Correcting Whanganui spelling offers clear message of unity.

Last Friday, Whanganui District Health Board members voted 9-2 to spell the name of their hospital correctly as Whanganui with an "h". In doing so, the hospital restored some order into the chaos that threatened to emerge some nine days prior, when the Wanganui District Council failed to exercise the leadership required in failing to alter the spelling of Wanganui to Whanganui.

When I left Parliament two months ago, this was one issue I thought had been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Indeed, it is five years since, on December 18, 2009, the former Minister for Land Information, Maurice Williamson, decreed that Whanganui could be spelt with or without the "h", but it was his expectation that all Crown agencies would be expected to move to Whanganui.

Mr Williamson had taken on board the recommendations from the Geographic Board that as new or revised documents emerged, government departments and local authorities would be expected to adopt the official name of Whanganui.

All that was required to implement the change was a technical correction to current legislation which Mr Williamson suggested would happen early in 2010.


It seemed so easy. Of course it wasn't.

It wasn't until December 2012 that the passing of two amendments to the Geographic Board Act 2008 gave official recognition to both spellings.

The whole saga around the "h" is symptomatic of how complex we sometimes make things when we involve bureaucracies, politicians and lawyers in issues which might easily have been addressed if there was an effective and respectful relationship between local authorities and mana whenua.

It is hard to work out why there was ever such resistance when all our iwi wanted was official recognition of the name, its history and obvious connection to the Whanganui River, and to put an end to the misspelling of a name.

The name Whanganui has a meaning and history unique to the Whanganui River, the rohe, and the iwi. This is about te reo Maori, about identity, about culture.

Research into reports published in the 19th century has uncovered thousands of documents where it was spelt with an "h", especially newspapers reporting news from the town of Whanganui. There were also official documents such as land titles issued by the Native Land Court in the 19th century which state that the court sat in Whanganui and recorded titles in the District of Whanganui.

More than a century later, on February 11, 2009, a petition to the Geographic Board was submitted by Te Runanga o Tupoho. Their petition to correct the spelling was based on early evidence of the intended spelling as Whanganui.

In his submission to the Geographic Board, Che Wilson described the correct meaning for the name Whanganui as the long wait, "whanga" meaning to wait, "nui" meaning large or long. He explained how this name originated from the time of Kupe the great navigator. He talked about the extended name Te Whanga-nui-a-Kupe, referring to the extended wait for the return of Kupe from his exploration.


A letter dated March 3, 2009, from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) confirmed the authenticity of the spelling: "Whanganui is a compound word made of the words 'whanga' and 'nui'. There is no such word as 'wanga' in the Maori lexicon."

Changing the spelling of the city's name to Whanganui is more than about righting a wrong, it is also an chance for leadership in cultural competency; Crown-iwi relations; community harmony.

And if those who are resistant to change see the fuss as an item on the activist agenda, they might think more deeply around the background to this debate, more than a century ago.

Reports of the local council meeting of August 13, 1902 identified that Mayor James Laird suggested a fitting tribute to the Coronation of King Edward VII would be "to have the name of our town spelt correctly, viz, by reinstating the letter 'h' making it 'Whanganui' in accordance with its original native name and meaning".

The Mayor noted the way some people pronounced Whanganui was, to the feelings of those who admired the "pretty, soft Maori language, quite too dreadful", the Wanganui Chronicle reported on August 14, 1902.

When I attended the district council meeting two weeks ago, it was indeed quite too dreadful to think that we were back in the position of begging the bureaucracy to rectify their mistake.

The council has a chance to get it right - to respect the working relationships they already have with iwi, to honour the decision of the Geographic Board, and to demonstrate they appreciate te reo Maori as an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand. All it takes is one letter.

Tariana Turia is former Maori Party co-leader. Her iwi affiliations include Whanganui.
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