29 Jan 2021

Māori urged to lead on restoration of indigenous scientific names

4:50 pm on 29 January 2021

Support for the restoration of indigenous names to native plants and animals - which were given Latin names by settler European scientists - has been gaining traction, but Māori academics say indigenous people must lead the conversation.

The restoration of indigenous scientific names was first put forward last year by ecologists Dr Shane Wright from Auckland University, and Len Gillman from AUT.

They are calling on Māori to bring forward the original names to keep that traditional knowledge alive, as Gillman said.

"I think it's the right thing to do, I think that names are really important to people because they are about identity, about a sense of place, so they have a huge importance to indigenous peoples from all over the world and so there's no real reason why they can't be restored."

He said the name would only be changed if it was iwi bringing forward the suggestion, and if there wasn't a consensus on the right name, it would remain as is.

Te Tira Whakamātaki Māori Biosecurity environmental management expert Tame Malcolm (Te Arawa) was supportive of reinstating the Māori names.

"All of that beautiful history around names goes a long in not only preserving our knowledge and our history, but also our whole culture so I'm really keen to see Māori names being used instead of Latin names but let's have a robust discussion with as many people as we can who are experts in the space," he said.

Only 4 percent of native New Zealand flora and fauna have Māori scientific names, such as the native tree, tawa.

Len Gillman, Head of AUT's School of Science

Len Gillman, Head of AUT's School of Science Photo: Auckland University of Technology

Independent science writer Ross Galbreath said European scientists had a strict naming system that they applied to native plants here in Aotearoa.

"When the scientists came with Cook and started looking at New Zealand species and they named them, they gave them names under their systems, which were based on Latin.

"They often wrote down the Māori names, they asked Māori, 'what's this', and they were told - they ignored those and that system still continues."

However, he said the restrictions had loosened now so that you could use any word so long as it was treated as a Latin word.

Māori names easily fitted into that because Latin and Māori words both commonly finished with a vowel, he said.

And the idea is gathering momentum, with a paper published by prominent taxonomists in the main taxonomy journal calling for further debate.

Ministry for the Environment Māori advisor Melanie Mark Shadbolt wanted Māori to drive the conversation.

"I know that there are some papers that have come out recently about te reo Māori and botanical names for New Zealand fauna and I know they have great intentions but often those papers and these conversations are being led by non-Māori and I'm very clear, that that's a conversation for Māori."

Naming should be led by the hapū and iwi where the flora and fauna were most prevalent, she said.

"It would be a conversation that's held at place and for example we've been doing that with Tūhoe Tuawhenua around their unique environment and their bush via matua Tāhae Jim Doherty, what are the names associated with his ngahere (forest) and how does he reclaim them for his mokopuna."

Shadbolt encouraged non-Māori wanting to see Māori names reinstated to consult first and said they should start by asking their Māori academic colleagues if they would like to be involved or even to led the research.