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Wakanui or Whakanui, or both?

Wakanui or Whakanui, or both?
Wakanui Beach was a significant site located on the ara tawhito (traditional travel route) that runs along the Canterbury coastline. PHOTO JONATHAN LEASK/LDR.

Is it Wakanui or Whakanui?

Officially the rural Canterbury area is Wakanui, but the 'Wh' spelling has been creeping into Ashburton District Council's usage, raising questions about its spelling.

Local rūnanga say 'Whakanui' is correct - but both spellings are acceptable.

Te Wera King, Upoko o Te Rūnaka o Arowhenua, said the incorrect use of 'Wa' is a common mistake for traditional place names.

This was caused by early settlers mishearing the correct pronunciation when translating from te reo Māori.

“We are comfortable with either Whakanui or Wakanui being used, but Whakanui is the correct spelling.

“Whakanui has also been incorrectly recorded as Hakanui, Wanganui, and Whanganui."

The different spellings were caused by how the place name had been heard and written down, he said.

“The soft pronunciation of ‘wh’ was mistakenly heard as an ‘h’, and subsequently the creek was spelt Wakanui.

“In the Kāi Tahu dialect, ‘k’ replaces ‘ng’, which means that ‘Whakanui’ is spelt as ‘Whanganui’ in Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island).”

The Ashburton District Council acknowledged the traditional Māori pronunciation using the ‘Wh’, democracy and engagement group manager Toni Durham said.

“Council will continue to spell Wakanui without the ‘h’ until we are advised otherwise by mana whenua."

The council has since changed all spelling to Wakanui on its website.

The name Wakanui is a rural area near the sea, creek, a section of beach, school, several roads.

All signs point to Wakanui but Whakanui is considered to be the correct spelling.PHOTO JONATHAN LEASK/LDR

The name was adapted by the settlers in the 1850s.

“Whakanui was the traditional place name used by our tīpuna (ancestors) and is referenced in many documents and historical records,” King said.

“Most notably, numerous Kāi Tahu kaumātua recorded the spelling Whakanui in the evidence gathered by Hori Kerei Taiaroa for the 1879 Smith-Nairn Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Kāi Tahu land claims.

“Our tīpuna described Whakanui as a kāika nohoanga (settlement) and kāika mahinga kai (food-gathering site) for gathering tuna (eels), aruhe (fernroot), kiore (native Polynesian rat), paraki (smelt) and a variety of birds.”

The name Whakanui can be seen on one of the earliest maps on display at the Ashburton Museum, King said.

Although some locals say it has always been "Wa".

The Butterick family have farmed at Wakanui for over 150 years. Family historian Sue Butterick-Kent said she has never seen a local map with the 'Wh' spelling.

The locals have always known it as Wakanui, except for Amos’ farm which had the 'H' at their gate, she said.

“And I didn’t ever recall hearing an explanation as to why they did that.”

Butterick-Kent said she was told Wakanui meant 'big canoe', referring to the landmark on the coast.

There is a “distinctive large long narrow” cliff jutting out at the coast, which locals call the 'bull's tongue', she said.

Others have said it means the boat of the sea.

While there are several different possible meanings of Wakanui, the name does not refer to a ‘big canoe’, King said.

“We have seen no evidence of this within our traditional sources.

“The practice of translating Māori place names without the full context of local Māori history has resulted in many inaccurate translations.”

There have been no formal requests to consider changing the spelling of Wakanui, but it has been discussed.

Wakanui School principal Trena Watt said the 'Wh' spelling is technically correct but it’s not a simple thing to change.PHOTO JONATHAN LEASK/LDR

Principal Trena Watt of Wakanui School, which opened in 1876, said it was not a simple thing to change.

“It was actually one of the first things I was asked when I became principal.

“We are becoming more immersed in te reo use in schools.

“We are evolving and we have to evolve at the right speed.”

Something as significant as changing the spelling of Wakanui could eventually be part of that evolution, “but it’s not the time yet”, she said.

The spelling of Wakanui has also been discussed in the community, but not in any formal setting, she said.

Molly Blain, who has lived at the Wakanui Huts settlement at Wakanui Beach for 20 years, advocated for a spelling change while on the district’s biodiversity working group.

Blain said it should be corrected to include the 'H' because “it’s a typo from the 1800s".

However, she said some local became angry about the change when it was previously discussed.

Wakanui History

According to Kā Huru Manu, the Ngāi Tahu cultural mapping project, Whakanui is the correct spelling.

Te Wera King said that strategically, Whakanui was a significant kāika located on the ara tawhito (traditional travel route) that runs along the Canterbury coastline.

“As Whakanui is the first source of freshwater south of the Rakaia, it was a popular resting place for travellers.”

In 1843–44, Tarawhata (Kāti Huirapa) guided Edward Shortland (Protector of Aborigines) through South Canterbury to Akaroa during Shortland’s census of the southern Māori population of New Zealand.

On reaching Whakanui, they filled water bottles left purposely on the banks for travellers.

Whakanui was a major area of occupation which can be seen by the numerous taoka (treasures) and other archaeological remains recovered there, he said.

Whakanui was partly excavated in 1971 and 1972 by the Canterbury Museum Archaeological Society and local community members associated with the nearby Wakanui School.

A selection of taoka from the excavations is also on display in the Ashburton Museum.

A reserve was created there in 1907 and a brick shelter was built, with the building now a private bach.

By Jonathan Leask