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Understanding the context — place names and collective stories

Two Maori themed books and three kete sitting on a bed of ferns.

Our sense of place is shaped by stories, but who decides which stories are shared? Read how students can use place names and collective stories to explore cultural interaction.

A vision for Aotearoa New Zealand

This resource is framed around the key question: 'What would Aotearoa be like if all New Zealanders embraced the concept of being a multicultural country underpinned by bicultural foundations?'

Through the social inquiry process, students explore cultural interaction in Aotearoa and the ways this interaction is evident in place names and collective stories. The resource supports students to understand that having a dominant culture in Aotearoa impacts on Māori culture and on society as a whole. This social inquiry also provides an opportunity for students to learn about the history of their town and region, in all its complexity.

Considering responses and decisions

The social inquiry focus of the cultural interaction resource is considering responses and decisions

Considering responses and decisions — teacher support has extra material for this part of the inquiry process.

The context for this inquiry: Matiu/Somes

The context used for this inquiry is the renaming of Matiu/Somes Island, an island in Wellington Harbour. Students explore people's responses to the proposed name change and reach their own conclusions about whether the name of the island should have been changed.

To guide their decision making, students are given a set of public submissions about the proposed renaming. Using this information and other information about the history of the island, each group has to reach a consensus and report their ideas to the class, justifying their decision.

While the context for learning used in this resource is the renaming of Matiu/Somes Island and on its return to mana whenua, the aim is for students to be able to transfer their understanding of the concepts explored in the activities to other contexts, preferably within their own communities.

A sense of place

The term 'sense of place' refers to the ways that places can hold special meaning to people, often expressed and sustained through shared stories. Exploring the names and stories associated with a place can foster a deep sense of belonging and connection. Within the context of the social inquiry, students explore the dynamics that determine which stories are shared and passed on and which are pushed to the side or covered over.

What's in a name?

Names and identity are closely linked. This may explain why some people react strongly to changes to place names, even when the change is a reinstatement of a name closely connected to the rich history of a particular place and/or a name that has been used for many generations.

In Aotearoa, such conversations often give rise to expressions of cultural dominance, so this context needs to be approached with care. Students, or members of their whānau, may also have strong opinions about the names used for their own town or region. The emotions that accompany these opinions can provide a rich starting point for conversations about identity, heritage, and cultural interaction, provided that parameters are in place for discussing ideas respectfully.

Encourage students to explore issues related to names and places from multiple perspectives, and prompt them to support their ideas with evidence.

See NZHistory for more about teaching emotive topics

Key concepts that underpin this inquiry

When exploring cultural interaction in Aotearoa, it is important for students to understand 3 key concepts: dominant culture, Eurocentricism, and multiculturalism.

Dominant culture

The dominant culture is a culture that holds the most power, or that is the most widespread or influential within a society made up of multiple cultures. The dominant culture can often be seen in the established language, religion, values, rituals, and social customs of a group. These traits are often viewed as 'the norm' for the society as a whole.


People with a Eurocentric worldview focus on European history, or culture that they perceive to be European, in a way that excludes or shuts out a wider view of the world. Although they might not say it openly, people who are Eurocentric often believe that 'European culture' is superior or more important than other cultures.


People with a multicultural perspective believe that different cultures in a society deserve equal respect. They try to be open and unprejudiced towards people from other cultures who may have different values and norms. This includes avoiding judging or stereotyping people from other groups.

Using primary sources

The Matiu/Somes activity uses genuine letters sent to the New Zealand Geographic Board in 1996. As such, the submissions represent a range of views, values, and perspectives, many of which were described by the New Zealand Geographic Board as “Eurocentric in nature”. The Board also noted that many correspondents were unfamiliar with general New Zealand history. It’s important that students approach the sample of submissions with this understanding.

Support material

To help teachers to guide students through the activity, support material has been provided in PDF form, along with student instructions.

2 Prezis are also available for classroom use. These Prezis provide a brief overview of the history of Matiu Island and of the New Zealand Company that renamed it Somes Island.

View the presentation about the history of Matiu Island

View the presentation about the New Zealand Company

Cross-curricular focus: Poetry

A key feature of this resource is the use of poems related to identity, names, and cultural interaction. These poems give voice to the pain and resilience of a people who have experienced the impact of having a dominant culture in Aotearoa and also point to a more hopeful future. The poems could contribute to an integrated approach to this learning programme, drawing in achievement objectives from the English curriculum. The poems on the 'Cross-curricular — English' page of this resource are:

  • 'The shame of Tāneroa' by Marewa Glover
  • 'Our tūpuna remain' by Jacq Carter
  • 'Our watch now' by Witi Ihimaera.

Teacher notes and student activities have been provided for each of these poems.

Cross-curricular — English

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