RSS Feed

N-words and the good ol’ Christchurch childhood.

N-words and the good ol’ Christchurch childhood.

Yup, offensive words are used in this post. There is a point to it, ‘kay?

So 61 people have registered objections to the  National Geographic Board’s proposal that the Canterbury place-names Niggerhead, Nigger Hill and Nigger Stream be changed to Tāwhai Hill, Kānuka Hill and Pūkio Stream respectively. And the cute little poll appended to this article reckons 59% of respondents want to keep the N-names.

I don’t know why the objectors are objecting. It might be for perfectly legitimate reasons, for example some genuine issue with the proposed new name. (The earlier proposal for Nigger Stream was for it to be renamed ‘Steelhead Stream’ after a kind of trout, but Cantabrians sensibly pointed out that this trout doesn’t swim in that stream  – hence the new Pūkio proposal).

But for the rest of them, (and those in the poll) who now apparently have some emotional attachment to these old names  what the heck are they thinking? There is no nice historical provenance to these names to get all misty-eyed over. Check out the report here. There are, for example three ‘Darkies’ place-names in Westland. These names appear to refer to ‘Darkie’ Addison, a highly successful African-American prospector in the 1860’s. Fair call. I would not weep if they were changed, but nor woud I object: they mean something and tell you something about the place. The closest we can get with ‘Niggerhead’ is that it was a name for type of grass common to the area that…well, grows in clumps. Hence the allusion, right? Classy. Bollocks to keeping that name, when the perfectly good Māori name for that plant (Pūkio) will do the trick.

So, if name history gives us nothing, if there are perfectly good and meaningful names that could otherwise be used that connect to the flora and fauna of the place, and if the current names are simply offensive to all right thinking people, where the hell are some of these objections coming from? Gee. Given that the names suggested to replace these epithets are all Māori, I dunno. Could it be simple racism? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

I am old enough to remember how common the word used to be in 1970s/1980s Christchurch. One of my mother’s favourite sayings was ‘nigger in the woodpile’ referring to an unforeseen problem. As a kid I used to parrot ‘Eeny-meeny miney mo catch a nigger by the toe, if he squeals let him go…’. I don’t talk about woodpiles to my kids, and tigers are pretty good squealer replacements. I also remember a handstand game we used to play at Paparoa St School (and maybe Heaton Intermediate) where us girls would chant “Nigger, nigger pull the trigger, pop, bang GO!”, where we would do a handstand on the “GO” and the person who stayed up the longest won. These were mere words to us, and I don’t for one moment ascribe to those long ago kids nefarious intent.


Language means something. Public and casual racism in the labels and idioms we use exclude and divide, and the intent behind the repetitive use of the words don’t matter. There is no room for misplaced sentimentality for an old teensy piece of language popular in Canterbury  that meant nothing positive to anyone and merely serves to alienate Māori, African Americans or any other dark-hued person from the rest. We cannot really control the language of others (and nor do I want to), but changing the names would be easy, pain-free, and somehow meaningful.

Here’s to a better environment where such words truly are unusual, not quaint and ‘of their time’, where they jar and shock us, and are consequently freely rejected as the lexical bastards they are.



About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

11 responses »

  1. We used the word nigger all the time when we were kids. Not one of us knew what it meant, but we knew it was naughty, and that just encouraged us to use it all the more. I have no idea what naughty words kids use nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Intrepid Maori

    My Nan used to call my Dad ‘Nig’, and her ‘nigger’, as a term of endearment. That was Māori to Māori. He never seemed to mind (was very past tense by the time I arrived), she passed away when he was 13 or-so. Always made me feel a bit upset hearing that, tho. Different times, eh mate.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I too learned the “eeny meeny miny mo” rhyme when I was a little kid and had no idea what the “n” word was. None whatsoever. I also remember very vividly on the first day of school that I had to be there to get my shots, with all of the other first-graders, which was a few days before school actually started, to entertain us they showed us a filmstrip (remember those?!) of Little Black Sambo. I haven’t seen references to Little Black Sambo, the book or movie or “memorabilia” since then. That was 1963.

    While I was growing up, the Civil Rights movement expanded tremendously here in the states, and I clearly remember seeing the evening news with white police officers shooting water cannons at rows of arm-locked black protesters. I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it looked like the white people were being bullies, to me.

    Through that time period the “n word” became a “thing” you did not say. Which was good. It needed to change. I said the “n word” in the rhyme, and my nieces, 5 and 7 years younger than me, didn’t know the “n word” as part of the rhyme — they’d learned “tiger.” So I said “tiger” too.

    Fast forward in my life to 2004. I moved to live on an Indian reservation, and got to know some of the people there. What kind of shocked and appalled me was the use of the “n word” between the people who lived on the rez. *I* couldn’t use it with them, to them, or about them, but they could use it with each other.

    At the same time there are Native movements to get rid of the Redskins mascot for the Washington DC sports team; there are movements to get place names changed, from “squaw” to anything else (the meaning of “squaw,” according to some, is the private area of a woman); there are movements to get place names like “Devil’s Tower” and anything named “devil” changed to the place name’s previous indigenous name. Many places in the US named “devil” whatever refer to the religion of the indigenous people; to the early Christian settlers, anything that was not Christianity, was “devil worship” and by association the indigenous people were “devils” themselves.

    So thanks for your article. It expanded my mind. I didn’t even think about the same kind of issue going on in other places in the world. What a great thing we invented, eh, this internet?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much for your comment Susan! What an era to grow up in! We learned a lot about the civil rights movement in the States…I wonder if part of the resistance to getting rid of the names in Canterbury is because some of us here in NZ like to think that we never had the same level of problems as the States did, and we never had slavery …so that means the N word here doesn’t have the same negative history. But times change and most of us look at our history differently, now …! and yes you’ll hear it sometime by some Māori and Pacific Islanders as a kind of group identifier…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have known Maori with nicknames like Nigger, Blackie, Midnight and Rubber Lips. And of course others with racially neutral caricatures like Waddles. Given in good fun by their own whanau who use them freely among each other, but Pakeha are much more hesitant and I think that says something. It depends a lot on who uses a word. Everyone loved Billy T James’ racial jokes but look out if a right-wing politician said anything like that!

    Remembering the 1950’s film The Dam Busters where the squadron had a black dog mascot called Nigger and nobody saw anything wrong with that.

    Regarding the Canterbury place names, I’d like to see many more revert to the original Maori ones. How many reading this know the Maori names for Christchurch, Ashburton and Darfield that are still used among Maori? And how many know about all the other place names that were changed as part of the deliberate repression that followed the Land Wars?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Alan…yes, assuming Peter Jackson’s Dambusters remake actually gets finished, it will be interesting to see if they go with the latest proposal to rename the dog ‘digger’. And I think the proposed names for the three areas are on the table because there were no commonly accepted ‘original names’ that came out of the consultation. Thanks for your comment!


  5. Richard grevers

    I’ve trained my kids out of using “gay” as a disparaging term (“That’s so gay”).
    Were we contemporaries at Paparoa/Heaton? I started 1969/70.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chiara Maqueda

    Until at least the 1960s, white station owners in the Northern Territory would regularly “name” Aboriginal boys “Sambo” in official birth records. Other charming names pastoral property owners gave Aboriginal boys during the World War II era included Hitler and Mussolini.

    Liked by 1 person


Something to say? Whiua mai!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Happily Travelling in New Zealand

A road trip around New Zealand, in a caravan

Psychology in an Indigenous world

Reclaiming Māori worldviews on health, society, science, and everyday issues that affect our lives.

Hard lines, heavy times, and handblocks

Coping with depression through prayer, poetry, and flying plastic

Art & Theology

Revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more

The Jesus Question

Tracing the identity of Jesus through history, art, and pop culture

Poetry Out West

Poetry & Prose by Jodine Derena Butler

Interrupting the Silence

An Episcopal Priest's Sermons, Prayers, and Reflections on Life, Becoming Human, and Discovering Our Divinity

A Tree's Roots

A Tree's Roots

GD Bates

Artist and poet from Timaru, New Zealand

Strictly obiter

Legal nonsense

Black Stone

Talks and writings by Pala Molisa

%d bloggers like this: