Update: Jahvaya Wheki’s call to get more than just the colonial story of Hamilton told is ongoing, having received 360 signatures so far.

The Hamilton city emblem tells one side of the city’s history – now activists are calling for a new design and approach to history including the Māori perspective

When Jahvaya Wheki first saw the Hamilton coat of arms, she didn’t know what it was.

“It was just the grey and black mural in the council building,” she said. “I became very curious about what it was supposed to represent.”

Little did she know that digging into the story of this emblem would set her off on a journey of self-discovery – one she wants the city of Kirikiriroa Hamilton to go on with her.

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She has started a petition calling for an update to the coat of arms that would reflect the partnership between Māori and other New Zealanders, rather than a depiction of the city’s painful colonial history.

She wants to see the city’s emblem updated to reflect the council’s commitment to Te Tiriti, show the city’s true history and be something Hamiltonians can be proud of.

“We need to analyse the crest from a Māori perspective,” she said. “My 110 percent opinion is that this doesn’t symbolise how we should move forward.”

The current emblem was designed by Tokoroa artist Zelda Paul in 1946, after calls from the council for the public to send in their ideas.

She won ten pounds in prize money for the emblem the city uses to this day.

Featured prominently is a shield design representing the ebb and flow of the Waikato River, and oxen symbolising green pastures and the role of the city as a centre of agriculture.

The arms are headed by a mural crown, representing Hamilton’s beginnings as a military post in the 19th Century – and its withstanding of a siege during the New Zealand Wars.

On either side of the emblem are a pair of pukēko, which Paul selected for their decorative colouring and prevalence in the low-lying country of central Waikato.

But Wheki believes Paul’s design no longer represents the city – and is a symptom of the wider issue of Hamilton’s history sliding into obscurity.

“I never really had the chance to learn about my city’s history before,” said Wheki. But since the day she noticed the crest and started to ask questions about it, she has opened the floodgates.

A local kaumatua took her around the pā sites of the Hamilton area, reigniting her interest in the place she lives.

The sometimes arbitrary dismissal of Māori culture and names was especially troubling for her to uncover, she said.

“It was painful to learn that Hamilton and Kirikiriroa are not connected as names,” she said. “They don’t mean the same thing – Hamilton was just a totally new, unconnected name.”

So she started researching the history and context of the emblem that’s supposed to represent her.

It was adopted in 1946, a year after Hamilton and its 20,000 citizens were awarded city status.

“Hamilton was still just a developing city at the time,” Wheki said. “And the Māori were left out of the decisions being made.”

Of course, it wasn’t the first time this had been the case.

Hamilton itself was born from the 1863 New Zealand Settlement Act, which allowed the Crown to take land from Māori.

One point two million hectares of land were stolen in the Waikato region, including the land that is now the River City.

And looking at the crest from a Māori perspective shows some flagrant selective memory when it comes to this difficult history.

Zelda Paul’s entry into the 1946 contest for the Hamilton City coat of arms. Photo: Supplied

To Wheki, the most egregious aspect of the coat of arms is the mural crown – a set of battlements in the shape of a crown, atop the rest of the emblem.

It was added to symbolise Hamilton’s military history, and the colony’s ties to royal authority. This was a power wielded at the expense of Māori, who had already lived in the area for centuries.

“If the Crown is the overarching thing on the emblem, it calls the shots – there’s no partnership shown there,” she said. “It’s a symbol that [the colonists] are the highest ones. If we have a crest like that, it signifies that we are still fighting.”

In addition, to Wheki the oxen and green pastures symbolise the stolen agricultural wealth of her people rather than simply Waikato’s recent history as a hinterland.

Then there’s the pukēko, chosen purely for aesthetic reasons.

However, Wheki said this overlooks the birds’ reputation – both as an agricultural pest and in Māori mythology, where it was banished to the swamps for refusing to descend from the trees.

She thinks it’s time for a refreshed symbol that takes more than just European views into account.

“Currently, it represents and supports years of our city’s colonial, traumatic history where indigenous people had land taken, were oppressed, and even murdered,” Wheki said.

She has launched the campaign by reaching out to people with online surveys and through social media. But the reaction hasn’t always been positive.

“There were a lot of racist comments online,” she said. “Mainly personal attacks – it was sad.”

She thinks people feel threatened by these ideas because they haven’t been taught to learn, be open and have hard conversations.

But she hasn’t been disheartened.

“It showed me there was a need for this,” she said. “I see the reactions and I can see this is an issue, so how can I go forward taking this all on board.”

She wants to open consultation to everybody, not just Māori.

“We need to work out how we can solve issues like this as a whānau,” she said.

The plan is to get around 1000 signatures and then formally present her strategy to the council – something she hopes to do by the end of the year – although she has made oral submissions on the issue already.

The Hamilton City Council said it had a number of similar projects in the works that seek to gradually transform the city.

“Council is currently considering a number of cultural policy matters such as street names, and public art,” a spokesperson said. “As part of this programme of work, council may also consider the council’s crest.”

Once she has council approval, Wheki wants to collaborate with other Hamiltonians to design a coat of arms that represents the city as it is in 2021.

“Today, Hamilton is the youngest city in New Zealand and one of the most multicultural cities with more than 160 ethnicities,” Wheki said. “We are a vibrant young and developing city and we need an emblem that reflects this.”

Jahvaya Wheki presenting an oral submission at the Hamilton City Council chambers. Photo: Supplied

Zelda Paul, the original designer of the emblem, went on to live in Tokoroa, where she had five children and illustrated a book about the history of the small town. She received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1985 for her contributions to the arts and preserving the history of the patch of the Waikato region she called home.

A generation later, Jahvaya Wheki is bringing the same energy into shining a light on the dark corners of her home’s history.

They are two women separated by time and social context, but both driven by the desire to spread something they have learned – that the past affects the future, and here in the present, New Zealanders would do well to remember that.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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