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City of culture: returning to Māori roots

City of culture: returning to Māori roots Megan Laybourn
31 Jul
2018
The addition of traditional Māori names to Wellington’s urban landscape is proving traditional language can be applicable to 21st century environments

From Auckland to Christchurch, New Zealand’s urban landscape – including street names and major urban features – is often named after symbolic British motifs assigned by colonial settlers. This is perhaps most significant in the capital, Wellington, after Arthur Wellesley, first duke of Wellington. Wellington City Council aims to change this. In a policy entitled adopted last month, the council pledged to make the Māori language, ‘te reo’, a core part of Wellington’s identity by 2040, to make the language widely seen, heard and spoken throughout the capital.

‘For me, the te reo city policy is really exciting,’ says Dr Ocean Mercier, senior lecturer at the School of Māori Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. ‘Sometimes the English names mask really critical local information, both the immediately apparent and historic. For instance, the suburb where we work, Kelburn, used to be known as Pukehinau, “the hill where the Hinau trees grow”. Hinau trees were significant because of – among other things – their delicious berries.’

The policy’s first concrete step was central Civic Square officially being given the name Te Ngākau, which translates as ‘the heart’, to reflect the square’s role as the city’s social hub for all residents, while Wellington mayor Justin Lester revealed that the council are finalising te reo names for other parts of the city, such as the Botanic Gardens, and various city signage and public facilities. ‘At its heart it’s about recognising the long-standing relationship between “mana whenua” – the people with guardianship over a place – and the land,’ continues Mercier. ‘But then it’s also reflective of the relationship between mana whenua and more recent arrivals. It’s not just about the revitalisation of te reo names. It’s ideally about nurturing that relationship, and ensuring mana whenua have agency and voice in the urban space that grew up around them.’

‘We’re probably quick to assume anything Māori is, or must be, traditional,’ says Dr Vini Olsen-Reeder, lecturer at the School of Māori Studies. ‘The language is contemporary and pragmatic and totally fit for today’s society. That means letting the language breathe and grow as organically as English. This is the real power of applying this principle to naming urban and spatial planning.’

This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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