It’s been 800 years since the indigenous Maori first arrived in New Zealand and 370 years since the Europeans spotted it, but up until Thursday, the South Pacific nation had never decided on official names for its two main islands. Now it has.
It took almost a decade and at least NZ$10,000 for the New Zealand Geographic Board to officially name the North Island and South Island, well, North Island and South Island, as they’ve been known for decades. “While these names appear in official publications, including maps and charts, they had been recorded names only and had no formal standing,” explained Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson. “As an integral part of New Zealand’s cultural identity and heritage, it is only right the names North Island and South Island be made official.”
In what was perhaps more enlightening news, the Geographic Board also approved a recommendation to assign official alternative Maori names for the two islands, Te Ika-a-Maui (for the North Island) and Te Waipounamu (for the South Island). Te Ika-a-Maui means “fish of Maui,” reflecting the ancient Maori legend of Maui and his brothers, who were said to have fished up the North Island from their canoe. Te Waipounamu, meanwhile, translates to “the place of greenstone,” signifying the prevalence of jade, bowenite and serpentinite across the South Island.
“These Maori names also have historic and cultural significance and appeared on early maps and charts, including government maps, until the 1950s,” Williamson said, adding that the alternative names could be used by those who wished to do so.
“My decision to assign alternative names means people can use whichever they prefer and they will not be forced to use both the English and Maori names together,” he explained. “Instead, everyone will have the choice to keep calling the islands what they always have, or use the assigned alternatives.” Or they can use both together, as Land Information New Zealand will do with all new maps and charts going forward.
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Reaction to the announcement was mixed Thursday, with many calling the project a waste of time and money. “It seems like a lot of money spent just to officially name the islands the same as they’re already called,” said Nicole Bamford of Balclutha. “But I’m glad they included the Maori names because they are recognizable and significant.
“I grew up knowing that those were the Maori names for the islands, and they are in a lot of people’s Mihis (greetings or speeches) when they introduce themselves in Maori,” Bamford continued. “So when they announced the names, I knew I had heard them before.”
While the Maori names have been around since Europeans first arrived, the English names have changed over time. Some early maps listed the islands as New Ulster and New Munster after Irish provinces, while others listed the South Island as Middle Island thanks to the much smaller Steward Island to its south. The names for the current North Island and South Island, defined mostly by their location, became widely accepted around the turn of the century and were endorsed by lawmakers in 1907.
“Maori names were also used by the early European explorers, beginning with Captain Cook, and continued to be used throughout most of New Zealand’s history,” explained Don Grant, chairman of the New Zealand Geographic Board. “This decision simply brings them back as an option for those who want to continue using them.”