Love their work, hate their work; the New Zealand Geographic Board has been busy naming and renaming bits of New Zealand scenery for nearly a century now.
There have been a few blowups along the way. None of them bigger than the controversy over what to call one of our most famous mountains. Was this a messy compromise? Or a farsighted decision?
When I was a kid at Pihanga Primary School in Tūrangi, the teachers used to tell us the legends of the mountains that stood all around us. One of them went something like this.
Once upon a time, seven gods in the form of volcanoes lived around Lake Taupō. Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe, Ruapehu, Pūtauaki, Tauhara and Taranaki all fought for the love of the beautiful Pīhanga.
Tongariro won and stands next to Pīhanga today. Five of the losing mountains retreated peacefully away to the south, the north and the east, where they remain.
But one of them, the furious Taranaki, stormed off to the west, gouging a trench across the land as he went that filled with his tears, becoming Te Awa Tupua, Whanganui River.
Taranaki stopped when he reached the Pouakai Ranges, close enough to see Pīhanga, but far away enough to placate Tongariro. They say that during particularly stunning sunsets, Taranaki is displaying himself to Pihanga. And when Tongariro erupts, he is warning Taranaki to stay away.
So far, he has.
At the time, the volcano was known to nearby iwi as Pukehaupapa and as Pukeonaki by tribes living further away. It became known as Taranaki after Rua Taranaki, the first ancestor of the iwi of the same name.
In 1770, Captain James Cook sailed past the mountain and named it Egmont. This was to honour John Perceval, the Second Earl of Egmont, First Lord of the Admiralty, and a key supporter of Cook’s voyage. Cook didn’t land in the region so iwi weren’t informed about the name change. Poor old Perceval died before he ever found out.
Two years later, French explorer Marion Du Fresne renamed the mountain Pic Mascarin, but he was killed not long afterwards so that one never really took.
To recap: Pukeonaki, Pukehaupapa, Taranaki, Egmont and Pic Mascarin have been some of the names the mountain has worn - but in the colonial era, it was ‘Egmont' that started appearing on maps.
After the second Taranaki war in 1865, the mountain and a million acres around it are confiscated by the Crown and sold for resettlement.
More than a century later, Egmont is by far the name most commonly used for the mountain and its national park, but a movement for change has started to rumble.
Labour government MP Koro Wetere told the Taranaki Māori Trust board the mountain would soon be handed back to them. Lands Minister Matiu Rata announced the government agreed the name Taranaki should be restored.
Sensing a moment, the Board take a petition to parliament asking for just those things.
But majority opinion wasn’t on their side. A poll found more than 90 percent of Taranaki locals wanted to keep Egmont as the name. A New Zealand Herald opinion piece called the proposed change “ill-conceived” and said it should be “unequivocally consigned to the scrapheap".
Under pressure, Prime Minister Bill Rowling kills the plan. Opposition leader Robert Muldoon allegedly cheers loudly when he hears.
A year later, Labour are out of power and Muldoon is the new PM. Venn Young, the National MP for Egmont, is appointed Lands Minister. Young says the name change is an impossibility, a dead issue. Besides, he argues, it would too expensive to rename all those maps and charts.
For a while, the naming (and ownership) question goes quiet again.
1985. Labour is now the new government; Koro Wetere, the Lands Minister. As the mountain threatens to erupt for the first time in centuries, Taranaki Māori make their move and request its name be changed. The New Zealand Geographic Board, whose job it is to decide on official place names, meets to assess the claim.
Back then, Tipene O’Regan was the newest member of the Board. He pretty quickly got the hang of how strongly people felt about place names.
“Believe it or not,” he says wryly, “there are people who sit in their garrets waiting for the arrival of proposals that they can then put up veritable files of evidence for or against.”
Each board member had the equivalent of five reams worth of evidence to work through. They met on 6 August that year and voted unanimously to approve the name change - boom. It’s all on.
There are legal threats, two petitions opposing the change are sent to parliament, each with more than 10,000 signatures. A New Zealand Herald opinion piece warns that if Egmont goes, “Mt Cook and Auckland could be next!”
Taranaki businessman Cliff Emeny chairs the “Save Mt Egmont’s Name” committee. He complains to the race relations conciliator that “politically motivated anti-European prejudices” are behind the proposal. “This great surge of anti-European racism” he warns, “will produce massive waves of racial strife throughout New Zealand for a long time to come".
Talkback callers fumed and newspaper editorials and articles argued the point for months, but the final decision rested with Koro Wetere, and he was making everyone wait.
Finally, on 2 May, 1986 - a full ten months after the Board made its recommendation - the minister gives his decision and his choice surprises everyone. From now on, the mountain would be formally recorded as Mt Egmont or Mt Taranaki, in that order. It’s up to everyone, explained Mr Wetere, to decide which name they want to use.
No one is happy.
New Plymouth MP Tony Friedlander summed it up by calling the decision “a very messy compromise". A journalist even tracks down the Earl of Egmont’s descendants who describe the change as a “gross insult” to the family. When asked if the current Earl ever visited Taranaki the reply is no but he has always wanted to go to Africa.
30 years on, Tipene O’Regan is philosophical about the Minister’s decision to choose compromise.
“It was a political decision," he says. “I think we got the best outcome we could have.”
But O’Regan had watched the process closely and learned lessons he would later apply to claims lodged by his own iwi, Ngāi Tahu.
In Taranaki, journalist Lance Girling-Butcher wasn’t impressed by the Minister’s ruling, calling it a “cop-out”.
When he later became editor of the Taranaki Herald daily newspaper, Girling-Butcher decided editorial policy was to refer to the mountain by its Māori name. He says the “red-necked pākehā” in the region would ring him up to cancel their subscription and give him an earful.
“[They’d say] 'you’re just a Māori-lover' and those kind of nasty bloody statements. It just riled me, really.”
Nowadays, Girling-Butcher gives credit to Koro Wetere for a good decision.
“I think it worked in the end. [But] I wouldn’t call it farsighted, because I don’t think they had a clue which way it was going to go.”
He points to the current debate over Māori wards as an example of what happens when you try to make change too quickly.
“That definitely got the racists out in full force. You just can’t do it overnight.”
In the end, the volcano rumbled but didn’t explode - and neither did the feared racial unrest. Both just calmed down.
Koro Wetere’s “messy compromise” has lasted more than 30 years, and since then, several dozen other dual place names like Stewart Island/Rakiura and Mount Aspiring/Tititea, have followed, mostly without issue.
But not always. In 2009, the Geographic Board recommended the town of 'Wanganui' change the spelling of its name to ‘Whanganui’. Debate raged for a few months but in the end, compromise again won out with the government announcing that both spellings would be acceptable. An 'h' had already been added to the Whanganui River much earlier and the district council followed in 2015.
In 2018, after more than 160 years of publication, the formerly 'Wanganui' Chronicle announced that from now on, it would adopt the Māori spelling of their name.
Ta (Sir) Tipene O’Regan went on to lead Ngāi Tahu’s negotiations with the Crown, resulting in the settlement act of 1998. A big win was renaming our highest mountain Aoraki/Mt Cook, at that time, the only dual place name in the country with the Māori name first.
Eventually, it was believed, the second name would simply drop off.
That hasn’t happened, but the same slowly-slowly approach is being applied elsewhere, including to a famous lake.
“The correct spelling of ‘Tekapo is actually ‘Takapo’,” says Ta (Sir) Tipene. “So we (Ngāi Tahu) just use it, (and) hope that more and more people will pick up on the idea so that when we make some formal move on it, it will be seen as relatively inconsequential."
O’Regan thinks that, as a nation, we are having a more nuanced discussion nowadays than in the past.
“We don’t do too badly, really. We’re doing better and better as a society, I think, in this regard.”
Koro Tainui Wetere, CBE, of Ngāti Maniapoto, passed away in June of 2018. He served nearly 30 years as an MP and two terms as a cabinet minister. In 1990, he addressed parliament in te reo Māori and refused to provide a translation into English. Simultaneous translation services were introduced in response.
Mt Egmont or Mt Taranaki wasn’t the first name change made by the New Zealand Geographic Board, not even close. But it was possibly the most important, sparking a mostly peaceful nation-wide conversation and providing a model for how a bicultural nation might move forward.
We’re still having that conversation today and just as Taranaki may one day return to fight Tongariro for the hand of Pihanga, the kōrero over its name hasn’t concluded.
In December 2017, the eight Taranaki iwi signed an understanding with the Crown that the mountain, and Egmont National Park will soon be granted legal personhood. The mountain will be recognised as a tupuna (ancestor), have the same rights as a citizen and will legally own itself, much like Te Awa Tupua in a world first.
Full settlement and an apology from the crown for the confiscation are expected to follow soon.
Could a final name change to Taranaki be a part of the deal? If so, will we have the nuanced discussion Tipene O’Regan predicts? Or the “massive waves of racial strife” that Cliff Emeny feared?
We’ll have to wait and see.