Creating a cultural footprint for future generations to follow is a challenge that we as a country - both locally and nationally - are having to face more and more, as we start talking to and not at each other on opposite sides of the cultural coin.

Knowing Maori place names, what they mean and where they come from, and after who they were named, are being championed by causes and celebrities up and down the land of the long white cloud.

One of these champions calling for change is former prime minister Jim Bolger, who was in the region last Thursday to open the stunning new University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance. He was also there to officiate as head chancellor of the university at their graduation ceremony on the Friday.

Mr Bolger has supported the 12,000-strong petition of Otorohanga students Waimarama Anderson and Leah Bell, which calls for a national day of commemoration for the "land wars" and for the history of those events to be taught at schools, and it is now being considered by the Maori Affairs Select Committee.

Advertisement

I was keen to korero about this kaupapa and when the opportunity arose from a mate of mine to bring JB - as he is known - to my office, I jumped in gumboots and all.

The first thing you notice about JB is he looks in tip-top shape for an 81-year-old, and the second thing is his razor sharp intellect and photographic recall of memory.

We talked about the Battle of Gate Pa and its significance to the cultural footprint of Tauranga, and how fitting it was that on the same day we would remember this battle, he was in town calling for the country to remember all Maori land war battles, a point he highlighted in his opening speech at the graduation ceremony.

Yes, there is the argument that 2899 people lost their lives in the armed conflicts in New Zealand during the 19th century land wars, 60 of them at Gate Pa, and this includes Maori on both sides as well as non-Maori.

This compares with more than 18,000 killed in World War I, 12,000 killed in WWII, a total of 71 in the Boer Wars, and 36 in Vietnam.

But for me the remembrance day proposed by Jim Bolger and many within Maori leadership is not about numbers.

When the bell tolled 60 times last Friday for all lives lost at Pukehinahina 152 years ago, it wasn't about the numbers but more so the battle itself.

Why it took place is paramount and who lost what because of it, just as all battles are asked the same question once the final farewell karakia to the last buried body have been prayed.

What's in a Maori place name is a question that has been tossed around like a hot hangi stone more and more by both sides of the cultural coin.

Where the name comes from, who was it named after and their relevance to the founding fathers, of this and all of the towns and cities in Aotearoa-New Zealand, is a question that will become hotly debated just as it is now here in the Bay.

One of these hangi stones is the decision to rename the BOP Polytechnic to Toi Oho Mai Institute of Technology. This has raised more than a few eyebrows by "steady as she goes" traditionalists, as it did a few smiles from tangata whenua who saw this as another step in creating a cultural footprint for the Bay of Plenty.

One that future generations can freely follow - if they so choose.

The other hot hangi stone picked up by Tauranga councillor Gail McIntosh was the proposal to change the name of Cambridge Park to Te Waha o Te Marangi ("the mouth of the storm") and this one will have a bit of buy-in from both sides of the iwi/Kiwi debate - especially from new local resident Don Brash.

Some are concerned a precedent of "political incorrectness" is emerging on the back of another recent name change from Churchill Park to Matiu Kauri Grove, named after an American Mormon preacher respected by local Maori followers of that faith.

If we were to look at the new names given to the streets of the new subdivision and business park in Tauriko, I like many who only have a first base grasp of te reo, would struggle to pronounce them - let alone know who they were named after and why. Perhaps an information panel alongside them would help this process?

Finding our cultural footprint will remain a hot hangi stone as we have these courageous conversations about place names and battle sites.

But, like all hangis, when they are cooked with the correct amount of heat, everyone benefits - and none more so than the tamariki of tomorrow.

- broblack@xtra.co.nz

- Tommy Wilson is a best-selling author and local writer.