W(h)anganui: why Laws and Turia are both wrong
To an outsider, the dispute over whether or not Wanganui should add an 'h' to its name must seem absurdly pedantic. Anybody who understands New Zealand history, though, should be able to see that the arguments between Wanganui mayor Michael Laws and his Maori opponents concern matters weightier than mere linguistics.
The Whanganui district was a frontline in the lengthy struggle between Pakeha and Maori for control of the North Island. Tribes at the mouth of the Whanganui River initially adopted a friendly attitude toward Pakeha colonists, trading with them and allowing them to establish a town, but Maori further upstream always took a very different stance. When war broke out in the Taranaki in the 1860s, the upper Whanganui peoples sided with their cousins to the north, and laid siege to the fledgling town of Wanganui. Though Maori ultimately lost the Taranaki War, the upper Whanganui remained for many decades a zone where few Pakeha dared to venture.
In his important new book The Policeman and the Prophet, Mark Derby refers to the upper Whanganui as one of a number of parts of the North Island where a state of 'rival sovereignty' existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Maori communities ignored the laws made in Wellington and attempted to administer their own affairs. Derby describes the repeated expeditions which police based in Wanganui were forced to make into the upper Whanganui, as part of their attempts to enforce Pakeha property rights. Remote river communities remained bastions of Maori culture and mana, and when the Maori protest movement began to revive in the 1970s the politics of tino rangatiratanga travelled downstream to the town on the coast. The epic Moutoa Gardens occupation of 1995 showed up the racial divisions in Wanganui: the town's Maori minority wanted the gardens returned, and resented the fact that a statue and monument celebrating their military defeat had been built on land stolen from them. The Pakeha majority took a diametrically opposed view, and applauded right-wing MP Ross Meurant when he said that the Maori protesters should be thrown into paddy wagons and dumped on the side of the remote Desert Road.
The Geographic Board's declaration that Wanganui ought to be spelt Whanganui has quickly divided opinion in the town along racial lines. Michael Laws, who has won repeated mayoral elections by appealing to anti-Maori sentiments, has attacked the Board's decision as 'racist', because it 'only reflects the culture of one group' of citizens. Many angry Pakeha in Wanganui and elsewhere have spoken out in support of Laws.
It is rather hard to see how the scholars who sit on the Geographic Board could have decided the proper spelling of a Maori name without focusing their enquiries on the Maori language and Maori history. As Maori Party leader Tariana Turia has pointed out, the word 'wanganui' is meaningless in Maori. 'Whanganui', by contrast, has a very clear meaning: 'whanga' refers to the mouth of a river, and 'nui' means big. The spelling which Laws is so keen to defend is a bastardisation of traditional Maori usage and, as the Geographic Board has noted, Maori have never ceased trying to correct the distortion.
While Laws vows on national television that he will fight any attempt to change his town's name, Turia is urging the government to act quickly to junk Wanganui for Whanganui. Like the rest of the population, Kiwi bloggers seem to be lining up behind one or the other of these two starkly opposed positions. Good liberal blogs are demanding the 'h'; Tory sites seem convinced the sinister letter would be the harbinger of a new race war.
It seems to me that both Laws and Turia base their positions on unrealistic pictures of the state of race relations in W(h)anganui, and elsewhere in the North Island. Laws is fond of talking about how 'we're all one nation now', and how all the residents of his town except a 'few extremist stirrers' identify as Kiwis, rather than as Maori or Pakeha. This sort of rhetoric is an implicit denial of the real history of the Whanganui region, and of the North Island in general. Laws should be reading Mark Derby.
For her part, Turia claims that only a few 'rednecks' will be riled by the junking of Wanganui in favour of Whanganui. Such a view grossly underestimates the level of Pakeha anxiety about Maori attempts to right the injustices of the past. Laws has built himself a substantial base by appealing to the fears of impoverished provincial Kiwis that Maori are getting a 'better deal' than them. A generation has grown up since the neo-liberal 'reforms' which gutted industry and infrastructure in provincial New Zealand. In a town like Wanganui, where the trade union movement and the organised left was decimated by the closure of the railway workshops and other key industries in the eighties and nineties, rational, politically progressive explanations for low standards of living and poor services have often been unavailable.
In these circumstances, Laws' claims that the problems of towns like Wanganui are the result of the fleecing of the taxpayer by Maori dole bludgers and the 'Treaty grievance industry' fill an ideological vacuum. Although Laws defends Pakeha privilege, he appeals to a real sense of victimhood amongst his poorer supporters. By seeming to over-ride the wishes of most Pakeha, Turia risks reinforcing this sense of victimhood. Laws stands for the hegemony of Pakeha culture over Maori culture; on this issue, at least, Turia simply inverts his position.
The Pakeha of Wanganui are not about to flock to Treaty of Waitangi workshops and te reo classes; nor, though, would a majority of them necessarily agree with Laws' hardline opposition to any acknowledgement of the fact that Maori continue to exist as a people separate from Pakeha. If Turia argued for the use of the names Whanganui and Wanganui, then she would do a lot to defuse the fear and anger that Laws feeds upon.
When he was questioned by a journalist about the idea that his town could have two official names, Laws seemed rattled, and claimed that no town anywhere in the world adopts such a 'ridiculous' policy. Anybody who has travelled in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom knows better than that. Instead of being allowed to play the victim on behalf of his Pakeha constituents, Laws should be exposed as the racist he is. Let's demand a two name policy for W(h)anganui, and watch him try to defend his blanket opposition to expressions of Maori culture and mana.
[Footnote: long-suffering readers of this blog will see a connection between my views on placenames and my attitude to proposals to give New Zealand a new flag.]