Thursday, September 17, 2009

W(h)anganui: why Laws and Turia are both wrong

When I was across the ditch recently I kept complaining about the lack of attention the Aussie media gave to New Zealand politics. Now that I'm back, and I've discovered that the burning political issue in this country concerns the spelling of the name of a provincial town, I can understand the lack of enthusiasm of Aussie newspaper editors.

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.]


Blogger Edward said...

I can see your point about duel names, though at the same time might it not be an unnecessary compromise in the long term? The 'straight forward' part of me just thinks give it an 'h', as that is the correct spelling. On the other hand, I agree with you that Laws is feeding off of pakeha fears, no matter how misplaced they are, and allowing a duel name compromise would largely dispell his rhetoric. I don't know. The correct way or the politically appeasing way. I think in the long run you are probably right, but there is a part of me which would love to see it changed in spite of Laws and his racist rants.

10:36 am  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

No compromise in my view. The spelling is wrong and needs to be corrected. I can't see where a compromise is justified - compromise what? Correct spelling? Correct usage? Tangata whenua have made their views known - end of story.

laws and his ilk will always find something to get worked up about and if not this then something else. IMO we must hold the lines when we find them.

This could be a real positive with all sorts of celebrations for the Whanganui area, bringing people together under the mana of tangata whenua.

Unfortunately and sadly that is unlikely to happen because the majority of people there don't know anything about where they live.

Year zero was 1840 or so and just like the U-KNOW-WHO they wish to erase any previous time and history from the local and national collective memory. That is the non-subtle subtext of laws rant about the culture and history of whanganui, since the settlors arrived, not being considered by the NZGB.

Too harsh? Too divisive? Maybe, but look around at the moment and it seems pretty accurate, athough cynical.

11:57 am  
Blogger The Paradoxical Cat said...

Totally agree with you!

There is an instructive precedent for a double name Whanganui/Wanganui - and that's the very clever "renaming" of Mt Egmont to "Egmont/Taranaki". The rednecks and racists, and just the hide-bound who hate change, felt safe, that they could say "Mt Egmont" if they wanted to. And the rest of us whooped and called that beautiful mountain "Taranaki". And who ever says "MT Egmont" these days? A couple of farmers, maybe.

With any luck, eventually, the correct spelling of "Whanganui" will likely triumph in a fair fight with the typo version.

Unfortunately and ironically then, the name will probably start to be mispronounced with an "f" instead of the more subtle local dialect pronunciation of "wh" that Turia uses for the word "whanau", which sounds to most Pakeha and other Maori dialects, as if she is saying "wanau".

It's this dialect variation, as you know, that led to the spelling mistake in Whanganui.

What the population of NZ will need some guidance on, is, should we all use the Whanganui dialect pronunciation, or if we don't come from there, should we pronounce with "F"? (Similar to those who insist on calling Paris "Paree".)

1:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get your point, but disagree. Using two names is far from practical (think government documents, maps...), confusing for newcomers, and there's a small matter of respect for the original name. Why not force the red-necks to bite the bullet - it's their turn, after all. Maybe question your own fears - just a thought, says she who lives offshore.

2:46 pm  
Blogger Country Lane said...

I reckoin change it - add the h - but don't worry about it. In ten years time there will be a few signs around the place with Wanganui on them and they'll be a point of interest and EVERYBODY else will write the h. I might move in small circles but at the age of 50 I very rarely hear Egmont - almost always Taranaki.

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hangon, what about Aotearoa / New Zealand.

If its good enough for a country to have two names...

3:28 pm  
Blogger maps said...

My argument goes beyond just suggesting the double name as a tactical measure to isolate Laws.

Although I personally always say 'Whanganui', and empathise with the view put forward eloquently by Marty, I accept that Pakeha residents of the town say 'Wanganui', and associate that name with their own culture and history. 'Wanganui' may be nonsense in Maori, but it has become meaningful to many conservative Pakeha. The word cannot be extinguished by bureaucratic fiat.

What I object to is not the right of Pakeha to commemorate their culture and history, but the attempt to make Pakeha culture and history hegemonic - to say that the Pakeha history and culture represented by names like 'Wanganui' should be the official culture and history of *all* residents of these islands.

An analogy can be made with debates over the national flag. I will reluctantly concede that many conservative Pakeha see their identity and history in the current national flag, with its miniature Union Jack. If they want to continue to use the flag, then I don't object. I do, however, object to claims that the current national flag represents *all* New Zealanders, when it clearly doesn't. To many Maori, and (I suspect) more than a few Samoans and Niueans, the flag represents conquest and oppression.

I would like to see Pakeha accept the use of the tino rangatiratanga flag, alongside the traditional ensign, and in doing so accept that theirs is not the only culture in these islands.

I like the idea that the use of two names for a town, or two flags for a nation, might cause confusion. I would rather have an unwieldy, contradictory set of national and regional symbols, which reflect the messy, contradictory nature of our history, than the sort of slick, univocal national symbolism favoured in the US and Australia. I have always liked the way that New Zealand's national day is marked by protests and confusion, unlike the saccharine festivities that mark Australia Day and July the 4th.

3:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But shouldn't it be Aotearoa/New Zeeland?

3:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have made an interesting analysis of the underlying cultural politics of the situation, but Laws' arguments are just rather weak on close examination. They seem to boil down to: 1) habit (most people are used to no "h"); 2) cost of changing the signage; 3) democracy (the majority is always right, especially if it agrees with Laws); 4) heritage.

The last is at least interesting. But exactly how is a mispelling of a Maori placename "heritage"? If there was at least an interesting story behind the misspelling, maybe, then it could become heritage (in my book). In a sense this is what has happened with "Poneke" being a Maori transliteration that preserves the older name for Wellington: "Port Nicholson"; and there are other quasi-Maori-English words with the same interesting back-history ("huckery", "taipo"). But there doesn't seem to be any intrinsic interest with "Wanganui".

To me the compromise would be: Make the official name of the city "Whanganui", but if some people/businesses want to stick with the other spelling, just let them, live and let live.

4:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch, maybe deserved. Not all Aussies are fans of Australia Day/Invasion Day. Many loathe the chest beating, she'll be roight carry-on. Inspired me to write a poem called 'The Missed Consonant'. An Otakou/Otago lass after all these years.

5:16 pm  
Anonymous Keir said...

What I object to is not the right of Pakeha to commemorate their culture and history, but the attempt to make Pakeha culture and history hegemonic - to say that the Pakeha history and culture represented by names like 'Wanganui' should be the official culture and history of *all* residents of these islands.

I think you have to distinguish between English words and Maori words used in English here; when I use a Maori word in English, I should follow the Maori rules. Whanganui is not an English word, and no matter that the pakeha settlers have misspelt it for ages (take the case of Pakistan: suppose that we were to spell it Parkistan for generations, we'd still remain wrong, because Pakistan is an Urdu word & we don't have the right to change it. But of course Rome is to be said Rome not Roma, because Rome is an English word not an Italian word.)

The correct way to spell the name of the town on the Whanganui river is with an h; this isn't a matter of respecting pakeha folkways or anything, because they're just wrong.

The dual naming thing is about recognising two different correct names in different languages, whereas here Wanganui is wrong in English.

6:09 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Re Otago & Otakou:

'Otago' is the southern Maori dialect name for a current that went by outside the Dunedin Harbour (and which was extended by the first European settlers to the harbour, the peninsula, and then the province.)

'Otakou' was the 'corrected' form brought in by Europeans who'd learned their Maori in the north. It has no warranty - both the earliest European settlers and old southern traditions warrant Otago.

In the south, as part of tribe's settlement with the crown, signage displays the original name & then the introduced name e.g. Aoraki/ Mount Cook. Aoraki is being used more & more as *the* name for the mountain.

7:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I call my local mountain Maungarei AND Mt Wellington. An as a point of interest there are probably a lot of locals (including Maori and the others such as Samoans, Tongans, Chinese and many other ethnicities around here) who don't know Maungarei as a name (it is signposted as Maungarei by the way - I noticed that today - it is just outside and opposite the road leading up the hill - so we are ahead of Laws here!), as Mt Wellington has been used for so long now. Most are too busy trying to get by. (Or they are out flogging stuff!)

But that doesn't mean there isn't an awareness by many Maori and others of the history here. So - as with Mt Egmont - actually I refer to it also by both names as it was Egmont when I was young. The Egmont Overture is dramatic and great music by Beethoven based on a play by Goethe - Egmont.

I don't know what Taranaki means
So the area for me is Taranaki but I still think of the mountain as Mt Egmont.

But why attack farmers!??

But I don't like Laws. He is arrogant. He should at least consider a dual name for Whanganui.
he should at least have the courtesy and the compassion to consider Maori views...

Sometimes you have to compromise. Then you can undermine it. It is an important issue which connects to our history. Te Kooti often pretended to agree to things - sowed false information to the right "wrong" people - then and later he struck and won his battles!

Laws might die of a heart attack in a week or two ... for example. Or an accident might happen!

10:37 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Country Lane is proudly - Ngati Pakeha! Good on ya mate!

10:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, don't you have Otago and Otakou the wrong way round Keri??

12:19 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Anonymous - no, I dont.

To reiterate: Otago is the correct form (the southern Maori dialect is wellknown for having 'g', 'b', and 'l' sounds.) And it doesnt translate as 'red ochre' but was originally the name of a current.

1:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think sometimes for me it depends on how it sounds, Aoaraki sounds better to me than Mt Cook. And I like Aotearoa -

As I have got older "New Zealand" is less significant to me as a name, though I am Ngati Pakeha, although my parents were English so I am maybe Ngati Honorary Pom.

I think Maps is Nagti Hon Drury Oz

As to flags, I would love a flag like the red and black Maori one rather than the stupid one we have now...

I note that the flag is flown locally here in Panmure also with the Tongan Flag, the old NZ flag and so on - so I don't see any problem in having many flags in a country. Flags are - what are they? - symbolic?

I feel that Whanganui is better than Wanganui given the history of the place.

4:25 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

No theyre both rightwing.
Fighting over the crumbs
that's all that either has left
Turia exhibiting postal trauma
Laws with a Bryce on his head
Dropping the 'h' or picking it up
is neither here nor anywhere.
Its about who won erewhon.

6:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apologies Keri. I've done my homework now!

11:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 'other' anonymous (the O/O lass) says a big thanks to Kerrie H. I didn't have a clue about the derivation of the O/O name(s).
I thought Otago came about because some Scots tripped over their vowels after too many bevvies.

8:08 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

I love Otago, and I love learning - both come through my mother Mary Miller, whose father (Tame Rakakino Mira a.k.a Thomas R. G. Miller, Kai Tahu/English/Tahitian) and mother (Mary Ann Yorston Matches, Orkney) have given her - and me - a handle of several wordscapes...

5:53 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am from Ireland, where the capital city is called "Dublin" in English and "Baile Atha Cliath" in Irish (Gaelic). My home town is Athy in English and Baile Atha h-I in Irish. Rome is Roma to the Italians. So why not Wanganui and Whanganui?
Joe Carbery.

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Aidan Work said...

I reckon that Michael Laws was more than right to have referred the issue to a referendum.

The people of Wanganui,including Maoris,have spoken,twice,I must add - "No means No!".

As for Tariana Turia,she is the most racist person I've ever met,considering that she is not only a racist crook,but a criminal advocate of apartheid.

All this talk of 'Tino Rangatiratanga' is a load of bullshit.

It makes my blood boil with anger that the Maori Nationalist criminals are allowed to get away with promoting their hate,thanks to the politicians who are sitting in Parliament appeasing the so-called 'Maori Party',who are nothing but a bunch of criminals anyway! The so-called 'Maori Party' are scum of the earth like both Sinn Fein/I.R.A. & Z.A.N.U.-P.F. are anyway!

Wanganui's name would be more correctly spelt as 'W'anganui',as the traditional Wanganui Maori language doesn't pronouce 'wh' as 'f' like up north.

How do I know this? I'm a native of Wanganui myself,who is now in Wellington,but I retain very strong family ties to Wanganui.

As for Parliament's behaviour on this whole issue,it has been nothing short of an abomination.

Racism has been encouraged by Parliament for far too long.The time for amending the Race Relations Act,1971 to proscribe criminal outfits,such as both the so-called 'Maori Party' & the 'National Front' is long overdue,as is for inserting a clause to provide for the death penalty to be imposed on those who engage in promoting apartheid.

As one who opposed the illegal occupation of Moutoa Gardens back in 1995,I still remain extremely angry that no-one has been called to account,let alone,been but on trial.

The time for Wanganui to secede from the Dominion of New Zealand is long overdue! Wanganui would be better off as a British colony like Bermuda,the Falkland Islands,& Gibraltar.

10:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Sounds like you should be put on trial or in a lunatic asylum! Laws is quite obnoxious and very intolerant.

The racism mainly comes from Europeans. Whanganui is pronounced was an 'f' more or less. Now, as is well and good, both forms are to be used. Parliament is not racist. The Government, while it has huge areas of "faults" is not "racist"; and quite rightly supports Maori efforts toward betterment in all ways.

Referendums usually get the majority but unfortunately most of these are ill informed or racists.

Also the anti smacking legislation - that is similar example - to "follow the people" is stupid.

Enlightened and educated and indeed humane liberals need to guide the ignorant. Clearly smacking is really bad. Just because the majority want to be able to hurt children doesn't make it a good idea...many are influenced by sick feelings of power deriving from inferiority neuroses - many of these will become or could well become pedophiles and rapists...violence breeds violence. This is well known.

So learn more about Maori and come back here and make sense if you can.

11:43 pm  

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