The New Zealand Geographic Board Considers North and South Island Names

21 April 2009

The New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa (the Board) is looking to formalise the currently used and recorded English names for the North and South Islands of New Zealand (‘North Island’ and ‘South Island’), as well as considering official alternative Māori names.

The Board will be writing to iwi throughout the country in the coming weeks to seek their known traditional Māori names for both islands. It expects to be able to publicly consult with all New Zealanders on the names in 2010.

For several years the Board has been investigating Māori names for New Zealand’s two main islands and exploring a process for formally recognising alternative Māori names for each island.

“Interestingly, while researching this issue, we noted that ‘North Island’ and ‘South Island’ are actually not official names under our legislation, despite their common long-term usage,” said Board Chairperson Dr Don Grant. “We therefore want to formalise alternative Māori names and, at the same time, make the naming of the North and South Islands official.”

Alternative naming means that either the English names (North Island and South Island), or the Māori names could be used individually or together. This differs from dual naming where both names are used together in official documents, such as maps.

Assigning alternative names will allow the Board to recognise the historical and cultural importance of traditional Māori names for both islands, while still retaining the long-term and commonly used English names, which are important to New Zealanders, said Dr Grant.

The Māori names Te Ika a Maui for the North Island and Te Wai Pounamu for the South Island appear on early official maps and documents. The Board’s research has also shown that Māori names for the islands appear on the very earliest maps and charts, including those of Captain Cook. Cook’s chart did not include English names for these islands.

“This is part of our country’s history of European exploration and the settlement of New Zealand. It was only from the 1950s that Māori names of the two main islands stopped appearing on official maps,” says Dr Grant.

Dr Grant noted that the existence of several known recorded Māori names for each island means a lot more work is still to be done to establish the most appropriate names. The Board will approach iwi representatives shortly to ask for any further known traditional Māori names for the North Island and South Island, as well as their associated stories.

The Board’s consideration of alternative names arises from a member of the public’s proposal to rename the South Island ‘Te Wai Pounamu.’ The Board’s view was that replacing the name ‘South Island’ was not appropriate, but that alternative Māori names should be collected and considered for both the North Island and South Island, as a related pair of names.

“This is a matter of great historical and cultural significance for New Zealand, so we want to consult with the wider New Zealand public,” said Dr Grant. “Before we do that, we want to make sure we’ve collected known traditional Māori names to inform what we then consult on.”

The Board will consider the Māori names it collects from iwi and decide which Māori alternative names for each island it will put forward for public consultation, along with the English names of North Island and South Island.

The Board assigns, approves, alters or discontinues the use of names for geographic features (eg place names), undersea features and Crown protected areas in New Zealand, its offshore islands and its continental shelf and the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. The Board is a statutory body of government operating under the New Zealand Geographic Board (Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa) Act 2008 and reporting to the Minister for Land Information.