New Zealand plans to change name to deal with troubled colonial past

Maori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer speak to the media at the opening of New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament.

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Maori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer speak to the media at the opening of New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

As the people of New Zealand confront their nation’s troubled past with colonization and the denial of the rights of the Maori people, a name change for the island nation is seen as part of its own account.

A petition to change New Zealand’s anglicised Dutch name to its indigenous Maori designation of Aotearoa has garnered more than 70,000 signatures, prompting a parliamentary committee to consider the idea.

New Zealand MP Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of the Maori Party, joined All things Considered to elaborate on the significance of this potential name change, the journey to Indigenous cultural recovery, and their hopes for the success of the movement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Interview Highlights

On what the word Aotearoa means

It is indicative or prescriptive of the long white island cloud as it is often depicted, and of the weather we have at the end of the world.

But more importantly, it locally reflects who we are, and that we are, in fact, in the Pacific, that we are an island nation, and that we are in no way tied to New Zealand origins.

Why it’s important for the Maori party to push for an official name change

It is really important that we dismantle some of the handfuls of colonization that have hindered our ability to reach our true potential. And one of the biggest things that’s reflected in some of the poorer states in the country is the lack of identity, it’s the lack of understanding even of who the tangata whenuaor indigenous people, the Maori of Aotearoa are.

It’s about restoring the balance, and it’s something that doesn’t just come from the party. I’d love to take credit for that, but it’s actually something that was reminded to us by some of our oldest ancestors after colonization, right up to us today. Some of the younger generations are rising up, calling for this in local schools. It is therefore an intergenerational attraction. And just as importantly, it’s not just from Maori. We have tangata tiritithose who came after the indigenous peoples, who also want to see the rebalancing of our culture reflected in the nation of Aotearoa.

On how renaming can help preserve Maori culture

This will have a massive positive impact on our ability to not only reclaim our language, but also lift the trauma of colonization, lift the unease that comes with losing your culture and losing your identity. So it’s about as much about preserving our culture as it is about the importance of our well-being.

What the legislative process might look like

The first thing is that you have to accept it. And to have that, we’re going to need cross-party support, which is going to be a really big challenge because we have two parties going center-left, two parties going center-right, and then we- same ones that are uniquely focused on aboriginal people.

So it takes a lot of lobbying work, once you get over that hurdle, and that’s a big if, you then go before a select committee. Then there is a massive debate process.

[The process] could be months and months. Some of the parties we have in government I think would like to see a merger and a period of Aotearoa and New Zealand. But our answer is, well, if not now, then when?

To have hoped that the petition would succeed

I have a lot of hope, and I think it will be interesting, because we are still a young nation and we were the last of the nations in the world to be colonized. So we’re probably going to go through things that we’ve seen other nations go through to win back.

But the other part of that is that the Maori population, the Pacifica population in Aotearoa is growing. We have 70% of our population under the age of 40. 25% are under 20 years old. So what we have here is almost a generational battle as well.

We have an older, very monocultural, focused generation that just doesn’t want to change at all and was brought up in an education system that didn’t talk about Maori, didn’t recognize our culture and was part and parcel of rejecting, and in fact to legally ban our language, to legally confiscate land, to legally put us in difficult situations.

It’s not about taking anything from anyone. It is really about removing trauma and bringing to life a culture that can enrich the life of everyone in Aotearoa.

This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.

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