive aspect of our identity,” he concluded.

Recently, on the advice of the mana whenua of Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland leaders started correcting misspellings. In 2026, a new train station – Karanga-a-Hape – will open just off Karangahape Road. The City Rail Link website explains, “The name ‘Karanga-a-Hape’ is a grammatical correction of the current Karangahape” – a small but crucial change. And this is not the first time Auckland has used a train station to correct a incorrect spelling. In 2018, Auckland Council and Auckland Transport renamed Takanini station Takaanini in accordance with mana whenua requests and the council’s te reo Māori policy. The station and suburb are named after Ihaka Takaanini (Te Waiohua), a 19th-century rangatira and ancestor of the Te Aakitai iwi and the Waiohua collective. 

A render of the Karanga-a-Hape railway station.
A render of the planned Karanga-a-Hape station, the name being a correction of the grammatically incorrect spelling Karangahape

The name change was supported by AT, council, mana whenua, KiwiRail and Te Tupu Ngātahi/The Supporting Growth Alliance (a partnership between AT and Waka Kotahi) – collectively representing local Māori, Auckland’s elected leaders plus transport bosses, and two national transport providers. This spelling correction set a precedent for using double vowels instead of tohutō for South Auckland train station names. Double vowel spelling to indicate a long vowel is preferred by many mana whenua in Manukau as well as local Crown entities like Te Whatu Ora Counties Manukau. Further south Waikato-Tainui peoples also use double vowels. 

With all that in mind, the ahikā of Manukau offered double vowel names for three new railway stations in their rohe: Te Maketuu, Ngaakooroa and Paeraataa. Paaora Puru from Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua – one of the iwi who gifted the names – explains the ingoa are taonga because of their “immense spiritual, cultural, traditional and customary significance”. To Puru, reinstating traditional names reestablishes meaningful local connections – especially for titles with spelling and pronunciation unique to certain groups’ identities. But it’s not just local iwi who sanctioned these names’ double vowel spelling. Once again, AT, council, KiwiRail, Te Tupu Ngātahi and the other mana whenua of Tāmaki Makaurau welcomed the ingoa. 

Paaora Puru.
Paaora Puru (Photo: Supplied)

Yet, these widely-approved names were rejected by Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa (the New Zealand Geographic Board), which handles public place naming. Instead, they approved the names Drury, Ngākōroa and Paerātā. NZGB chair Anselm Haanen explains that “the board has a responsibility in its legislation to achieve a standardised approach to place names and establish the correct orthography“.

The board never signed off on the Takaanini station renaming, so Haanen notes the ingoa is technically illegal, and Takanini is still the officially recognised name. Haanen elaborates that the board makes its decisions based “on the expert advice of a Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) translator” – although he also asserts the NZGB makes “significant effort to engage with mana whenua on place name proposals”.

Puru believes the board didn’t significantly engage with local iwi regarding naming Manukau’s new stations – going as far as to say the NZGB’s actions breach the Te Tiriti o Waitangi Crown-Māori partnership. He says the NZGB “as our Treaty partner, has failed to protect our taonga, and we consider this as a direct breach of Article Two”. The second article of Te Tiriti promises Māori exclusive and undisturbed possession of all their taonga. Te Mita o Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua (the Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua written and verbal dialect – including double vowel spelling) is one of those taonga protected under article two, explains Puru. 

By not protecting that taonga, the NZGB enforced te reo Māori standardisation, he argues. While Haanen says “a standardised approach” is the board’s responsibility, Puru believes that practice negatively affects the unique identity of different groups and will disassociate mokopuna from their mother tongue. “To standardise te reo Maaori in Taamaki Makaurau, Auckland is to diminish our unique Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua cultural identity and ultimately our mana,” Puru notes. He explains that Ngaati Te Ata Waiohua rejects standardised te reo Maaori spelling, particularly when it is imposed in their rohe top-down by Wellington-based Crown entities. 

The location of the three new Manukau railway stations.
The location of the three new Manukau railway stations. (Image: Kiwirail)

The iwi and its whanaunga petitioned the NZGB to have the station names they provided “be formally adopted by the New Zealand Geographic Board in their entirety as we gifted them, in the notion of good faith, respect and reciprocity”, says Puru. The board is yet to accept this proposal from their Treaty partners, the Manukau ahikā. 

How can the two sides move forward? Returning to Friend’s article from January provides a hint. “The Treaty partnership relationship is like any other relationship,” Friend wrote. “Sometimes we need to listen to our partners better and stop trying to be right all the time, to really hear what they are trying to tell us.”

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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