A Gisborne councillor who says she was spat at when the district recently went through a name change says the country needs to be "courageous" about addressing its colonial past.

Thousands of New Zealand places have been renamed over the past decade - many deemed offensive - and experts say that number could grow as the country improves its understanding of history.

Offensive names changed recently range from N***** Stream in the South Island in 2016, to the restoring of the "H" to Whanganui the year before.

On Friday debate resumed over the naming of Hamilton, with iwi Waikato-Tainui renewing its call to restore the original Māori name Kirikiriroa.

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It came after the council agreed to the iwi's request to remove the statue of the city's namesake Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton, who killed Māori in the Waikato land war and never set foot in the city that takes his name.

What's in a name?

Over the past several years, Gisborne undertook a process to have Poverty Bay ultimately given the dual Māori and English name, Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay.

Councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown, who advocated to drop Poverty Bay entirely, said the debates that took place were "awful" at times.

"I was spat at by a woman who said the name was Poverty Bay, for no other reason than because Cook named it that way."

Akuhata-Brown, of Waikato-Tainui and Pākehā heritage, said not only was Poverty Bay offensive, but the original Māori term gave a richer understanding of history in the area.

The Māori name translates as the great standing place of Kiwa, who came from Hawaiki on the Tākitimu canoe.

The English term was given by Captain James Cook, referencing a "misunderstanding" during which iwi historians say his crew killed nine local people in the first meeting of Māori and British people in the country.

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Poverty Bay had long been offensive to Māori, both for what it represented and for ignoring the Māori name that came before it.

Conversely, many residents also supported Poverty Bay, a 'Gisborne Herald' poll in 2018 finding a majority of respondents wanting to keep the name, many arguing it was a history unique to the area.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, who was Gisborne mayor at the time, said it was contentious then, and still remained so.

"For Māori it has never been Poverty Bay, and they will continue to only use Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. But we do have a shared history, and it is important to acknowledge it."

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Foon said it made a lot of sense that names would change as the values of those in power did too.

"People who dominate history are the decision makers. There is a lot of Pākehā heritage yet, for a long time, Māori have been saying they are invisible.

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"Things change, statues get pulled down all over the world of people who no longer reflect their values, such as dictators.

"It is good in times like these to use them as a catalyst to discuss how we can better move forward together. Not just Māori and Pākehā, but everybody."

Foon pointed to how many schools rebuilt in Christchurch after the earthquakes had been given Māori names, and how new roads often included Māori signage and pou.

"I think it is a timely debate for our communities to have, and I think councils and the Government should facilitate conversations."

Often names were given for completely arbitrary reasons.

Gisborne was once Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, before it was shortened to Tūranga, and ultimately named Gisborne, after the-then colonial secretary, and to avoid confusion with Tauranga.

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Akuhata-Brown had also been pushing for street names to be changed in Kaiti, the predominantly Māori suburb where she grew up, which has a deprivation index score of 10 and carries a lot of gang stigma.

A majority of the streets are named after British heritage, such as Ranfurly and London Sts, which run along at the foot of Titirangi, the ancestral maunga for many in the area, and alongside their local marae.

"I've been advocating Ranfurly St to be renamed after Te Maro, a rangatira of Ngāti Oneone who was killed by Cook's crew, but who was a revered gardener in his time and provided food for his people.

"To me that is a much better story for our young people to be looking to, the story of 'Once Were Gardeners', instead of 'Once Were Warriors'."

She'd raised the suggestions at the council table, but so far had not gained any traction, she said.

"We need to be more courageous, challenge conservative New Zealand - our children need it."

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Decisions to change place names rest with the New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB), while street names are for local authorities.

Akuhata-Brown said this could prove difficult in smaller regions with more conservative constituencies, and supported calls for a Government-led inquiry into offensive names and monuments across the country.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has rejected that call, stating, discussions around such monuments were for "iwi and local councils, and decisions that should be made by individual communities".

Such discussions have occurred in some larger cities.

Hamilton and Waikato-Tainui last year started working together to produce a report into the cultural sensitivity of names of council-controlled sites.

Auckland Council has also been undertaking work with the region's 19 mana whenua over the appropriateness of the 4100 parks and places across Tāmaki Makaurau.

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Māori Party president Che Wilson, also a historian and Treaty negotiator with his iwi Ngāti Rangi, said restoring correct names and/or removing offensive ones had a huge impact on those affected.

When it was announced the "H" would be restored to Whanganui, in 2015, "everyone in the room cried", he said.

Spelt Wanganui, there was no meaning.

Whereas Whanganui referred to the story of their tūpuna, the great Pacific navigator Kupe.

"Whanga" to wait, and "nui" long or great, tells the story of the "the long wait" whānau endured as Kupe explored the Whanganui River.

"I think the most important thing about something like that is the apology that comes with it, the recognition of our history, and the reconciliation that then comes with it as we all come together as a community after all the noise."

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'Careful' balance of history

NZGB secretary Wendy Shaw said if any person was offended by a place name, they could make a proposal to have it changed.

The volume of proposals was "relatively constant", but due to the current interest in colonial heritage there could be an increase in coming months and years, she said.

Over the past decade there have been thousands of changes made to place names, including N***** Stream, N*****head, and N***** Hill in the South Island renamed with te reo names: Tawhai Hill, Kānuka Hills and Pūkio Stream.

Other changes included in 2013 approving the alternative Māori names for the North Island - Te Ika-a-Māui, and the South Island - Te Waipounamu.

Shaw said they were careful "recall, retain and celebrate long-term heritage, even if sometimes the place names have a tenuous connection".

She gave the example of retaining Mount Egmont alongside Taranaki, even though Earl Egmont never set foot in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

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"While this place name is now more commonly known by its Māori name (Taranaki), the story still has relevance to early European exploration."

There was now "stringent criteria" in that places were not named after living people and a period of at least two years is observed after their passing, to ensure honouring them is appropriate.

The board recognises current society expectations in its decision making, which included emphasis on spelling and pronouncing Māori place names correctly.

Last year it announced more than 800 changes to correctly spell Māori place names.

Recent name changes

• In 2016, N***** Stream, N*****head, and N***** Hill in the South Island were deemed offensive and renamed with te reo names: Tawhai Hill, Kānuka Hills and Pūkio Stream.

• Restoring of the "H" to Whanganui in 2015. "Wanganui" has no meaning, Ngāti Rangi historian Che Wilson says. Whereas "Whanganui" refers to "the long wait", which originated from Te Whanga-nui-a-Kupe, referring to the extended wait for the return of the great Pacific navigator Kupe from his exploration.

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• Poverty Bay changed to Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay in 2019. "It is clear to me that both names carry significant meaning for the community," Minister for Land Information Eugenie Sage said at the time.

• Māori names for the North Island - Te Ika-a-Māui, and the South Island - Te Waipounamu, designated official alternatives in 2013.

• In 2019 more than 800 Māori place names were made official, which included 307 now including macrons. Examples included Taupō, Whakatāne, Whangārei, Lake Wānaka, Ōhakune, Ōpōtiki and Tūrangi.