Two weeks ago the Māori Party launched a petition, calling on the House of Representatives to change New Zealand’s official name to Aotearoa by 2026, and to restore all Te Reo Māori names to towns, cities and places around the country.
Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngāwera-Packer and Rawiri Waititi issued in a joint statement that it was time for these changes to take place. “It’s well past time that Te Reo Māori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country”, adding that “we are a Polynesian country – we are Aotearoa”. The Māori Party has emphasised that this is not an attempt at division, but the exact opposite. Waititi stated to the press that “Aotearoa is a name that will unify our country rather than divide it, others are trying to use it as a divisive tool, but this is an inclusive tool, where our ancestors consented to us all living on this whenua together”.
The petition has gained notable momentum over the past week, gaining over 6000 signatories as of September 21st. This has not come without backlash either, with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters labelling it “left-wing extremism”, and launching a counter-petition that has struggled to reach signature numbers even close to the tens of thousands that Te Pāti Māori has since received.
Te Mana Akonga, the National Māori Tertiary Students Association, told Craccum that the arguments made by the Māori Party are not new or particularly radical, and are merely part of the decolonisation process. “We know that Te Paati Māori draws on what is already recognised predominantly by Māori as Aotearoa. Our pūrākau use Aotearoa, our waiata have used it…Te Mana Ākonga welcomes this opportunity to prioritise indigeneity and hopes it will be a restorative step towards better Te Tiriti engagement.”. The association argues that the petition aims to remove pākehā-oriented narratives in history, such as New Zealand being ‘discovered’. “This narrative shifts the focus on how foreigners can discover something that is already found and already established, with rich culture, thriving communities, practises and natural wealth.”
Te Mana Akonga told Craccum that Te Pāti Māori’s presence in parliament this year has been significant. “Te Paati Māori have shined from strength to strength; (1) allowing cultural adornments in parliament; (2) singing waiata; (3) uplifting the perception of Māori in politics; (4) and voicing the concerns of Tangata whenua around racism…as a bi-cultural nation that was founded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and a multi-cultural society there should be a space to recognise the value that is within the indigeneity.”
The origins of the name ‘Aotearoa’ are uncertain. Many historians argue that both Māori and non-Māori began widely using the name in the late 19th century for identifying the nation that they lived in, despite the name ‘Nu Tireni’ having been used in the 1835 Declaration of Independence, and 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Historian Kerry Howe states that this does not diminish ‘Aotearoa’s’ validity as a name and is not exclusive to New Zealand, rather, that it just shows the evolution of words over time.
What is not obscure, however, is the fact that the Māori Party’s petition is more than a call for a name change. The party argues that by changing New Zealand’s name to Aotearoa and restoring all Te Reo place names around the country, a step in restoring Te Reo Māori as the first and official language of the country will have taken place. “It is the duty of the Crown to do all that it can to restore the status of our language. That means it needs to be accessible in the most obvious of places: on our televisions, on our radio stations, on road signs, maps and official advertising, and in our education system.”
The link to the Māori Party’s petition, alongside further information, can be found here.