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New Zealand considers changing its name to confront its troubled colonial past

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

As the people of New Zealand confront their nation's troubled past with colonization and denying the Maori people rights, a name change for the island nation is being considered as a part of its own reckoning.

A petition that aims to change the Dutch anglicized name of New Zealand to its indigenous Maori designation of Aotearoa has collected more than 70,000 signatures, prompting a parliamentary committee to consider the idea.

New Zealand member of parliament 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 reclamation, and their hopes for the movement's success.

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 cloud of the island as it's depicted often, and the weather that we have down at the end of the world.

But most importantly, it reflects indigenously who we are, and that we are, in fact, in the Pacific, that we are an island nation, and we're not in any way connected to the origins of New Zealand.

On why it is important for the Maori Party to push for a formal name change

It's really important that we dismantle some of the grips 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 across the nation is the lack of self-identity, is the lack of actually understanding even who the tangata whenuaor Indigenous people, Maori of Aotearoa are.

This is about resetting the balance, and it's something that hasn't just come from the party. I'd love to take credit for it, but it's actually something it's been called on from some of our oldest ancestors post-colonization, to us today. Some of the youngest generations are standing up, calling for this in the local schools. So it is very much an intergenerational pull. And just as importantly, it's not just coming from Maori. We have tangata tiriti, those who arrived after indigenous people, who are also wanting to see the rebalance of our culture reflected in the nationhood of Aotearoa.

On how renaming can help preserve Maori culture

It will have a massive positive impact on the ability for us to reclaim not just our language, but to lift the trauma of colonization, to lift the unwellness that comes with the loss of your culture and the loss of self identity. So this is just about as much as the preservation of our culture as it is the importance of the wellbeing of us as well.

On what the lawmaking process may look like

The first thing is that it has to be accepted. And to have that, we're going to need to have cross-party support, which is going to be a really big challenge because we have two parties that set towards center-left, two parties set towards center-right, and then ourselves who are solely indigenously focused.

So that takes a whole degree of lobbying, once you get through that obstacle, and it's a big if, you then go to a select committee. Then it goes for a massive debate process.

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

On having hope for the petition to 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 across the world to be colonized. So we probably are going to go through things that we've seen other nations go through to reclaim themselves.

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

We have an older, very monocultural, focused generation that actually just don't want to change at all and have been raised in an education system that didn't talk about Maori, that didn't acknowledge our culture and who were part and parcel of dismissing, and in fact legally banning our language, legally confiscating land, legally putting us in some difficult situations.

This isn't about taking anything from anyone. It's actually about lifting trauma and bringing to life a culture that can enrich everyone's life in Aotearoa.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.