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Explained: Why did New Zealand's Maori party launch a petition to change the country's name to Aotearoa?

Arfa Javaid

New Zealand's Maori Party has launched a petition on 14 September 2021 to officially change the country's name to Aotearoa, meaning the 'land of the long white cloud' in the indigenous Te Reo Maori language. The party has further urged the government to restore Maori names for all towns, cities, and places by 2026.

Today we are marking Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori by launching a petition to change the country’s official name to Aotearoa, and officially restore the Te Reo Māori names for all towns, cities and place names. Show your tautoko and sign the petition here: https://t.co/J831tHmiMJ pic.twitter.com/h45ap2eLHo

— Te Pāti Māori (@Maori_Party) September 13, 2021

About the campaign

The Maori Party in its campaign said, "It is well past time that Te Reo Maori was restored to its rightful place as the first and official language of this country. We are a Polynesian country - we are Aotearoa."

"Tangata Whenua (the indigenous people) are sick to death of our ancestral names being mangled, bastardised, and ignored. It’s the 21st Century, this must change," the petition further added. 

The petition has so far garnered more than 50,000 signatures. 

The message of support is clear “kua tae mai te wā” 👀 40k signatures in less than 2 days, we did that whānau 👏🏽 We are Aotearoa ❤️ #KiaTikaRā #Aotearoa pic.twitter.com/IVNAFR65DC

— Te Pāti Māori (@Maori_Party) September 15, 2021

The fluency in the native language shrunk to 26% in 1950 in a matter of only 40 years. At present, only 3% of the population speak the language. 

"In only 40 years, the Crown managed to successfully strip us of our language and we are still feeling the impacts of this today," said the petition.

What is the government's response?

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2020 said that it is a positive thing that 'Aotearoa' is interchangeably used within the country, however, the government has not considered replacing it with the country's present name yet.

"I hear more and more often the use of Aotearoa interchangeably with New Zealand and that is a positive thing. Whether or not we change it in law I don’t think it changes the fact New Zealanders do increasingly refer to Aotearoa, and I think that’s a transition that has been welcomed," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had said last year.

New Zealand’s former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters criticised the name change petition and went on to say that changing the country’s name and town and city names is just dumb extremism. 

This is just more left-wing radical bull dust.

Changing our country's name and town and city names is just dumb extremism.

We are not changing to some name with no historical credibility.

We are for keeping us New Zealand. https://t.co/E7s2YH2kaA

— Winston Peters (@winstonpeters) September 13, 2021

The name debate and the subsequent protests

Aotearoa is often interchangeably used in New Zealand and also on some official documents of the country. In 2011, the name was put on passports of the country while in 2015, the apex bank published the term on the banknotes, which sparked the controversy. 

Some people believe that it was originally used to refer to the North Island, rather than the whole country. While others believe that it emerged only a few hundred years ago as Maori’s never had a name for these lands, However, Maori supporters argue that the name finds a source in Maori oral histories.

“Aotearoa does feature in documents as early as 1855, in Maori language newspapers like the Maori Messenger and Governor Grey’s manuscripts. But historians have yet to find earlier official references. The critics of a name change seize on this evidence to back their opposition, turning progressive talking points on their head, in arguing that it is inappropriate to take a white man’s history to justify a Maori name change,” senior lecturer Morgan Godfery from the University of Otago wrote in The Guardian.

To date, the country has witnessed many protests with protestors carrying the signs saying 'We live in New Zealand, not Aotearoa'. 

The recent petition has sparked a controversy among the natives. The National Party leader Judith Collins called for a referendum on the use of the name Aoteroa. 

“People are already free to use Māori placenames. What the Māori Party is saying is it would like to ban people calling our country New Zealand. It should focus on real issues like the 1.6 million people in Tāmaki Makaurau in lockdown,” tweeted ACT party leader David Seymour.

People are already free to use Māori place names.

What the Māori Party is saying is it would like to ban people calling our country New Zealand.

It should focus on real issues, like the 1.6 million people in Tāmaki Makaurau in lockdown. https://t.co/DvRo84rOsz

— David Seymour (@dbseymour) September 13, 2021

National Party member Stuart Smith called for a public referendum on the name change in July this year. He demanded a ban on the usage of the term Aotearoa in public documents until a referendum is passed.

History of names

Aotearoa

The history of the island nation dates back to the 14th century. Here's what the  indigenous people of New Zealand believe: 

Kupe, an East Polynesian explorer, was sailing with his wife, Kuramarotini, and crew to find out what lay beyond the horizon. They then spotted a large landmass shrouded in white cloud at a distance and Kuramarotini shouted: He ao! He ao! He Aotea! He Aotearoa (A cloud, a cloud! A white cloud! A long white cloud!).

Another view is that the landmass was spotted by Kupe's daughter, while some claim that it was named after the canoe Kupe was riding on.

New Zealand

In the 1640s, a Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted the South Island and named it after the Dutch province of Zeeland. It subsequently appeared as “Nieuw Zeeland” on Dutch maps.  

A century later, English navigator Captain James Cook visited the country and drew a detailed and accurate map for the first time and mentioned the country as 'New Zealand' in his maps.   

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