‘A good trick’: Critics aim to shift debate to Aotearoa, but historical fidelity no longer matters | New Zealand
NOTNew Zealand is, in its own imagination, a progressive utopia. The first country in the world where women were granted the right to vote, the first country in the world to introduce workplace arbitration, the Anglosphere’s leading critic on nuclear weapons, and the former British colony with “The fairest treaty ever concluded by Europeans with a native. race”.
This particular achievement – a virtuous contract with the Maori that academics often call “a text for the performance of a nation” – is so central to the national ego that anyone questions it, whether politician or activist, is almost immediately greeted with screams. that New Zealand, whatever its faults, still enjoys the “best race relations in the world”.
Yet the partisan debate over the use of the name Aotearoa, the name reo Maori (Maori language) for New Zealand, reveals the complacency behind these supposedly excellent race relations. In July, National Party MP Stuart Smith launched a public call for a referendum on whether to rename New Zealand “Aotearoa”. Smith then resumed his appeal, arguing that until a referendum takes place, we should also ban the use of the name in official documents.
These calls came from the back of National Party leader Judith Collins criticizing the He Puapua report, a obscure political document outlining how the government could implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The report proposes to create “two systems” comprising separate Maori health, justice and education systems.
What is striking about Smith’s appeal, and Collins’ charge of “separatism” that precedes it, is that he initiates a political debate without public demand. Beyond a handful of anti-Maori leagues and back door protests – “we live in New Zealand, not in Aotearoa” read a sign of the recent “rural revolt” – there is no momentum or appetite to discuss the appropriate and inappropriate use of Aotearoa.
Likewise, it is difficult to detect a collective will to debate whether the future Maori Health Authority, to take an example, is racist against whites. Instead, what drives Smith and Collins is desperation. The National Party remains below 30% in all major polls – five points below the layoff threshold Collins set for himself in 2018. When your opponent, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government, handle every crisis with a political and political ease, where do you turn? ?
The answer came to Orewa. Judith Collins came to Parliament following the 2002 election, where National crashed to 30% of the vote – the party’s worst result until the 2020 election. Over the next 12 months, National would languish at 28% in most major polls, struggling to strike a blow against a Labor government that was widely understood to be capable and competent. Until, of course, in 2004, Don Brash took the stage at the Orewa Rotary Club to condemn the then Labor government for “the dangerous drift of its political agenda towards racial separatism in New Zealand”. In two weeks, National has jumped to 45% in the polls as latent opposition to the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori representation on health boards and Reo Maori funding found a voice.
Yet hidden in that increase were the seeds of Judith Collins’ own defeat in 2021. After Orewa, National saw an increase in support across all demographic groups except office workers, students and the under. 30 years old. In fact, support for National among college students and under-30s plummeted after Brash’s accusations of separatism. These 2002 youth are now entering their 40s and 50s and are the highest voting demographic, the bulk of the professional class and the cohort that, at least on other issues, is most likely to vote National. (the most reliable indicator of conservative support is often age). It is for the same reason that a debate over the use of Aotearoa is unlikely to succeed: most New Zealanders are comfortable, even supportive, using reo Māori.
This means that over the past fortnight, critics of the name have set to work shifting the grounds for debate by arguing that “Aotearoa” is not New Zealand’s original name at all but rather an “invention”. The counter-argument to this accusation is obvious and deserves to be mentioned for the record: all names are inventions. When Dutchman Abel Tasman, who spent less than a week in Aotearoa, baptized the country for Europe, he also coined a new name in “New Zealand”, a loan from his native Holland. But it is also worth looking into the merits of the accusation because while it is true that Aotearoa is not the original name of this country, it means that many Maori accept some side of the story. invented by, and probably for, white men.
For most of the 20th century, most New Zealanders learned that Captain Cook “discovered” New Zealand. Yet the mana for this discovery, at least in some tribal accounts, rightly belongs to Kupe, the explorer of Eastern Polynesia whose crew first saw and made landfall in what was the last great land mass established by humans. “He ao! He ao! Roars Kuramārōtini, who is Kupe’s wife, alerting the crew to “a cloud, a cloud” on the horizon. When the brave explorers reach the land, Kupe calls it Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud. In other accounts it is Kupe’s daughter who marks the cloud above the earth, and in yet other accounts the name does not necessarily derive from the clouds above the earth but from the travel canoe itself, Aotearoa.
However, these oral accounts are not necessarily universal. In literature, “Aotearoa” did not come into widespread use until the end of the 19th century. Michael King, perhaps New Zealand’s leading popular historian, accuses William Pember Reeves of coining the name in his own populist work, The Long White Cloud – Aotearoa, in 1898. Other historians and critics of the change in name of the country agree that Aotearoa is, rather ironically, the invention of a Pākehā. “It is perfectly clear that [William Pember Reeves] in particular, and possibly others as well, actually coined the name Aotearoa for their own purposes, ”former New Zealand first MP Denis O’Rourke told Stuff’s Philip Matthews.
But does it hold? The first official documents transliterated the name of the country to “Nu Tereni” (“Māoriland” was also in common use until the beginning of the 20th century). “Aotearoa” appears in documents as early as 1855, in Maori-language newspapers such as Māori Messenger and Governor Gray’s manuscripts. But historians have yet to find any prior official references. Critics of a name change rely on this evidence to support their opposition, overturning progressive talking points, arguing that it is inappropriate to take the story of a white man to justify a name change maori.
It’s an interesting tip, but as historian Rawiri Taonui rightly argues, “Aotearoa” did not come out of the ether, or even the mind of a 19th century gentleman, but finds its way. source in Maori oral histories. Taonui, who is an expert in Maori oral history, cites 30 to 40 examples between 1846 and 1861. The origins of these oral histories, passed down from generation to generation, are likely much older. But that leaves an unanswered question: does it even matter if there is a historical precedent for “Aotearoa”? Of course not. The first European explorers understood the power of naming, hence their international effort to remake the world in English.
Maori understand the same imperative, and enough Maori accept Aotearoa as the name of New Zealand that its historical fidelity no longer matters. Stuart Smith may find that most New Zealanders are of the same opinion as well.