The politics of naming and rejecting our colonial history



Do names matter? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but is that more than just a pretty saying?*

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born in 1942. He inherited his fathers’ name. Clay grew up in urban Kentucky during a period when the South’s vices – “violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas” – were peaking. Clay grew up rough, like any black kid in the earlier 20th century, but he found his virtue in boxing. After a superhuman amateur career Clay defeated Sonny Liston and claimed the world heavyweight championship. Less than a month later, Cassius Marcellus Clay became Muhammed Ali.

The name change was a conscious and powerful rejection of Ali’s “slave name“. It was also an affirmation of his new faith – Islam – and his new ideology – anti-imperialism and equality. An epic fuck you to the system.

The name became as important as the man. Ali “by any other name” wouldn’t have smelt as sweet. Ali had refused to conform to the narratives that Americans expected of black people and in a community where history is closer and names are deeply rooted in slavery, Ali’s decision to deny his name and refuse to conform to black narratives offered political hope to a generation of black people.

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Names can’t be divorced from their cultural and political contexts: Mount Cook versus Aoraki, the h in Whanganui, Te Waipounamu and Te Ika a Maui or the North and South islands.

Reclaiming New Zealand’s original names is about our identity. Wanganui, Mount Cook and the North and South Islands are entrenched in and represent colonial history and cultural assimilation ideologies. Aoraki, Whanganui and Te Ika a Maui and Te Waipounamu represent a rejection of the cultural imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries and an affirmation of the bi(multi)cultural partnership.

Reclaiming the country’s original names is about reclaiming mana. If iwi can’t control how people identify their land, that loss of control is a loss of mana. On the 29th of September Parliament passed the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act. The Act included cultural recognition including the reclamation of the name Aoraki. Reclaiming original names and dual naming is described, both in legislation and by Ngai Tahu themselves, as “mana recognition”. Naming is part of reclaiming the Maori identity, essentially. A mountain “by any other name” would not smell as sweet for Ngai Tahu.

The politics of naming is the politics of identity. The name change debate forces New Zealand to consider what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century. Do we value our indigenous past or are we rooted to our colonial history? New Zealanders are a conservative lot, not innately opposed to change, but suspicious of it where the circumstances aren’t asking for it. Are we ready to take the name change step?


*The first and last time I’ll be prissy enough to quote Shakespeare.


  1. I have no problem with using Maori place names especially when they replace or are used concurrently with names that lack imagination such as North or South Island. However I fail to see why colonial era names should be discarded because of ideological reasons. Lime it .ir not many of these names are as much part of our shared history as their Maori alternatives.

    • Thanks for your comment. I look at it on case by case basis. In some instances I prefer the concurrent approach (e.g. North Island/Te Ika a Maui) and the symbolism that presents. I think concurrent naming encapsulates the bi(multi)cultural partnership. However, in other instances I prefer the reclaimation of the original names. I suppose it’s a matter of degree. I infinitely prefer Mount Taranaki over Mount Egmont and Mount Putauaki over Mount Edgecumbe. Mount Edgecumbe isn’t woven in the New Zealand identity or the provincial identity in the same way that, say, the name North Island is.

      • I agree to an extent. My concern is we get too caught up in righting historical wrongs we ignore vernacular usage that harms noone. While I have no major objections to what happened in the case of Whanganui I would object if a push was made to ‘correct’ the names of say Epuni or Petone. These have been spelt and pronounced that way for so long that it is now part of the history of the area. England is full of places like this where the name is not spelt or pronounced as it was originally intended. It does not detract from the location at all.

        • From a Maori perspective, correcting the spelling of Petone and others is about restoring the mana of the language and the local people from who the name(s) are derived. Jeanette below makes the point well. I agree that names – even in their incorrect form – become part of the history of an area. I think correcting misspelled names, mispronounced names and so on is a separate issue from the wholesale changing of place names (e.g. Mount Egmont vs Mount Taranaki). Misspelled names should always be corrected for the sake of the mana of the name itself, the local iwi/hapu/or whanau and the for the sake of the mana of the language.

  2. The way I see it is that this is topic should really be about the mana of te reo Māori in that the Māori names we’re talking about here have existed in written and spoken Māori for a long time and the Geographic Board is only now recognising that their role in making names ‘official’ doesn’t just mean making names official in English, but in Māori as well. However, that said, I still think most of the discussion around this topic is about using these names in English. That is, the underlying idea is ‘what happens in English matters, and what matters happens in English’. In focussing on Māori words here, we’re ignoring the Māori language. Trees, wood …

  3. I’m strongly in favour of replacing pakeha names with maori ones where we have them. Especially when the pakeha names are boring as heck, we are this close to having “1 king st queenstown south island” as a legitimate address. At least Tamatea… is interesting.

    The one tiny quibble I have is that where the name is already used we might want to think about a new maori name rather than renaming something significant. Nelson city already has a suburb called Whakatu, for example, but there are other names for different parts of the area that could be used.

    And often there are a plethora of same-names in use around the world – there are a number of towns etc called “Nelson” (South Australia, British Columbia) so it’s not as if the admiral is going to be completely disenfranchised (and if you think the westies are going to start using local languages for place names… good luck).

  4. Thought provoking article. The English names for our two main islands are the most boring possible. Tamaki Makaurau is a so much more poetic name for our largest city (does anyone remember who Lord Auckland even was?) Maori place names should be the default.

    One question, though: is Te Ika A Maui the original name for the North Island? According to Paul Moon’s (admittedly controversial) book “This Horrid Practice”, the author argues that pre-contact Tangata Whenua would not have realised that the island was shaped like a fish, and it was only after they had seen European maps that they gave it this name.

  5. I’m of the opinion that we should be dumping the English names altogether and putting back the Māori names. There would be some places that this would be impractical but there’s always place for discussion.

  6. Mount Taranaki?
    When I lived in Waitara, it was just called Taranaki – no Mount needed – the mountain symbolised the area.

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