Posted on July 31, 2022

Welcome to Aotearoa? The Campaign to Decolonize New Zealand’s Name

Stephen Wright, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2022

The first European contact with indigenous Māori ended with four sailors killed and a hasty retreat. But it led to an identity for this South Pacific country: Nieuw Zeeland in Dutch, or New Zealand when it later became part of the British Empire.

Now, some lawmakers want New Zealanders to drop a name that harks back to an era of colonization and adopt another—Aotearoa, a Māori word referring to the clouds that indigenous oral history says helped early Polynesian navigators make their way here.

Around the world, several countries are rethinking their identities to address resentment at their colonial past and forge a new future. In some cases, that involves changing the head of state, such as Barbados’s severing of ties to the British monarchy. In others, it has meant changing its official name, as Eswatini did in 2018 when its absolute ruler decided it should no longer be known as Swaziland. Australia in recent years tweaked its national anthem because it didn’t reflect its Aboriginal history.

In New Zealand, the issue is coming to a head because a petition to rename the country Aotearoa—pronounced ‘au-te-a-ro-uh’—garnered more than 70,000 signatures and will be considered by a parliamentary committee that could recommend a vote in Parliament, put it to a referendum or take no further action.

“It’s a realignment to where we are as a nation,” said Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of the Māori Party, a small party in Parliament that supported the petition. “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Over several decades, Aotearoa has become more common in everyday speech. It appears on bank notes and passports, and is often in government documents, either alone or combined with New Zealand. When the U.S. and New Zealand issued a joint statement following a meeting of their leaders in May, it referred to Jacinda Ardern as prime minister of Aotearoa New Zealand. Māori is one of three official languages in New Zealand but fluency has plummeted, a legacy of colonial-era policies that restricted its use.

Ms. Ardern welcomes the wider use of Aotearoa, but a formal name change isn’t being explored by the government, a spokeswoman for the prime minister said. {snip}

Opinion polls suggest advocates of a new identity face an uphill battle. More than half of respondents want to keep New Zealand, according to one survey by market-research company Colmar Brunton. Still, Aotearoa alone or Aotearoa New Zealand command about a combined 40% support.