Whanganui – Naming is Claiming Pt 1

James K. Baxter moved to live on the Whanganui river in the late 1960s.  Here the settlements have two names, one Maori and one English.  The sign at Jerusalem reads Hiruharama, at London it is Ranana, Athens is Atene, for Corinth the sign reads Koriniti.  And on the banks of the Whanganui river James was also known as Hemi, who wrote ‘words set in order are mental possessions.’  Upriver is where missionary meets the Maori, where complex identities exist.

To name is to claim.  Once named, space has been given meaning and becomes place [thanks to Foucault].  An identity has been created enabling placement with an order.  Once named, a place can be mapped and thereby possessed.  It now fits within a mental framework from a given perspective.

Downriver it is still as when the first surveyors set forth to delineate and define the country.  On Tuesday 24th February the Wanganui District Council held an extraordinary meeting to vote on whether to put the ‘h’ back into Wanganui.

Michael Laws - Wanganui is not a Maori word

Mayor Michael Laws rejects the idea that Wanganui is a Maori word.  ‘Wanganui’ may have been derived from the Maori language, but it has developed ‘an identity, a heritage, a history and a mana of its own’ from 170 years of use.  The fact that the NZ Geographic Board corrected the name of the river to Whanganui was a stuff-up according to Laws, and done by stealth (no such excuse can be provided for the local DHB which slotted the ‘h’ into its name).

150 protestors who marched peacefully from Moutoa Gardens/Pakaitore to the Council chambers for the meeting tended to disagree with Mayor Laws.  Ken Mair, spokesperson for Te Runanga o Tupoho, points to the area being named by iwi ancestor Haunui some 600 years ago.  Standing quietly at the back of the meeting, the protestors had support from around the Council table.  Cr Rana Waitai likened the current misspelling to the times when teachers changed the names of Maori students to make them easier to pronounce.  While they didn’t win the vote (Council voted 8 to 5 to keep it as it is), they certainly made a point.  Even local MP Chester Borrows agrees with the ‘h’.

This isn’t a fight over accuracy.  It is not a battle over being linguistically correct.  Here we have a struggle over who should have the right to conceptually frame the area.  While upriver there is a complexity that everyone seems to accept (the Maori names of the towns are, after all, interpretations of the English and Greeks words, so it is difficult to tell who is doing what), downriver the predominantly Pakeha population is holding on firm to being the dominant framers – it is their place afterall.

Also see Whanganui – Naming is Claiming Pt 2


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