Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Predictable responses

Last week was Te Wiki O Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week), and there were the usual grumbles. This year, one thing that happened after the week made some people unhappy. That’s not new, but the context certainly was.

Every year New Zealand observes Māori Language Week as a way of building awareness of, and familiarity with, the Māori language. Typically this includes TV presenters using more of the language, and TV commercials are often subtitled with the language, or have a new spoken track entirely. There are often grizzles about it being mere tokenism because everything reverts back to English the following week, and, of course, there are grumpy cranks who complain about the language being used at all.

Once Māori Language Week was over, mobile phone (etc) company Vodafone NZ changed its carrier identifier to “VF Aotearoa”. In the past it was “Voda NZ”, and during Covid Vodafone changed it to say “Voda NZ – Stay Safe” and then when we moved down levels, it changed to “Voda NZ – Stay Kind”.

Then this week it changed to “VF Aotearoa”. I noticed it right away (let’s just say I check my phone a few times during the day and leave it at that), but I didn’t think much about it, actually. They’d already changed it several times, after all.

Naturally, someone didn’t like it (but one competitors response was awesome). Interestingly, it seems as if the objection was mostly on a technicality, and not, as one might assume, about open racism (that’s usually reserved for those who oppose any use of the language by public institutions). However, the issue of what the country and the places within it are named is an ongoing topic of discussion, debate, and, of course, arguments.

Recently, the Māori Party used Māori Language Week to announce it would change the country’s name to Aotearoa by 2026. Right now, that’s a non-starter, not the least because the Māori Party is unlikely to be in Parliament, let alone in a position to influence public policy. Even so, the general idea is unlikely to go away.

Last June, as part of a global phenomenon following the murder of George Floyd, the Hamilton City Council took down the statue of the English soldier the town was named after, man who is accused of participating in atrocities, and who also never set foot in the city that would be named after him. That rekindled discussion on whether the city’s name should revert to its original name, Kirikiriroa (which apparently means “long stretch of gravel”). A poll taken at the time said that only 27.4% wanted to see the name changed, 14.9% didn’t know/wouldn’t say, and whopping—though unsurprising—57.6% opposed a name change.

Hamilton is a conservative place, but there’s also a large influence from Māori. The removal of the statue was pushed by local Māori, for example, but there are already many names of streets and suburbs that are Māori (including the street and area where I live). I think it’s inevitable that Hamilton’s name will change some day, as will the names of other places. Personally, I think it’s more likely that the country’s name will one day become “Aotearoa New Zealand”, something that an increasing number of people—young people in particular—already call it. This would be a way to honour the country’s origins and the European influence in shaping it, too.

In the meantime, there will be occasional flashes of anger from the grumpy brigade, racists, and assorted complainers. This also means that folks with an impish side may deliberately stir the pot: People like, oh, me, for example.

Online, and on Facebook in particular, I sometimes refer to “Kirikiriroa-Hamilton”, and sometimes just “Kirikiriroa”, mostly because I think the name should change. However, if I’m truly honest, it’s also because I know it pisses off “certain people”. I'm well aware that this particular impishness sometimes veers close to being ordinary trolling, but it also serves a useful purpose: Over time, the use of names like Kirikiriroa and Aotearoa desensitises opponents to their use. It won’t change anyone’s view overnight, and possibly not at all for some people, but making the names more commonly seen and heard will also make adopting them more likely to happen sooner, rather than later.

There is, however, also a danger that we could go too quickly. Only a small percentage of New Zealanders can speak Māori, and only a minority of Māori are fluent. Pushing the adoption of Te Reo Māori too hard, too fast, and/or too aggressively could cause a backlash from non-Māori in particular. That’s not a reason to not push for change, just an acknowledgement that we need to bring everyone along. Fortunately, most advocates for the language, Māori and Pākehā alike, are doing exactly that.

Right now, though, there will be times when people will get way too bent out of shape over tiny things like a cellphone company’s network identifiers. In other words, people will have predictable responses when they feel threatened in some way by even the smallest use of the Māori language. We just need to work to make such reactions less common. And even tiny changes, like the one to “VF Aotearoa”, are good examples of ways we can do that.

See also: "New Zealand firms switch to using nation's Māori name, Aotearoa"The Guardian

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