Much has been made in recent days of the spelling of a small provincial town on the west coast of the North Island known as Whanganui or Wanganui. A simple ‘h’ is the at the heart of the issue here. The facts of the case are relatively simple. The local iwi, or Maori tribe, have sought for a long time to have the official name spelt as Whanganui, whereas the majority of local residents have voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the spelling Wanganui. A formal process was followed, whereby local iwi submitted their case to the New Zealand Geographic Board, the organisation responsible for the matter. Both sides of the argument were heard and debated, with the Board finally recommending the official name be spelt with an ‘h’, subject to final review by the Minister for Land Information, one Maurice Williamson. The Minister showing fine political judgement decided that both spellings were official and could use used, but also requiring Crown agencies adopting the spelling Whanganui. This change would be made over time as signs and so forth are due for replacement.
How did the issue arise in the first place? It seems that in the nineteenth century the town was incorrectly, i.e. as a result of an error, spelt without the ‘h’. Over time this simply became common practice. Language is a living organism and so change is inevitable, for whatever reason. Interestingly however the river on which the town is also located is known as Whanganui having being renamed as such in 1991, again due to the wishes of the local iwi. Likewise the local electorate is known as “Whanganui”, the local health authority is the “Whanganui District Health Board”, but the local high school is “Wanganui High School”. Some of this is no doubt the difference between the town itself as an entity, as opposed to the surrounding district. Nonetheless both spelling happy co-exist, side-by-side.
So it is not surprising that both sides of the argument seem happy with the outcome: Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party and Minister in the current government pronounced she found the decision ‘uplifting’, whereas the local mayor, Michael Laws, a fierce proponent of the status quo, said he was ‘pleased’ the Minister hadn’t fully accepted the ‘stupid’ decision of the Board.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, however is the fact that many ‘average’ New Zealanders seem unhappy with the decision. Comments in local newspapers reflect a thinly disguised racism in their opposition to the decision. For example, one comment says, “Whatever Maori (minority) wants in this country, they will get because European New Zealanders are weak. Proven over and over again. Sad but true.”, while another opines, “I think the Maori people in NZ have much more important things to deal with, such as Smoking, overuse of alcohol and drugs and huge unemployment, to name but a few.” Strange, but I don’t hear such people saying the pakehas need to deal with their financial mismanagement that has led to thousands of New Zealanders losing millions of dollars over the past 18 months in failed finance companies.
Some people also struggle to deal with the decision that gives both sides of the argument some sense of victory. Some see the decision as “indecisive” or “a bob each way”. They reflect a view that the decision should have been a “win-lose” (or “lose-win”!), a zero-sum game where one side advantage automatically means defeat for the other. The decision to have both Whanganui and Wanganui gazetted as official names as been used before such as the names Mt Egmont/Mt Taranaki, or Mt Cook/Aorangi.
Then there are those who confuse spelling with pronunciation, citing all sorts of example where towns have the same spelling but different pronunciations. The issue is compounded by the fact that English is not a phonetic langauge, whereas Maori is. So ‘Wanganui’ is pronounced with a “w” as in ‘wag’, but in Maori the “wh” is an “f” sound. Local pakeha find this hard to say. One comments says, “Different iwi/areas have ways of saying ‘Wh’ some say ‘F’, others say ‘W’. I for one, Whelcome the end to this whole thing and hope that it whill all be whorgotten over time.” How ‘whitty’, one might add, with heavy sarcasm.
To me the decision reflects the reality of New Zealand. We are a bi-cultural nation, founded on the Treaty of Waitangi which is in essence a partnership between the Maoris as tangata whenua (‘people of the land’, or those that arrived first to New Zealand) and the Crown. In that spirit of partnership we as a country need to work through the issues confronting us. The Maori do have a special and privileged role in that partnership that is not based on their numeric strength or otherwise, but in their status an indigenous people. Likewise the Crown has a responsibility to represent all New Zealanders, regardless of racial or ethnic origin. This is the reality of our country and what makes New Zealand unique. The conflict reflects the underlying cultural tension that exists in New Zealand, but one in which this decisions shows can be worked through pragmatically and on the basis of principle.
I prefer Whanganui, but I am happy to visit Wanganui any time.