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Restoring Māori place names

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European names replaced Māori names on maps, but many Māori names survived. Some Māori names were replaced but then returned. Over time other original Māori names have been restored.

Misheard names

When European explorers first arrived in New Zealand, they recorded some Māori place names. But sometimes they misheard the name or did not write it down correctly. Many traditional Māori names were changed because of this. The earliest example is Tolaga Bay. In 1769 Captain Cook asked the people of Ūawa what the place was called. They thought he was asking the name of the wind and replied ‘Tāraki’, meaning north wind. Cook wrote this down as ‘Tolaga’.

Captain Cook gave the name Tolaga Bay after a communication error with Māori. Image: LEARNZ.

Changing place names

Early Europeans replaced many original Māori place names with their own. Māori continued to use their own place names as well as the new names. New names were often for new features, like towns. Many features that Māori had named, such as eel weirs or fishing grounds, were unfamiliar to Europeans, or were removed during colonisation.

The Māori names that survived European habitation were mostly in places with high Māori populations such as in the central North Island and Northland. In some areas European place names changed back to the original Māori names. Sometimes Pākehā were willing to use the Māori name, despite their feelings toward local Māori and pressure from the authorities. Places like Taihape, Ohakune, Raetihi, Taumarunui, Rotorua, Taupō, Whakatāne, Tauranga, Te Kūiti, Te Awamutu and Ngāruawāhia had European names for only a brief time.

Māori names which survived European habitation were mostly in the central North Island and Northland. Image: Supplied.

Making place names official

In 1894 the future Prime Minister Joseph Ward put forward a change in the law that any future place naming or name changes should give preference to original Māori names. Altered and misspelled Māori names could also be corrected, but this was often not done. For example, Kurow in north Otago was not changed back to Kohurau.

In 1946 Parliament set up the New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB) and gave it power to change or apply Māori and non-Māori place names. It collected Māori place names and decided which names on maps should be replaced by Māori or ‘British’ names.

Now also known as Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa, the Board’s job is to make place names official. One of the board's functions is to collect and encourage the use of original Māori place names on official maps and charts.


Major rivers throughout New Zealand were often given European names but later changed back to earlier Māori names. Thames gave a name to the town and district, but the river has changed back to Waihou River. In the Hawke's Bay Region, Ngaruroro River and Tukituki River, and in Canterbury Rakaia River, Waimakariri River and Rangitata River all changed back to their original Māori names. Clarence River is officially Waiau Toa / Clarence River (altered in 2018), Grey River was altered to Grey River/Māwheranui in 1998 and Clutha River to Clutha River/Mata-Au in 1998.

The Waimakariri was one of several rivers that changed back to their original names. Image: LEARNZ.

Double naming

Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa has given several official double Māori and English names. For some of these, either name could be used. For example, the North Island or Te Ika-a-Māui. Another example is where both names should be used together, such as Matiu/Somes Island.

Restoring Māori place names has been included in Treaty of Waitangi claims. One Treaty settlement with the South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu listed 96 place name changes. Most got names in English and Māori that are used together, and these now appear on maps. An example is New Zealand's tallest mountain which officially became Aoraki / Mount Cook.

Aotearoa’s tallest mountain is now officially Aoraki / Mount Cook. Image: LEARNZ.

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