August 19, 2022

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Welcome to Aotearoa? A campaign to decolonize New Zealand’s name

The first European contact with the native Maori ended with the deaths of four sailors and a hasty retreat. But it gave this South Pacific country an identity: New Zealand, Dutch or New Zealand, which later became part of the British Empire.

Now some lawmakers want New Zealanders to abandon one colonial-era name and adopt another: Aotearoa, a Maori word for clouds that tribal oral history says helped early Polynesian navigators reach so far.

Around the world, various countries are re-examining their identities to address the resentment of their colonial past and create a new future. In some cases, this means changing the head of state, such as Barbados severing ties with the British monarchy. Among others is changing its official name, as Esuatinien did in 2018 when its absolute ruler decided not to be called Swaziland. In recent years, Australia has changed its national anthem because it no longer reflects its Aboriginal history.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a briefing on the Covid-19 response and vaccine update in Wellington on August 26, 2021. Photo: AP

In New Zealand, the issue is coming to a head as a petition to change the country’s name to Aotearoa has garnered more than 70,000 signatures and other action.

“This is a realignment of where we are as a nation,” said Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of the Maori Party, a minor party in parliament that supported the petition. “Nothing to fear”.

Over the decades, Aotearoa has become more common in everyday speech. It appears on banknotes and passports and often on government documents, either alone or in combination with New Zealand. When the United States and New Zealand issued a joint statement following their leaders’ meeting in May, it named Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister of Aotearoa New Zealand. Māori is one of New Zealand’s three official languages, but fluency has fallen under the legacy of colonial-era policies that restricted its use.

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Ardern welcomes the wider use of Aotearoa, but the government is not exploring a formal name change, the prime minister’s spokesman said. Among the supporters of the plebiscite is Christopher Lacson, leader of the opposition National Party, who believes it is an issue that should not be decided by the government.

Polls suggest supporters of the new identity face an uphill battle. More than half of those surveyed want to keep New Zealand, according to a poll by market research firm Colmar Brunton. However, Aotearoa alone or Aotearoa New Zealand combined has 40% support.

Law student Ralph Zambrano is one of Aotearoa’s advocates of wider use. “Using Aotearoa as our name really reflects our history and acknowledges our past, but also how we can move forward together,” said Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Union president Zambrano.

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Although Dutch explorers were the first Europeans to see New Zealand in 1642, it was still 127 years before the next recorded encounter between Europeans and Maori took place. It was the British who claimed New Zealand in 1840 and signed treaties with dozens of Maori chiefs. That document, the Treaty of Waitangi, is now the legal basis for addressing grievances arising from conflict with European settlers, the dispossession of Maori land and capital, and the alienation of culture and language.

New Zealand Defense Force soldiers perform the traditional Maori haka during a ceremony in Arawa, Papua New Guinea on June 30, 2003. Photo: AFP

Aboriginal people – and Usher – argue that the country’s official name has had only a superficial connection to its history since the mid-1970s, when a change in law established a framework for reparations for Maori iwi-groups. In A Maori Cultural Revival.

Some detractors believe that Aotearoa is a modern invention, popularized by a late 19th century history book. However, it appears in New Zealand newspapers from the mid-19th century onwards, which points to its earlier origins.

“I think it’s divisive,” said Whanganui city councilor Charlie Anderson, a retired air ambulance pilot who campaigned a decade ago for the anglicized Whanganui to be the city’s name. You can’t keep changing history for that.

Within the Maori community, Aotearoa is not accepted across the country. When translated into Maori, New Zealand is Nu Tirene, which first appeared in the 1830s, but is no longer part of the modern vernacular.

A protester holds a New Zealand flag outside Parliament Buildings during the fourth day of protests against Covid-19 restrictions in Wellington on February 11, 2022. Photo: AFP

Attitudes may change slowly in New Zealand, home to about five million people. New Zealanders rejected a new national flag in a referendum six years ago. Queen Elizabeth II lives nearly 12,000 miles away in London and despite her last visit to New Zealand two decades ago, citizens have shown little interest in removing the British monarch as head of state.

As mayor of Queenstown, Jim Bolt is part of a council campaign for local businesses to rebrand the alpine resort town’s picturesque Lake Wakatipu as a Maori fix. The campaign has suffered some setbacks, he said.

However, as New Zealand is a strong, internationally established brand, Bolt is concerned that changing the country’s name will affect tourism.

“It will be similar to BMW rebranding as Bavarian Motors,” he said.